WAJ Intro: In light of the controversy over a segregated diversity program at Hamilton College, subsequently opened to all races after Hamilton students affiliated with The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (the AHI) objected, we asked Hamilton student Mary Farrington ’16 to cover the reformatted forum for Legal Insurrection.  Mary is majoring in History, and is an Undergraduate Fellow at the AHI.

Here is Mary’s report.

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On Thursday, September 26th, Hamilton College held a “town hall” style meeting in Alumni Gym to discuss “what a meaningful conversation about race looks like.”

Over 500 students and faculty members filled the seats, the bleachers, parts of the gym floor, and lined up against the wall.

(Hamilton College President Joan Hind Stewart at Diversity Forum)

(Hamilton College President Joan Hinde Stewart at Diversity Forum)

President Stewart began the meeting by giving some opening remarks about the past week on campus and her hopes for progress and acceptance among the Hamilton community. She thanked everyone for coming, and said she was extremely glad that she saw so many faces in the gym. Her main concern was for the students and faculty to work against ignorance and always remember that we are all members of the human race:

“For most of my adult life I have studied the 18th century, and that is a period called the Enlightenment. The greatest thinkers of that era were alive and they were on fire with a mission; and their mission was to challenge ignorance, to rethink ideas that had been passed down, to shine the light of reason everywhere, to understand other cultures, to emphasize, as one recent historian has put it, ‘the rights of the dispossessed’. In other words, they wanted to understand better what it means to be human, with a view to transform the world in which humans lived… We are children of the Enlightenment.”

Mr. Taneja, the Director of Diversity on campus, spent a few minutes talking about the original intent of the three separated meetings to discuss race and how this new forum was meant to propel those discussions.

He began by saying “We recognize that one conversation is not going to change everything.” Tensions and emotions were clearly high in Alumni Gym as Mr. Taneja began to explain the intent of his original discussion design, separating people by race.

“I did my research. I looked at what is effective… The overwhelming feedback was ‘We need this, it’s time for our campus to have this conversation.’ The other feedback I also got was the students who were comfortable talking about race didn’t have to go to the initial two dialogues, they could have just gone to the last dialogue, where communities of students of color and white students would come together… So, this was about meeting people where they were… You can decide which meeting to go to, it just depends on what is most meaningful for you.”

(Amit Taneja at the podium)

(Amit Taneja at the podium)

Despite Mr. Taneja’s insistence that “we’re here to talk about the structure of the conversation, the way in which we frame meaningful dialogue” many students brought emotions to the fore by primarily speaking about their experiences with racial conflict on campus in the past week.

Due to the large controversy about the discussion on race, there was a lot of tension on campus in the past week.

At the beginning of the meeting, there was a consensus that “Hamilton Secrets” (a Facebook page where the Hamilton community can comment anonymously) is a terrible way to spread your opinions, primarily because of its anonymous nature.

It soon became clear that for many people the problem had became an “us against them” battle, separate groups vs. integrated, whites vs. blacks. Though ‘The Movement’, which is a student group that hung fliers and wrote in chalk on Martin’s Way, the main path through campus, in favor of minorities on campus, said that it wasn’t a black and white issue, multiple accounts during the meeting made it clear that many people had felt it was.

Some memorable moments from students during the meeting:

Female student, Class of 2017:

“I think the hardest thing was walking around campus and there would be white students that would kind of shush around me, like they couldn’t talk or something. I think that kind of propagated the idea that it was an ‘us vs. them’, ‘black vs. white’ thing. And that was the most hurtful, because that’s not what it’s about. I think that is what made the whole finger-pointing thing a lot easier to do because it was ‘oh, white people this’ and ‘oh, black people that’. That was the hardest thing to see because it’s like a lack of understanding of where we’re coming from, it’s like understanding the structure of privilege not that black people are just complaining or white people are all racist. That’s not right, and that’s not what I’m trying to say.”

Female student, Class of 2014:

“One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve heard this week is that this is not the first time this has happened. It’s happened every four years or so and a faculty member suggested, and he told me he suggested this multiple times, that freshmen should have a class that they talk about this. And I know it sucks, like ‘why do we have to talk about this’, but I think it needs to happen. Freshmen, as soon as they come in, need to sit down and talk about it before they grow up. People are clearly not going to the ones that aren’t required. I mean, if we’re required to learn how to swim, we should be required to learn how to speak to each other.”

Male student, Class of 2016:

“This week has been very difficult for me, and I’ve heard multiple times people say to disregard race, to just forget about race, you can’t think about race. But, I’m sorry, but that plays hand in hand, I don’t have that ability to forget my race. I can’t. Ever since that day I walked into a store and they said ‘Get out.’ I never had that ability. Because what reason did they have to do that, because of the color of my skin. So, I walk around, and I’m from New York City. I’ve gotten stares on the train, I’ve dealt with everything. And those same stares I felt on the train, I feel them here from people of white descent. Yes. So, no my Hamilton is not your Hamilton. I’m sorry to say that and I’m just doing what I have to do here, doing my work and getting by because I’m sorry to say that if you think this is a holistic community it’s not.”

Female student, Class of 2014:

“I feel like people have been kind of tiptoeing around what is a meaningful dialogue and what it’s going to look like.

Before I answer that question, I’m going to repeat verbatim what I heard two white girls leaving student assembly say when we finished discussing this. ‘I don’t know why they’re complaining so much about needing their own space. They have those BLSU meetings in that basement every week.’ I’m sorry I need more than an hour a week in a cold basement to be myself at Hamilton.

In regards to what is a meaningful dialogue at Hamilton, I think it is cultural recognition and accepting our differences. When people say ‘Well, if people of color are all in a room and white people are all in a room, then what’s the conversation going to be?’ that’s assuming that everyone of a particular background is the same. Me, as a first generation working, Haitian American, I don’t have the same experiences as someone who might be of another class who is Colombian American. So the fact that people assume that just because we do not identify as white, or we do identify as white, that we have the same experiences, is a shame. The concept of understanding what privilege is and how it truly works is something that’s really difficult…

The people who have been in your position historically have either been oppressed or have oppressed others. So, individuals who are taking this as a very one-on-one, ‘no, I’m fine with my friends so obviously this discussion doesn’t need to happen’, that’s clearly not the case. And this notion of safe zones: certain individuals have never had to defend themselves or to think that the world wasn’t their safe zone. Me, at Hamilton walking around, especially this week, I’ve had two experiences where white students have either completely avoided me or are like ‘please, I’m not a racist’ and I think that is the worst feeling ever. I think as long as people can understand the meaning of privilege and how it works systemically; we are not bringing this up as a ‘black vs. white’, we just want recognition and for people to understand the fact that differences exist and the quicker that people try to not buffer those differences because yes, my Hamilton is not your Hamilton, but that doesn’t mean that both can’t talk about it.

Just because I sit with my certain friends who are in the Black and Latino Student Union doesn’t mean that I can’t sit with my friends from orientation and the majority of them just happen to be white. When people get these notions that it’s okay to be different and to not tolerate one another, but to truly accept each other, then we can make this our Hamilton.”

The forum was overall well done and many people felt as if it was helpful in assessing people’s opinions of the past week and how the discussion is affecting our community. It was not, however, a solution.

Nothing concrete was accomplished, and there is no final plan that was created in order to provide the best manner in which to discuss race on campus.

While many people got things off their chest and felt better because they could finally express themselves, there seemed to be a general agreement that nothing was actually done in terms of the original purpose of the forum:  deciding “what a meaningful conversation about race looks like.” Hopefully this forum can provide a steady starting block for the Hamilton community, one where we can move forward and truly face these problems rather than merely talking around them until they disappear.

This issue will not disappear, so it’s about time we faced it, put our heads together, and made a solution. There is no doubt that not everyone will be happy with whatever solution we create. We are human, thus we are naturally flawed. But this humanity is what brings us together, it is our common ground. If all of us can remember that, keep that in the front of our minds, and move forward as one body towards deeper understanding and acceptance, then this discussion of race will no longer be an issue, it will no longer be considered a problem. We are all different, but it’s time we realized we’re also the same.