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Diversity at Williams

A regular but anonymous commentator at College Confidential writes:

Diversity at Williams

I’m interested in learning students’ and alumna’s opinions concerning inclusivity at Williams. Let me be clear, by ‘inclusivity’ I am referring to the degree to which different racial and socioeconomic groups actually meaningfully interact, not statistical diversity. This thread is intended to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Personal biases tend to detract, rather than add, to constructive discourse.

I’ll begin.

As a minority male upperclassman, I have had the privilege of experiencing firsthand social interactions between different “groups” of students at Williams. The central issue surrounding inclusivity (or lack thereof) at Williams, I believe, is the disparity between different racial and socioeconomic sections of the student population. Williams, like other elite institutions of higher learning, has lost its racial homogeneity in the decades following educational integration and the inception of affirmative action policies. Unlike other institutions, however, Williams’ undergraduate student body numbers a mere 2,000. The result is carefully partitioned groups of students that share little in common.

Simply put, Williams lacks a large enough “middle section” of middle class ($50,000 and below) students that, despite racial differences, possess commonalities that create the ‘glue’ that allows students to feel comfortable enough to pursue intimate social interactions. The tendency at Williams is to avoid that which might expose one to social criticism, with the result being a social chasm between different social groups.

When I visit the campus of my local state university (an institution with an undergraduate population numbering 15,000) , I do not feel that such a chasm exists. While there are certainly instances of extreme intolerance (this same campus was the site of a nationally covered racial incident 2 years ago), such incidents reflect the views of individuals rather than those of wide cross-sections of the student body.

But, let’s dig a bit deeper. With regard to such sensitive issues as inter-racial relationships, views on affirmative action, etc., the chasm that divides the student population at Williams widens. When I go on walks with white female friends at Williams, I see and feel the “unsureness” of passersby that creates a palpable tension. In addition, the sexual exotification of black males in particular, leads me to believe that some Williams students carry deep-seated misperceptions of who, and how, a minority student is, and should, behave.

After the racial incident my freshman year, in which a racial slur was sprayed across an entry door, there was a decided gulf in the reaction of the student body that produced a split between those who advocated for a social honor code, and those who went as far as to advocate against it. As the rallying cry was “Stand With Us!”, a small cadre of students responded with the corollary “Or Against Us?”, indicating that one did not have to voice one’s opposition to intolerance to be ‘against’ intolerance. To me, this indicates a degree of complicity with regard to the specific incident that mirrors social attitudes at Williams – not only does no one seem to care about the divide between race and class that exists here, but no one condemns it, as well.

So, that’s my perspective. Yours?

I would be interested to read what current students and recent graduates think about this. Read the posts in our Willy E. N-word category for some background. My thoughts later.


Empty Star Chamber

What if Williams organized a star chamber and no one showed up? Williams Speaks Up is a “Web site on which campus members can report and share incidents of unwanted, abusive, or harassing behavior.” (See background here.) Turns out that only one brief comment has been submitted after several weeks of advertising. Possible conclusions:

1) The WASP patriarchy of Williams is so powerful that the oppressed fear even recording their complaints.

2) There are very few actual bias incidents at Williams.

3) There is abusive behavior, but victims are too lazy to report it or too cynical to think that any good will come from their reports.

I choose door #2.

No one denies that there are actual incidents of racism at Williams. Indeed, I have gone out of my way to document and report them. Without my efforts, few would know that Professor Aida Laleian used the term “nigger” to attack Professor Layla Ali in an Art Department meeting. Without my reporting, the identity of the creepy boyfriend behind Mary Jane Hitler would have remained a mystery.

The issue is: How common are such events? Not common at all, hence the lack of participation in the Williams Speaks Up star chamber.


Williams Speaks Up

Not sure I like the capitalization but here is williamsSpeaksUp:

To advance cultural understanding and community engagement, Williams has established a Web site on which campus members can report and share incidents of unwanted, abusive, or harassing behavior. Over time, it will develop into a historical record, as a resource for dialog and education on issues of inclusion. Each submission is reviewed for authenticity by a group made up of * The Dean of the College * The Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity * The Minority Coalition Co-chairs and one representative each from * College Council * Campus Safety and Security * Junior Advisors Anyone can submit an incident for review, but only members of the campus community (students, faculty, and staff) can access postings. The postings will be anonymous, though the identity of each poster must be known by the review group to verify authenticity.

Regular readers expect an old reactionary like me to mock this idea, to draw analogies to the Star Chamber or self-criticism during the Cultural Revolution. Not today! Suggestions and comments below:

1) I think that this is basically a good idea, but I worry about the implementation details and the ideological priors of those in charge. Note that I am “talking my own book,” as we say in finance, since I proposed a version of this plan three years ago (and in February).

There should be chapter in the [Diversity Initiatives] report, perhaps in the Context section, about the history of diversity issues at Williams. This would be wonderfully informative as well as serving to set the stage for the analysis that follows. It is very hard to have an informed opinion about the issues involved with diversity unless one knows the history. Although it is always interesting to hear about older controversies — the exclusion of certain types of Ephs from fraternities in the 1950’s, say — I am much more interested in the last 35 years or so. So, give us 5 or so pages about every significant diversity-related event from the takeover of Hopkins Hall through Nigaleian. Recent examples from what should be included would be Barnard/VISTA, the KKK cookout and Madcow. Quote the original materials. Reprint articles from the Record, both news and opinion pieces. Interview the participants. Tell us the history. Williams can’t move forward unless it knows where it has been.

True today as it was then. If you want to have an informed discussion of these issues, you need to start with the facts. You need to gather information and testimony. You need to present everything publicly. You need to be transparent. All of this connects quite naturally to my Eph Style Guide and my proposal to post pictures of obnoxious behavior. You may think that all of these are bad ideas. I mention them now both because they are relevant to the discussion and because they demonstrate my fundamental agreement with Professor Wendy Raymond, VP Mike Reed and others: It is possible for Williams as a community to work together to make the College a better, more welcoming and more intelligent community. Yes, we can!

2) The concern, obviously, is that what I want — objective, neutral, thorough reporting and information — is not what WilliamsSpeaksUp [WSU?] is going to provide. Consider this Record article. Are we interested in “bias offenses” or “discrimination” or “offensive behavior.” These categories overlap, of course, but it would be good to be clear about what is and is not to be included. Specifically, must there be a racial/sexual element to the offense or will any violation of community standards be recorded? I favor the latter, but WSU should decide and make clear its plan.

3) Think that only a crazed wingnut would be concerned about the ideology behind WSU? Think again! Consider the collection of “incident reports” that WSU has already published. All of these are, allegedly, examples of “unwanted, abusive, or harassing behavior.” And some clearly are! But what about Oren Cass’s ’05 Record op-ed on “The Diversity Addiction,” which argues that the History department offers too many diversity-related courses. I have no doubt that many members of the Williams community were offended by this article, but there can be no doubt that it expresses a reasonable point of view, one shared by many students and alumni. If WSU thinks that op-eds like Cass’s are “abusive” and, therefore, violations of the community standards, then we have a problem.

4) Procedure matters. I do not think that anonymous reports will be useful. Anything that is worth investigating and recording will require direct testimony. The number of Ephs who refused to go on record because of this requirement will be very small so few examples will be lost. Anonymous accusations are not credible enough to matter.

5) Since my application is teach a Winter Study in 2009 has not been approved, I should try to be on my very best behavior. But stuff like this is a challenge! Beware “The EphBlog!”

Summary: Recording and discussing what happens at Williams is a good idea but the devil is in the ideology of those doing the recording. If WSU can, in the best traditions of Williams, play things straight, it will make a valuable contribution to the Williams community.

[Is “play things straight” homophobic? — ed. You know where to report me!]


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