Racism in Williamstown: Let’s review

Chad Topaz

Hi Other White People, it’s me, Prof. Chad. Please have a seat and we’ll get class started. Everyone else, you’re excused from this review session on structural oppression on account of it’s not your job to fix racism.

As a Williams professor, I’m going to begin class with a whimsical anecdote, because that is the Williams Way! This one time, another professor asked me how I manage to fit a full 15-week semester’s worth of material into our 12-week Williams term, and I said that I have this great trick which is to only cover 12 weeks of material. Then, they looked at me like they simultaneously pitied me and wished that I hadn’t come to Williams with tenure in hand. I share this whimsical anecdote because we never have enough time to cover all the important stuff, and that goes for this review session, too. A friendly editor told me I can have 600 words and I have already used about 170 of them.

Like a good academic, a few days ago, I made an outline of what I wanted to cover in this session. I planned some careful arguments about social justice and higher education’s role in promoting it (or not). I swear, I did!

But frankly, now I’m just pissed off that my colleague’s Black child got called the N-word at school. So I am throwing out my plan and giving you a list of study questions covering important topics we’ve discussed in this class. The exam questions will be taken from the following:

(1) Why did my White neighbor tell me Dr. King wouldn’t have approved of my BLM yard sign? Provide hypotheses and support with evidence.

(2) Suppose a College faculty member’s Black child was called the N-word at the local public school. Explain what the community’s involvement should be, and develop a strategic plan for community response. Your plan will be evaluated based on its likelihood of actually accomplishing tangible anti-racist outcomes.

(3) Apply frameworks from organizational theory to explain why, after a member of our community who is marginalized along various axes of identity received a physically threatening letter, our town’s Select Board spent the start of their next town meeting talking about building a bike trail.

(4) When White people do things like allegedly post pictures of Hitler in the police station or cast doubt on the outcomes of legitimate democratic elections, how awesome is it for them that other White people step up to protect them, and that what gets centered is White people’s journey towards understanding? Write a brief poem or short story in which you relate an awesome time you got a pass for mediocrity or bad behavior thanks to your Whiteness. Don’t be shy — I myself have plenty!

(5) Discuss the degree to which the Williams and Williamstown communities understand that the constitutional definition of “freedom of speech” has to do, specifically, with protecting speech from government interference? What about other common definitions of “freedom of speech,” which, government aside, say nothing about protecting people from the social consequences of their speech? If you believe we have a collective misunderstanding of freedom of speech, do you think it is intended as an ironic juxtaposition to our campus’ Actual Copy of the Constitution?

(6) If you perceive yourself as caring about social justice, do you put skin in the game? Do you risk anything of your own in order to hasten it?

See you at the exam!

Professor of Mathematics Chad Topaz has been at the College since 2017.