Baggage Claim at Williams

Ashley Thorne

A little over a year ago Peter Wood wrote “Williams Chokes Up” about a bias reporting system at WilliamsCollege in Massachusetts. At the time, the six-month-old system had just been noted in the student newspaper for having received only one incident report. The system, Williams Speaks Up, is still in operation as a login-required web portal where members of the campus community can anonymously report incidents of unwanted, abusive, or harassing behavior. There has been, however, no recent news about the volume of complaints entertained.

In the NAS article about the bias portal, Dr. Wood observed a related campus event, Claiming Williams Day, which had been established that year after someone wrote the “n-word” on a freshman student’s dorm room door. A group of 120 students formed Stand With Us in response to the graffiti. The group, whose mission is “beginning to change the culture of apathy and foster the real respect that we know is possible” at Williams, organized a rally and drafted a “Pact Against Indifference and Hate.” A student who helped lead the rally told the Williams Record, “When people don’t react, silence can be read as acceptance.”

Claiming Williams grew out of Stand With Us, with the goal to “address issues of privilege on our campus and in our world.” Not everyone was on board with the idea. Robert Bell, a professor of English, said at a faculty meeting, “The quickest way to transform a deplorable incident into a disaster is to declare officially that there exists a culture of hate at Williams College.”

But the day of canceled classes and “claiming” turned out to be such a hit that Williams decided to make it an annual event. The next one will take place on February 4, 2010. Claiming Williams now has a steering committee composed of students, alumni, administrators (representing health services, dining services, campus life, the multicultural center, the library, and the chaplain’s office), and one faculty member, a professor of biology. The project describes its mission in “diversity” era terms:

Claiming Williams invites the community to acknowledge and understand the uncomfortable reality that not all students, staff, and faculty can equally “claim” Williams. By challenging the effects of the College’s history of inequality that are based on privileges of class, race, gender, sexuality and religion, we will provoke individual, institutional, and cultural change.

What does it mean to be able to “equally ‘claim’ Williams”? Is it like “claiming” unemployment or claiming luggage at the airport? Are students, staff, and faculty entitled to claim some kind of possessive right over the College? In the context of this mission statement, to “claim” Williams seems to mean to know that you belong and are treated as an equal. Apparently students who fall into unprivileged class, races, genders, sexualities, and religions do not feel that they can “claim” a rightful place on campus or feel at home there.

Last year’s advertising slogan “Examining privilege, building community” drew significant criticism. According to Wendy Raymond, the sole faculty member on the Claiming Williams committee, some people felt accused by the emphasis on the word “privilege.” So the group adopted stealth tactics: “The steering committee is working to develop new and creative ways to entice people to participate in conversations around issues of unexamined privilege and think about the differences in our privilege levels,” Raymond told the Williams Record last October.

Hence, this year’s enticements promotions focus on one segment of the schedule, a small-group dialogue with a Puerto Rican artist named Pepón Osorio. One of Osorio’s sculptures is a huge anatomical heart made of paper, glue, and fiberglass, resembling a piñata (it features heartbeat sound effects). His creations often have political messages, which likely played a part in his invitation to Claiming Williams Day:

Artist Pepón Osorio will host a dialogue that will engage twenty students, staff, and faculty in a process of self-reflection and examination of personal boundaries. Osorio will present and discuss his artistic projects in the community—a working process that unearths issues of identity, class, and race. This forum will create a space where people are able to reflect and consider ways in which they can take responsibility for effecting change.

Other items on the schedule continue this theme. Psychology professor Steve Fein will deliver the keynote address to consider such questions as:

Why are there such different opinions on how much discrimination really exists today? What is “stereotype threat” and how can it have strong effects on academic performance? What can Seinfeld, Bruce Springsteen, and MTV’s The Real World teach us about stereotypes or racism?

Before lunch there will be a “Radical Voice and Movement” performance workshop by Lenelle Moise, who calls herself a “culturally hyphenated pomosexual poet.” Pomosexual was a new word to me. According to Wikipedia, the term is used to describe a person who avoids sexual orientation labels such as heterosexual and homosexual. “Culturally hyphenated” was also a new term to me, but its meaning—mixed nationality—is more intuitive. Chinese-American, Afro-German, and Anglo-Welsh are some examples.

A panel discussion with mysterious brackets in the title, “Queer(in[g]) Communities,” will talk about how our individual identities, particularly LGBTQQAAI identities, influence (or don’t influence) our experiences of identifying with, navigating, and building various kinds of communities at Williams.”

LGBTQQAAI?? The last time I saw a reference to the non-heterosexual world, it was abbreviated simply LGBT, although I have begun to notice a Q sometimes appended there. I looked up the extended acronym and found that it stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer, Questioning, Ally, and Intersexed. I still haven’t figured out what the other A stands for.

Williams has the first A, “Ally,” covered. CW Day offers two sessions on how to become one. I usually see “ally” used to mean a heterosexual person who supports gay people. I first encountered this when learning about the Safe Zone movement on college campuses. Faculty members and students can become “allies” by attending a workshop and signing a pledge to affirm LGBT people. The term “ally” implies an enemy, and a “Safe Zone” implies a danger zone. College campuses on the whole are not especially dangerous places for sexual minorities, but Williams would have people believe that they are dangerous for all kinds of people. The “How to Become an Ally” session helpfully provides a definition:

An ally is a person who advocates for and supports members of a community that suffers from prejudice and discrimination. To become an ally, one begins with an open mind and a willingness to talk about issues that often seem taboo at Williams, including differences in race, socioeconomic class background, or religion.

Additional session titles include “Reclaiming New England’s Aboriginal History” and “The Alcohol Culture at Williams.” The latter sounded encouraging; I thought “at least one part of the day will be spent on a topic worth addressing.” Then I read the synopsis: “we will discuss how this culture relates to issues of sexism, classism, racism and homophobia on campus.” Why must sexism, classism, racism, and homophobia enter a conversation about alcohol in the first place? Binge drinking on campus is a serious issue that should be addressed in its own right, not as a lead-in for identity group politics.

The stated purpose of Claiming Williams Day is to pause from classes to consider, as a whole campus, a broad theme “aligned with our mission statement.” It isn’t clear whether the mission statement in question is that of Claiming Williams or of the College in general. In any case, the College’s mission is worth examining. Lengthier than most statements, the mission names “academic excellence” as the “central endeavor,” and tells how Williams seeks to foster “academic and civic virtues” in students.

Does a day of immersion in “privilege” discussions advance academic excellence? Does it instill academic virtues? Presumably it falls under citizenship training. But mainly it emphasizes that Williams has a fixed outlook to impose on its students—contrary to the “free inquiry” espoused in the mission statement. It confers victim status on certain people and oppressor status on others. Ultimately, events like Claiming Williams Day serve to reinforce division between identity groups by insisting that whites, males, and heterosexuals propagate such division. Instead of “breaking down barriers,” these events construct their own walls of separation.

My alma mater, The King’s College, had an annual event similar in structure to Claiming Williams Day. There it was called “Interregnum,” as in an interruption in the reign of the king. For several days in the spring, classes were canceled and all students attended student-run debates, lectures, and performances based on a broad theme. A memorable year for me was the one focused on “difficulty,” a theme chosen in response to students’ chagrin when the College upped the level of academic rigor across the curriculum.

In preparation for the event, the entire student body read the book The Pilgrim’s Progress, wherein a traveler on his lifelong journey to the Celestial City weathers many challenges in his path, including a treacherous climb up the Hill of Difficulty. At the beginning of his journey the traveler was encumbered by a heavy burden that he could not, by himself, remove from his back.

It seems the folks at Williams are burdened as well, by the thought that someone on campus may feel ostracized from the community. Perhaps they possess a genuine sense of compassion for marginalized people and simply want to make them feel welcome. That’s the idea behind “multicultural welcome receptions” sponsored by diversity offices and held separately for new black, Native American, GLBT, Asian, and Hispanic students. That’s also the idea behind segregated black and Hispanic graduation ceremonies. These events serve to foster racial solidarity but fail to unify a campus community as a whole. Ultimately they make the burden of cultural disengagement even bulkier than it was before.

Likewise, Claiming Williams Day, with its angry proclamations about privilege, class, race, and sexuality, will serve only to claim additional baggage.

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