“This is being Black at Williams:” Instagram account amplifies Black voices, issues of racism within the College

Print More

Editor’s Note: The posts quoted in this article have been chosen based on their length and content, and attempt to portray the range of experiences posted on the page.

“I remember a white student complaining to me about how me and my black friends participated too much/too well to the point that we ‘dominated’ the class, and informed me how other non-white classmates felt the same way,” reads a June 30 post from the Instagram page @blackatwilliams. “It was as if he was asking me to give him a chance. And to top it off, it was an Africana course. His entitlement infuriated me.’”

This story was submitted anonymously, like most posts on the account. Many of these posts are credited to students by class year: “Anonymous, ‘12,” “Anonymous, ‘19,” “An off-cycler.” Others have no attribution at all. 

Yet each of the 71 posts by publication date shares a clear purpose, outlined in the account’s first post from June 15: “[the page] is meant to create a space in which BIPOC members of the Williams community can share their experiences. We encourage alumni, current students, staff, and faculty to contribute. It’s time that we highlight the racism that is happening on our own campus. This is being Black at Williams.”

I think that often at Williams, we get a little comfortable in our liberalism and forget that there’s a lot of work to be done.

Afoma Maduegbuna ’21, co-founder of @blackatwilliams

Since June 15, the founders, Cailin Stollar ’21.5 and Afoma Maduegbuna ’21,  have decided to focus on Black voices in particular, according to Stollar. The page’s bio explains their goal of “Highlighting the stories of current and former Black Ephs.” The page now has over 3,000 followers.

“Our work is… mainly always to amplify Black voices,” Maduegbuna said. “And I think that often at Williams, we get a little comfortable in our liberalism and forget that there’s a lot of work to be done,”Maduegbuna said. “What I want to do is, first and foremost, realize that we have issues. There’s a lot of anti-blackness … on this campus that needs to be fixed.” Secondly, Maduegbuna said she wants people to recognize that many of the things described in the page’s posts are not one-off events, but rather products of a broader culture that needs to be examined.

The stories on @blackatwilliams vary in length, tone and scope. Some tell of discomfort on a team or student organization, or in an entry or class. Some describe specific incidents — of microaggressions, insensitivity, overt racism, and hate. Some critique unnamed professors or classmates, while others call out the College’s administration or specific academic departments. In the posts, contributors express outrage, resentment, cynicism and indignation at a campus community that they say has repeatedly failed to fully respect and include Black Ephs. 

Stollar said that one of the aims of the page is to call out particular groups and institutions, so they can change, but not individuals. 

Stollar said she is also worried about issues of potential retaliation by individuals involved with posted incidents. “It’s not necessarily protecting the person who was in the wrong but it’s protecting the person who’s calling them out.” Including the accused person’s name might put the accuser at risk. 

“It’s not something that people should be wondering if it’s them,” Stollar emphasized. “This isn’t a witch hunt, this is calling people out.” She wants the groups, individuals and institutions identified in posts to reevaluate their racism. 

She added that she hopes people who read the stories also reevaluate their past actions.

[We’re] just trying to really show anti-Blackness, as it is, across all sectors of campus life.

Afoma Maduegbuna ’21, co-founder of @blackatwilliams

An alum from the class of 2012 references a racial hate crime in a June 20 post. In response,  students were given the opportunity to listen to POC speak on Pareksy Lawn. The alum overheard a group of students planning a party for that day. “Shame, because the people who could benefit from those conversations the most are the ones who refuse to sit and listen,” the alum wrote.

For Maduegbuna, the posts emphasize the extent to which Black students from decades of graduating classes have felt anti-Black racism in all aspects of their campus experience. “[We’re] just trying to really show anti-Blackness, as it is, across all sectors of campus life,” she said. “It’s not just when we’re interacting on Hoxsey [Street], it also is in the classroom. It’s also when you’re going to the financial aid office or whatnot.” 

Posts from older alumni unearthed past racist incidents that have since faded from institutional memory. One July 20 post was from a member of the class of 1978. Others are from the class of 2011 and 2013.

Stollar said that many of the experiences detailed on the @blackatwilliams page would never be shared with The Record. The page fits into a wider trend of Instagram pages that publish experiences of Black students at their college or university. These include @blackatmichigan (University of Michigan), @blackatswat (Swarthmore College) and @blackamherstspeaks (Amherst College).

“I think it’s a little bit of fear that they wouldn’t be listened to and also just, to be quite honest, the Record doesn’t feel necessarily like a place where you can share that sort of thing,” Stollar said.

For example, Stollar explained that when she straightens her hair, people will tell her that she should do it more because it makes her more beautiful.

“That’s not necessarily something that needs to be publicized in the campus newspaper,” she said.

Plus, other stories deemed more newsworthy may drown out the experiences highlighted on @blackatwilliams, which is why a page dedicated to publicizing these types of stories is necessary, Stollar said.

In fact, for Maduegbuna, the anonymity of the @blackatwilliams page provides a unique sense of community and comfort as a Black student navigating a predominantly white institution.

 “The way that anonymity makes [the posts] feel so personal and you feel like … you could have submitted that because these experiences for Black students or BIPOC students are so universal,” she said. “I know for myself that anonymity on other ‘Black at’ accounts is very community building.” 

Maduegbuna also saw the account as one that operated in a unique social space that no others did.

“It has this character where it’s both …  a tool of activism in making voices heard but it’s also a place to to grieve,” she said.

No matter how small or insignificant they seem to people who are reading it, the fact that these students are remembering everything … these are traumatic experiences that make Black people question their worth.

Cailin Stollar ’21.5, co-founder of @blackatwilliams

Sifting through the submissions and choosing which to post has been draining — and heartbreaking, Stollar said.

“No matter how small or insignificant they seem to people who are reading it, the fact that these students are remembering everything — alumni from as far back as the class of 2013 are submitting stories — these are traumatic experiences that make Black people question their worth,” she said. 

Regardless of what year a Black Eph attended the College, Stollar emphasized how much damage microaggressions can cause.

“It makes you hate yourself for no reason, and then you also blame yourself, blame your family for the microaggression,” she said. “You start to blame — like, for me, my mom is the Black one, so you start to blame her for you the way you are. Because it’s not so blatant, and because a lot of microaggressions come from people who are supposed to be allies, that’s when it hurts the most because it’s people who supposedly support you, and if they’re saying this, then there’s got to be some truth in it.”

***

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement, some institutions and individuals began to engage in a process of accounting for and reckoning with their relationship with America’s fraught racial history. When “Black at” Instagram pages first started cropping up in May, Stollar noticed that her high school, Trinity School in New York City, had a page. Reading through it brought up memories of anti-Black experiences in high school and college.

“Growing up mixed — my dad is white and my mom is Black — and growing up in a predominantly white space, my race was something that I frequently tried to ignore, and almost not claim, in a way,” she said. “So any racist experiences or things that happened to me because of my race, I’d always try to attribute them to other things — possibly me being a woman.”

She searched for a Williams page similar to her high school’s so she could share her experiences, but none existed. She decided to start one herself.

Because Stollar is mixed she said she has privilege within the Black community, and wanted to leverage that privilege to amplify Black voices. “Members of my community who are darker skinned, or of a lower socioeconomic status, are often just not listened to,” she said. “I have the privilege of people listening when I tell my story.”

She spread the word through her social networks, and let fellow members of the Black community at Williams know that she was “there for them — not to take the spotlight away from them, but so that others” will hear about their experiences.

Stollar highlighted this point repeatedly in conversations with the Record. This page is not about her, and not about her story in particular, she said.  

Thanks for listening @williamscollege. Now what?

@blackatwilliams

Stollar and Maduegbuna posted the page’s mission on June 15. By June 17, they had 600 followers. By June 22, 1000. June 29, 2,000. July 5, 2,400. July 14, 2,900. Since then, it has grown to 3,136. The page has received over 100 submissions, and posted 71. It has also been inundated with direct messages from alumni, current students and other “Black at” accounts.

Despite the high frequency of submissions, Stollar has been careful to space them out to ensure they have the greatest impact.

“If you read these stories, they’re absolutely heartbreaking,” she said. “There are so many submissions that I haven’t posted yet purely because there are too many to post at one time, and I’m trying to give space to each story… so people have time to digest these traumatic experiences that Black members of our community have gone through.”

During a June 22 interview, Stollar was upset that the administration had not yet responded.

“So far it’s been absolutely silent from the Williams administration,” Stollar said. “I know that they’re paying attention, though, because they follow the account … but it’s been radio silence, which has been really upsetting.”

When asked to comment on Stollar’s characterization, Williams College Director of Media Relations Greg Shook pointed the Record to a post made on the College’s official Instagram page, @williamscollege. The post is from July 8, a little less than a month after @blackatwilliams was founded.

“We hear you,” the post read. “The stories shared through @blackatwilliams are part of a longer history of people speaking the truth to the college. A college that often has not heard. Honoring and understanding your experiences is essential to our current work of addressing the campus climate around anti-Blackness and other forms of racism, bias, and discrimination. On behalf of Williams: We are listening, we will continue to listen, and we will do the work.” 

@blackatwilliams responded a day later on its story, “Thanks for listening @williamscollege. Now what?”

Stollar said that while the response was “incredibly empty,” she is happy that the administration has said something. Now she knows they’re listening. And when she works with the rest of the Black community at Williams to develop demands, she knows they can’t claim ignorance.

The Record is working on expanding its coverage of campus racism and anti-Blackness, particularly on long-standing institutions or groups at the College. If you or anyone you know has information on specific racist events, instances or practices at the College, we invite you to reach out to the writers of this article or to use the Record’s anonymous tip line.