On Power and Privilege

Recent events at Amherst have brought power and privilege to the forefront of our conversations, from the athletic fields to Valentine Dining Hall. It might seem that we as students expound on the difficulties of power and privilege on a daily basis in the classroom. Controversies on campus, however, have brought these abstract concepts into focus in a context more visceral than stories that are provided and discussed in a purely academic setting.

First, our editor-in-chief brought to light the realities of Amherst’s faculty members of color in a series titled “A Flawed System.” The stories detailed burdens of service, hurdles to tenure, ineffective bureaucratic systems and regular encounters with racism. The series provoked our campus to consider the systematic barriers which harm our mentors, teachers and leaders. Shortly after, controversies surrounding college admissions in the nationwide “Varsity Blues” scandal led us to reflect on the role of athletics, legacy, wealth and privilege in admissions at our own campus — a process that claims to be meritocratic.

Then, in a single week, a series of events engaged the student body’s relation with power in their collective actions. The swastika incident involving members of the men’s lacrosse team caused widespread hurt and anger as students considered their own relationship to hate speech. We, in our disdain, considered the protections afforded to the perpetrators and how their privilege was exposed in the administration’s response. We read the response from Amherst Hillel — “We want human beings to act like human beings and to treat others with respect” — and thought to ourselves: how does privilege prevent this simple truth?

We were forced to revisit Hillel’s words again, as events surrounding the Common Language Document spurred attacks on personal identities. In the midst of conversations surrounding language and inclusivity on campus, members of the Amherst College Republicans (ACR) used transophic language to deride their perceived ideological opponents — transgender, gender non-conforming and queer members of our community — in their GroupMe. Their actions behind seemingly closed doors — their private GroupMe was also a violation of the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) Constitution — revealed among the individuals emboldened by privilege a disregard for harm and willingness to dehumanize. In fact, ACR’s response has displayed impunity, as the right-wing media, alumni donations and political connections have insulated them from engaging with the larger community. This incident fractured into a tidal wave of AAS elections controversies and whisperings and also questioned the ability of the student body to govern itself. More importantly, it has forced the relationship between individuals’ identities and this institution to the forefront.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ visit serves as a culmination of these conversations. This is not to say that these conversations are new, but merely dusted-off centuries-old issues of power that have prevailed in this institution. In his role as attorney general, Jeff Sessions was a political agent who perpetuated xenophobia, emboldened perpetrators of sexual violence, impeded equal employment, supported mass incarceration and opposed the rights of LGBT+ persons dutifully. Now, we must grapple with the power and privilege he represents. We must consider how to best utilize these events to motivate the growth of our campus culture towards a tighter-knit, more respectful community.

This community must also be conscious of the complexities of the privileges afforded to it, and what advantages and entitlements are afforded to whom. We as the editorial board do not preach unto the masses a message of uniform activism. We cannot and do not want to make you do anything. “There is no requirement to debate those who actively deny the humanity of our friends, colleagues and mentors,” wrote Cole Graber-Mitchell ’22 and Ella Peterson ’22 last week in an op-ed. If you find protesting, walking out or merely asking a question to be the wrong course of action, then don’t. A few weeks ago, Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Martha Umphrey challenged us to interact “in ways that can generate interaction that is more genuine and meaningful, and directed toward what might be called the public good.” We would encourage such a course of interactions, but we first and foremost insist that you take a moment to think. Take a moment to consider how power and privilege exist in our lives at Amherst. We certainly hope you lean into the conversations raised by the events of the semester and use these complicated moments to improve our collective ability to engage with the world around us.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 13; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0)