What remains when the graffiti’s gone

Jan Padios

Before I joined the College in 2020, I often heard two things. The first was “The campus is beautiful.” Indeed, Monday, Oct. 10, was a quintessential New England autumn day, with leaves gracefully giving way from green to red, yellow, and orange and the sky a tranquilizing blue. It was also Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which pushed me to contemplate how the College’s picturesque qualities are linked to settler colonialism: the campus is “available” for my appreciation because the Stockbridge-Munsee people have been dispossessed of the land it occupies. To remark on the College’s beauty is therefore not a neutral statement, but one that evokes the aesthetic sensibilities that follow from, and often cover up, settler colonial history.

Second, I also frequently heard that “Williams College is a difficult place to be a person of color.”

After learning on Monday that the Soldiers Monument in front of Griffin Hall had been defaced with graffiti of a Confederate flag and the word “Rebel,” the tension between those two descriptions of the College assumed even greater force. The signs of white supremacy and invocations of racial slavery on the monument provoked a familiar out-of-body experience – one I often have when made conscious of how the beauty of this campus obscures the racial violence, as well as violence related to nationality, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, and nation, that many in the campus community experience here.  

“Out-of-body” goes by different names: dissociation, uncanniness, detachment. In relation to the defacement of the Soldiers Monument, I mean something very straightforward — that being on a campus where a person can scrawl racist imagery in front of the building where I teach courses about racial-colonial structures and history means I cannot feel fully at home in my own body. 

As a professor of American studies, I am concerned about the meaning of this defacement for my students, many of whom are students of color. When people of color do not feel we belong in an institution meant to serve us, when it is considered unsurprising (as a few people have told me) to be confronted with racism on campus, the institution must work harder to build anti-racist power and foster wellness, safety, and support. One can scrub away the graffiti, but the underlying harm still remains. 

Since coming to the College, I have found power and inspiration among colleagues and students in Africana studies, American studies, Latino/a studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies, as well as Indigenous studies and Asian American studies, for which the College does not have formal programs. Being within this community fortifies my belief that respect and material support for these programs and departments is crucial for promoting social justice campuswide. As our administration seeks ways to respond to this latest incident and the greater social turmoil it signals, I want to affirm long-standing calls by students, staff, and faculty for the substantive recognition of the aforementioned units and their need for more resources. 

People often ask me since I have arrived at the College: “How are you liking it here?” I often struggle with my answer, tossing together some vague or trite observations about the campus or classes or the establishments on Spring Street. After Oct. 10, I realized the challenge rooted in the question itself. How can I begin to describe “here,” when here is a hard place to describe, let alone to be? 

Jan Padios is an associate professor and chair of American studies at the College.