A Letter to Amherst: Response to Racial Epithet

Retraction: In “A Letter to Amherst: Response to Racial Epithet” published in the October 2 issue of The Amherst Student, Andrew Lindsay ’16 wrote that Bradley Keigwin “stole computer components and furniture from the health center and used spray paint to damage the room and draw swastikas.” This statement is not true. Mr. Lindsay and The Amherst Student apologize for this error. Mr. Keigwin was vindicated when another person was identified and pled guilty to these charges. We deeply regret the mistake.

To the Amherst Community,

Racial intolerance in the Amherst community is hardly an emerging phenomenon. Almost one year ago, computer components and furniture were stolen from the health center and spray paint was used to damage the room and draw swastikas. Three months later, an unidentified offender carved the word “nigger” in the snow on top of a car parked on the street just north of the Lord Jeffrey Inn.

Two weeks ago, the community was subject to another example of increasingly frequent episodes of racial intolerance. On the night of Sept. 14, a student reported that someone had written offensive comments near the entrance of Chapman Dormitory. This individual used a pen to draw swastikas and write a racial epithet targeting African-Americans. Since the administration has not revealed what was said, one can only assume that this racial epithet is most likely some variation of the word “nigger.” As outlined earlier, these incidents are not only surprisingly common but also increasing in frequency. So the Black Student Union writes this letter not only to simply highlight the shocking nature of the latest installment of racial intolerance at Amherst College but also to highlight another troubling fact: the shocking ambivalence surrounding incidents of racial intolerance and ambivalence to matters of race at Amherst in general. Case in point, the response of the Amherst Community to the incidents that occurred in the fall of last year.

The response to the incidents described on the first week of Dec. 2012 can best be characterized as existent but inefficient. A group of students unsatisfied by the Administration’s slow response to the N-word carving, hijacked the campus listserv to e-mail students with information abut the incident and a time to meet to bring awareness to the issue. For those who do not remember that e-mail, the subject line was “NIGGER.” The night of the proposed meeting Biddy Martin came to the Octagon before even addressing the campus on the details of the incident. In the words of two of the attendees it seemed reminiscent of containment.

“It seemed as if Biddy heard that the students were angry and wanted to contain the issue before it became a problem”, commented one of the student organizers.

Later that night, Martin was asked to leave the meeting by the students. Two days later, Martin responded to these incidents by proposing a mere hour and a half meeting during class hours the next day. Her plan for this meeting was to discuss a potential symposium on race and diversity in the spring; a welcomed suggestion backed with very little to no administrative action.

Later that same week, former AAS President Tania Diaz, wrote her response to the results of a student body referendum to relocate the MRC to the third floor. In that referendum, although only 30 percent of the campus participated at the polls, two-thirds voted against the relocation of the game room to make room for the MRC on the first floor. Some student responses to Diaz’s letter on The Amherst Student website included, “the game room’s awesome, no need to stick it up in the dark 2nd floor” and “prove yourself worthy.”

What characterizes these seemingly unrelated events to Chapman is the lack of a meaningful response by the administration and ambivalence by a large portion of the student body. Although Dean Larimore responded quickly to the events of this last week, what was substantively done on the behalf of the students offended by these racial epithets? Why does it seem as if the administration only responds to matters of race when pushed into a corner? The answer is simple. Matters of race aren’t particularly important at Amherst College with the exception of convocation, commencement and homecoming, the few days of the year when being a minority is showed off by the administration.

But we tell the Amherst community this; meaningful diversity comes from minority inclusion not just minority representation. Amherst’s brand of diversity is remarkably shallow. It is the type of diversity that elicits at least a half-hearted dialogue for an off-campus racially motivated hate crime, yet none for the word “nigger” and swastikas scrawled by the entrance of one of Amherst’s dorms. This is a paradox that can only be explained by the tremendous student activism of last year versus the campus ambivalence of this semester.

Despite these contradictions, Amherst College is on the verge of truly momentous changes. This year alone the school has raised half a billion dollars, is on the verge of a massive faculty and administrative recruitment drive and has admitted perhaps the most racially, socio-economically and geographically diverse class in the country. However, amidst these changes things remain eerily similar to more shameful times in this school’s history ­— times where the minority was seen but not heard.

In Martin’s response e-mail to the events of last year she stated, “I suggest that the rest of us take responsibility, not for having spelled out a racist epithet on a car, but for a response to it that condemns this act and all the forms of racism of which it is an instance.”

It is the opinion of the Black Student Union that such a response to racism has yet to take place. A substantive response should be strived for which goes beyond a prompt e-mail response by the Dean of Students or two posters and a table at Keefe Campus Center denouncing hate speech. 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.


The Black Student Union at Amherst College
Main Contributor: Andrew Lindsay ’16