Action: A Response To BSU

Aerial View of Amherst College

“Racial intolerance in the Amherst community is hardly an emerging phenomenon.” As Andrew Lindsay pointed out to us in an open letter to The Student this week, we’ve seen quite a lot of hate speech in the past few months at Amherst. Specifically, two swastikas, two racial epithets and one homophobic slur have appeared in our common spaces and injured our sense of campus community.

Our school is a deeply flawed institution within a bigoted, misogynistic, heterosexist society. Andrew Lindsay and the BSU members on behalf of whom he penned his letter make this point abundantly clear. And rightfully so – I completely agree that we need to be much more aware of diversity and inclusion far above and beyond tokenistic representation. Noah Gordon’s Speak Love campaign was a valiant and meaningful senate initiative, but I agree with Lindsay, and the senate resolution that passed two weeks before his letter, on this issue. We must continue to strive to make our campus a more rigorously intentional and equitable community.

However, I take issue with the way BSU framed the complaint. Lindsay’s letter plunged us back into the “oppression Olympics” and a self-victimizing rhetoric that I have in the past argued would only lead us to cross-cultural miscommunication, community fatigue and oppressive stasis. While the narrativization of traumatic experience (i.e. the public acknowledgement from BSU that racial epithets are deeply painful for those against whom they are directed), we have learned as a community from the onslaught of similarly incensed testimonial over the past year that their benefits are limited.

The Black Student Union at Amherst College is explicitly an affinity group for students of African descent and not an activist organization. As an affinity group that collectively felt targeted by a series of hate crimes on campus, Lindsay and other BSU members documented their communal anger. By publishing their letter in The Student, BSU took action. The letter was not intended as an “activist” action and yet, presumably, the BSU desired to alleviate some of the pain (suffering, social discomfort, and the silencing effect of “containment,” as Lindsay cited) by publishing it.

This contradiction puts us, as both the reader and the community at large, in an uncomfortable position. We see and feel (first and second hand) the trauma of hate speech expressed therein. We are angered alongside the drafters at the complicity of our culture, the ineffectiveness of our administration, and our own ignorance. We are moved. And then we find ourselves at the end of Lindsay’s piece. He writes: “A full-on conversation should be encouraged involving faculty, students and administration, not only about hate speech, but the general culture of ambivalence to racial issues at Amherst College.” Frustration and stasis immediately descend on our reader and our campus.

What is meant by “full-on”? Does this perhaps reference a structure such as the Day of Dialogue — some channel through which the entire school can engage in a campus-wide educative initiative? But no. Lindsay states earlier that President Martin suggested something of that nature (“a symposium on race and diversity”) last year and BSU felt that it simply wasn’t sufficiently “backed” by the rest of the administration. So what kind of “full-on conversation” does Lindsay intend to encourage?

Further, the reader is struck by Lindsay’s tense usage: “should be”. Who exactly ought to be working on such an initiative? Lindsay’s letter chronicles President Martin’s apparent attempt to get feedback from BSU members which resulted in her being asked to leave the BSU meeting because the conversation with BSU felt to some participants to be “reminiscent of containment.” Who, then, should be working on these issues? The new director of the MRC? BSU itself? If President Martin is not equipped to garner administrative support or to discuss diversity and inclusion at Amherst College, who is?

A third and final confusion, in reading Lindsay’s letter, is what he imagines to be the “culture of ambivalence” at Amherst College. Nowhere in the letter does he show how Amherst has demonstrated a simultaneous extreme love and hate to racial issues. He has talked about indifference, certainly – misunderstanding, lack of support, inadequacy, inefficiency, perhaps even or mute aversion – but not ambivalence. He’s right that we haven’t spoken about “racial issues” enough. I would argue that we haven’t even spoken about them enough to hate racial issues, which would mean that we feel strongly that they are not a problem and are a hindrance in discussion. And we certainly haven’t spoken about them sufficiently to love racial issues, to obsessively and fetishistically dissect campus culture with a special emphasis on racial divide. Many Amherst College students often aren’t even educated and aware to the point that they can have strong sentiments in either direction, much less in both. Thus, Lindsay’s claim of cultural ambivalence inaccurately describes and inappropriately condemns, giving us a third opacity and obstacle to the alleviation of pain that he proposes to enact in this last sentence alone.

Perhaps Lindsay’s last sentence is not the place to look for the actionable nugget in this article. If we want to understand where to place our energies in the alleviation of pain for groups traumatized by hate speech, we may want to focus our attention instead on the (quite eloquent) phrase in the letter that: “meaningful diversity comes from minority inclusion, not just minority representation.” This statement is hugely significant for movement towards action, not just for the inclusion of black students but, as Lindsay passingly alludes to, for all minority groups. Even the hate speech itself was not just directed at black students but to all racial minorities, to LGBTQQI individuals and communities and to Jews. If we want to really act on Lindsay’s observation we can take our understanding of “minority” a step further and move beyond simply the inclusion of racial groups, but of various sexual orientations, of religious identities, socio-economic statuses, nationalities and first-generation students. There are many, many kinds of hate speech, intolerance and ignorance on our campus that absolutely require redress.

The question now becomes a more manageable one, if only for its potential for embodiment as opposed to anger thrown into the narrative ether towards an anonymous, passive readership. How can we connect students, faculty, and administration outside of the club structure for the support and social/political capital necessary to succeed in the academic and residential environment of Amherst College? How can we change that environment such that it systematically best supports the diversity of students to which is so proudly claims the title of host? What can the Multicultural Resource Center, Queer Resource Center and Women’s and Gender Center do to both strengthen supportive intentional communities and break out of the echoing fishbowl in which they often find themselves trapped (preaching to the choir)? These aren’t new questions, we’ve been struggling with them for some time now because they are intensely complicated. Engaging students not already activated and interested in learning about tolerance and inclusion has stumped us in many ways so far, but that doesn’t mean we should devolve from difficult, constructive conversations to unalloyed anger.

What if we had a multiculturalism distribution requirement or, better yet, a half credit class for first years on diversity, inclusion and tolerance? This year first year orientation squads were arranged by freshman seminar groups. In theory at least this allowed first years to get to know that group and see them as an immediate support circle that was also demographically diverse. The first-year seminar is currently a class on a variety of interdisciplinary topics with the express purpose of trying to catch first years up to the reading, writing and research standards expected of all Amherst students. What if we further enhanced this function for the purpose of catching first years up to a social cultural standard expected of members in good standing of the Amherst community? Education would include but not be limited to diversity awareness and inclusion, and respect. A required class such as this, adjacent to our existing first year seminar, would solve some of the frustrations of a thus-far unsuccessful Extended Orientation program, strengthen the bonds of the first year seminar group, and emphasize the importance of diversity that would actually have an effect on changing our campus.

These are just a few, nominally mentioned possibilities for actionable ways to resolve some of the minority fatigue, anger, and stress caused by our campus climate generally and hate speech in particular. Let’s discuss. Perhaps there is a path out of the cyclic self-victimization and fruitless broad-based shaming with which we leave Lindsay’s letter.