It was with deep consternation that I read about these events happening at Amherst. When my child was applying to Amherst, our family became more impressed the more we researched the college, believing that the college’s values aligned with our own values of holding our truths while recognizing those of others. We saw this not only in Amherst’s commitment to diversity but in specific instances during Admitted Students Weekend. For example, at a lecture my student attended, a professor lauded Amherst’s commitment to diversity and still asked the class, “What do we do with that now? Where do we go from here?” My student and our family appreciated the implication that Amherst was on a journey, always striving to do better.
However, many structural inequities remain entrenched at the college. While diversity is an important step towards creating a more anti-racist institution, it is not the endgame. As author Debby Irving wrote, “plantations were diverse.”
Now, it is time to focus on the next steps. Amherst must look inward, turning the mirror on our community and the systems within it that have been in place for centuries. Only through reckoning with the ways racism is structurally ingrained within its institutions will Amherst strive to become a beloved and inclusive community. It requires all of us in the Amherst community to embrace this journey — parents, students, staff, trustees, faculty, alumni and administrators alike.
I support all the demands made by the Black Student Union (BSU). Anti-racism and bias training for everyone, but especially for those in positions of leadership, is a great tool for expanding one’s perspective and for developing a common language and understanding of the context surrounding racism and other forms of institutional oppression. This type of training helps all of us to name and call out behaviors, not just people. It teaches us to think about restorative justice, holding ourselves and each other accountable and welcoming and calling others into the conversation.
Recently, I attended a forum titled “A Fish Doesn’t Know It’s Wet” at Trinity Church in Boston. An author and professor, the Very Reverend Michael Battle chose the title to draw attention to how white people in white spaces don’t intuitively recognize whiteness. We, the white members of Amherst’s community, need to learn about whiteness and how it operates culturally and systemically. We need to reckon with the ways it has shaped us as individuals and the communities to which we belong.
There should be no ambiguity on where Amherst stands on hate speech. More robust statements in the Student Code of Conduct and Faculty Handbook condemning hate speech and hateful conduct are absolutely necessary, as advocated by the BSU.
In addition, the Board of Trustees and the administration should implement a racial equity protocol to use in all decision-making from determining who can stay on campus during a pandemic to what courses get cross-listed. Anti-racist and bias training and protocols are fundamentally about learning about ourselves, each other and our community; as Audre Lorde wrote in Sister Outsider, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
We supported our student when they chose Amherst because we believed that Amherst’s commitment to and respect for diversity came alongside a continuous promise to strive to be a just community. As a family, we have spent two decades trying to encourage in our children a curiosity of others and of themselves. We wanted them to interrogate their own assumptions and perspectives and contribute positively to every community to which they belonged.
We trusted that Amherst would be a community that would build on this foundation, a space for learning and reflection. If Amherst hopes that its students will “give light to the world,” the college must first shine a light on its own practices and priorities. It must constantly examine the challenges built into the institution and respond proactively before harm is done in order to live into its goal of being a principled institution of consequence.