#IntegrateAmherst: Why We Need to #DialogueAmherst, Too

The past few weeks, I have felt at odds, not just because my life, cherished routines and personal connections have all been up-ended, but because my job as editor-in-chief has placed me in the middle of the vibrant, ever-churning series we’ve launched, #IntegrateAmherst.

The series is unusual and uncharted for a catalogue of reasons. Among them is that it has become the grounds for a heated and impassioned debate just when the world swept our campus out from underneath us. It’s been inspiring to see the momentum that may have propelled in-person activist efforts like those of Amherst’s past pivot to the digital sphere. The series has reinforced my pride in the work we facilitate at The Student and my belief in newspapers’ power in binding communities together, be it physically or virtually. I have seen now, more than I ever thought possible, the productivity of forming, upholding, unpacking and critiquing ideas collectively.

However, it’s been an odd and conflicted position to hold because, despite offering a platform for these opinions, I do not always agree with them, and all the while, I can’t let that impede the job I’m meant to do and the decisions that follow. In particular, The Black Student Union’s (BSU)’s first letter of the series positing that President Biddy Martin is a segregationist was a challenging letter for me to come to terms with; I disagreed with that central claim and feared that its flashy central claim would cloud the extremely valuable arguments that the BSU has made for increased racial justice and awareness on campus. But, of course, the editors and I ultimately went ahead and published the piece because as a paper, we have the responsibility to illuminate the opinions of community stakeholders, like BSU. That responsibility to the paper and the community it serves comes before my personal opinions any and every day.

However, it does not mean that I’m devoid of personal opinions; I respect the commitment and openness President Martin has displayed in trying to improve the college — and in listening to students’ ideas on how to do so. I have faith that the administration can pick up where it has sorely lapsed in its duties, but I do believe that the administration has failed, badly, on the front of progress towards racial justice and inclusion, as the BSU has so articulately explained. I have so deeply appreciated and welcomed their op-eds outlining clear, deliberate steps for improvement at this institution, and I, as an individual, hope that the school heeds these. 

Since the launch of this series, it’s been so enlightening to watch and listen to the life the letters have taken, how students’ and community members’  discussions surrounding them have given way to new ideas altogether. 

As a white, suburban, upper middle-class, legacy student (geeze), I realize that my opinion on these matters does not always belong in these conversations. More importantly, I understand that those identities place me in a position of never being able to fully inhabit a perspective that appropriately informs these conversations. However, I also understand that meaningful change has never happened without a broad and diverse base and that I have the potential to be a white ally. 

I understand, too, that whiteness doesn’t remove me from conversations about racial privilege and equality; we all hold a stake in increasing justice and equity for the place we belong, Amherst. Thus I do feel comfortable taking part in the conversation that’s been sparked among these virtual pages surrounding the need to #IntegrateAmherst and, at times, disagreeing with some of it. 

I write this mostly to other white people — my white peers who have the best intentions to engage and a genuine engagement desire to integrate Amherst. What I have found disheartening is the sentiment from some of my woke white peers that they must adopt the exact opinion of BSU, or else they are not a good white ally. I worry that some may fear that not taking the word of the BSU as a definitive truth on campus racial dynamics equates to being not woke enough. Perhaps this is a reflection of a broader tight-lipped, politically-correct culture at Amherst. But, I do not think this is a reason to disengage from a meaningful discussion for fear of making yourself look ignorant. I think that these ideas deserve to be taken and turned over and inside out, not just passively absorbed and moved on from; the more we think and analyze and talk about proposals for change, the stronger we make them; the more they are at the forefront of conversation, the more likely they are to become reality.

We will only be successful if we are willing to learn, to round out each others’ perspectives and to come together with a stronger, informed stance. This does not mean that we should let the opinions of white students crowd out or be held in equal weight to those of Black students and other students of color. It does mean that I urge my fellow white peers to participate in this dialogue, to have an opinion and to engage these ideas as if they deeply affect and involve you and your community — because they do. 

Integration is a tall task that should not only fall on the shoulders of students of color. For Amherst to truly be integrated, white people need to understand that it involves us too, not as passive signers of letters and checkers of liberal boxes but as active advocates and allies. 

And, I think that the first step in this process is having a meaningful dialogue, something that has become so heartbreakingly difficult now that we can no longer casually consider these questions over Val plates full of Mac and Cheese Madness or during an incidental run-in on the uphill trek from Keefe to the library. 

Yet, our current situation of social distancing and isolation has only elevated the need to hold these conversations with intention. I encourage the student body to do so. I am so proud that the pages of The Student can serve as a stand-in for the community discussions that we so dearly miss and so vitally need; so please take this opportunity and run with it.