Letter to the Editor: Day of Dialogue or Day of “Dialogue?”

To the Amherst community:

We were pleased to attend and participate in the Day of Dialogue on Race and Racism which took place on Jan. 23. We thank the students who pushed for the day as well as the administration for its planning and execution. It offered a crucial and rare opportunity for students of color to share their experiences about the everyday forms of racism on this, and many other, college campuses. We understand the desires of many students, staff and faculty for these spaces of dialogue, especially in light of the fact that our herculean workloads prevent us from having the time and energy to share our stories and critically think about the issue of race. However, as President Martin and Provost Uvin both noted, the Day of Dialogue was not enough. Semesterly events like this would be more successful than the past two, which have merely reacted to crises. That said, the day’s limited spatial and temporal form — eight hours in one building — ensured its inability to succeed in discussing, and ultimately confronting, racism.

The Day of Dialogue was laden with many of the symbols of oppression that continue to prevent meaningful dialogue about race on this campus. There was the image of the privileged white male not only hijacking a space for underrepresented students to address campus with lived experiences of racism, but doing so with the alleged intention of finding a space for the politically “underrepresented” right. Panelist Melvin Rogers ‘99 highlighted the need for reciprocated empathy in discussions of race, although the panel as a whole avoided addressing the emotional fatigue of racism. And when they did discuss race, the panelists opted to use jargon, leaving behind many members of the Amherst College community who did not understand words like “neoliberalism,” “colorblindness,” “micro-aggressions” and “post-racism.”

Indeed, the day’s dialogue focused less on racism and more on diversity, a term used ubiquitously by the opening panel. Embracing, appreciating and recognizing diversity were actions which we all were told we could do because of the importance of meeting people different from ourselves, of seeing the utility given to us by having others be (and stay) different from us. In this conception of diversity, we relate to each other in terms of our historically preordained roles. Today, those roles have been determined by, as panelist David Eng noted, neoliberal multiculturalism. Ironically, the panel and group discussions not only fell short but fell flat. The form of the day reiterated its very critique of neoliberal multiculturalism, which claims that diverse peoples are important insofar as they are useful in the march of global capital. That a panel comprised of minority exemplars in their fields (with very little to no understanding of the unique racial climate of the college) was brought together should not surprise us. Neither should the fact that a disproportionately large number of students of color are obligated by their financial aid packages to spend hours working. If we can employ people of color under the guise of diversity to ensure the economic viability and public image of the college, we divert attention from racism, sexual assault and, to quote President Martin, “the long history” against which we must work.

Furthermore, the Day of Dialogue itself served as a distraction from the lived experiences of racism on campus; it was a space where affected students, faculty and staff could release just enough anxiety to return to the job productive and happy the next day. Indeed, our biggest critique of the day was perhaps its biggest success from the administrative perspective: the ability to divert our attention from our contribution to these systemic problems. By pressing us to avoid gazing at the overt racism that hits closer to home (e.g. All Lives Matter, annual racial epithets on campus, support of the genocidal mascot) in preference for an abstract “discussion,” we forget about the institution’s culpability in the very systemic racism that it denounces at home and abroad.

Highlighting the limitations of diversity discourse, we call on Amherst to confront its racism, the ways in which the college’s cultural and institutional norms systematically oppress and subjugate certain populations. We must question whose values we reify through our symbolic and financial decisions. That there is still a sizable group of students defending our mascot Lord Jeffery Amherst, genocidal colonizer extraordinaire, means that part of the Amherst community still does not take seriously the dehumanization and killing of Native Americans. That Amherst affirmed its alliance with Israel when the American Studies Association boycotted Israeli academic institutions in December 2013 suggests that we do not object to what Desmond Tutu called the apartheid occurring there. (We also note that Amherst did in fact indirectly divest from South Africa to protest their apartheid.) In that vein, we should begin analyzing Amherst’s investments, to see the extent to which we support, either directly or indirectly, the private prison industry, fossil fuel companies or Israel.

Inside the Amherst community itself, we must demand investigations into practices, and their intended or unintended effects, which implicitly value some lives more than others. These, of course, manifest themselves not only through race, but also through class and gender. According to the 2012 senior survey, 10 percent of students worked for pay for 11 or more hours a week, while almost 30 percent of students did not even study that much. About a third of students do not work at all (and some receive sizable allowances from their parents). Of the students that do work, some students’ wages go to pay their tuition, so they work effectively without pay, while others send what they earn back to their families. If we investigate who student workers are, no doubt we would discover that they are disproportionately students of color.

We also must celebrate and expand programs and institutions on campus which demand of us to confront and fight racism, power, oppression and marginalization. The MRC, QRC and WGC should expand to bring to campus more speakers, artists and activists to think with and train students at Amherst on these issues. Programs like the Community Engagement Orientation Trip, planned and executed by students, create an egalitarian space for profound dialogue and community creation. More theme houses, perhaps for religious communities, social justice advocates, the LGBTQ community and sustainability proponents, would allow students to develop solidarity with others who share interests and identity.

Finally, we must propose novel ways of tackling the systemic problems at Amherst by confronting the very structures which marginalize student voice. The Association of Amherst Students must redefine its work and mission to mirror the student self-governance that exists at colleges like Haverford. Senators hold no special title over other students; they are merely the prostheses we use to represent us. Minutes from committees on which senators sit, such as the Committee on Priority and Resources, the Committee on Education Policy and the College Council, should be made available to all students. With the information from these committees, students will be able to see how seemingly bureaucratic decisions are intertwined in the ways in which this campus values some lives more than others.

The senate must demonstrate the students’ power, by actively advocating for student initiatives, such as forming a Latino/a studies major, hiring more professors of color and professors who study non-Western themes and creating more small, discussion-based courses, while providing assistance for students who struggle with Amherst’s rigorous standards. Further, the AAS should form a student-led committee investigating the intellectual and political viability of the open curriculum and the academic workload. Perhaps requirements that students are intellectually exposed to the issues of power and oppression would help tackle the problems which the Day of Dialogue tried to confront.

These proposals and ideas may appear grandiose, radical or impossible. Yet much of our inability to confront racism comes from our limited political imaginations, our fears of dreaming what must be done in order to liberate ourselves from the forms systemic oppression takes on this campus.

Moderator Danielle Allen, a trustee of the college, noted that these conversations about race are hard. This letter contends that this “dialogue” about race was not hard enough. It challenges us to rethink the Day of Dialogue in a way that neither the panelists nor the facilitators pressed us to. This letter asks, “How are we as individuals and as an institution complicit with the forms of systemic discrimination that we actively denounce?” The answer is simple: more than any individual student, professor, staff member or the Amherst College administration as a whole, would care to admit and explore.

Ryan Arnold ’15
Jawaun T. Brown ’17
Thais Calderon ’17
Joel Campo ’17
Jesse Chou ’15
Ethan Corey ’15
Dane Engelhart ’16
Hasani Figueroa ’18
Raheem Jackson ’17
Alexander Jiron ’15
Caroline Katba ’15
Edward J. Kim ’15
Eva Lau ’18E
Andrew Lindsay ’16
Mercedes MacAlpine ’16
Laura Merchant ’15
Juan Gabriel Delgado Montes ’16
Kali Robinson ’17
Samuel Rosenblum ’16
Arthur Roski ’17E
Siraj A. Sindhu ’17
Marina Tassi ’17
Brian Z. Zayatz ’18