On Thursday, September 19, 2013, every Hamilton College student received an e-mail invitation to a racially segregated event.

Entitled “Real Talk: A Dialogue About Internalized Racism,” the discussion would have centered on ways in which minorities, “may have accepted racist attitudes towards other racial groups and [their] own racial/ethnic communities.”

Hamilton College Real Talk Brochure

(Hamilton College Real Talk Brochure)

In order to create a “safe zone,” the event was open to people of color only. A subsequent event next semester would have been open only to white students and faculty and the program would have culminated in a non-segregated discussion of the same topic.

I do not dispute the importance of the topic.

Internalized racism exists and there should be a forum to examine it. But I felt that the structure the Hamilton Days-Massolo Center chose has no place in a country with a not-so-distant history of racial segregation.

Even forgiving the remarkable historical insensitivity that Days-Massolo demonstrated, segregation is not the path to enriching discussions, especially on the issue of race.

Hamilton bills itself as, “a national leader in teaching students to learn from each other.” Our school has a proud tradition of preparing students to succeed in the highest levels of politics, business or whatever field they choose.

These arenas are not safe zones. An important part of any good liberal arts education is learning how to articulate a position and defend it against substantive challenges. It is a difficult skill, and no one learns to master it in the confines of a safe zone.

The defense of these events by Amit Taneja, Hamilton’s Director of Diversity & Inclusion, betrays a troubling lack of leadership at the Days-Massolo Center.

Before going public, I met privately with Mr. Taneja to voice my concerns. I was speaking not just as an individual student, but as a leader of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (the AHI), an independent, off-campus organization with membership of more than 150 Hamilton students dedicated to the study of Western Civilization.

Mr. Taneja alleged that my opinions were “in the minority” of the student body. Mr. Taneja had not conducted a survey of the student body’s feelings on this issue, so he had no position to make this claim.

Even accepting the truth of his defense, Mr. Taneja’s response makes it unclear if he understands the stated mission of his own organization. The Days-Massolo Center exists to support minorities of every variety on this campus. Mr. Taneja’s title of Director of Diversity and Inclusion implies a duty to address the concerns of not just religious, ethnic and sexual minorities, but every Hamilton student.

After my meeting with Mr. Taneja, the Hamilton students active at the AHI collectively decided to publicize our concerns on a number of media outlets.

We prepared a petition to Hamilton’s board of trustees and op-ed for the school newspaper. We also made plans for an alternative, non-segregated discussion on race, to be held at the same time as the Days-Massolo Center’s.

On Sunday evening, September 22, we sent an all-campus email advertising both Hamilton’s segregation, and the AHI’s discussion. The email mentioned that the college was segregating the event in the interest of creating a safe zone, and that we believed no safe zone was worth the price of segregation.

“RACIAL SEGREGATION AT HAMILTON”

On Thursday, in the name of creating a “safe zone,” Hamilton College will officially sponsor a segregated discussion about race.

The Alexander Hamilton Institute believes that no safe zone is worth the price of segregation.

All are welcome to join us for a conversation on race. Thursday (9/26) in the Sadove Conference Room (112) at 4:15.

It will not be a safe zone.

Within minutes, Mr. Taneja announced in an email that he had decided to open the event to all races. Shortly thereafter, we cancelled our event.

I knew that our protests were controversial, but I was not expecting the eruption of anger, frustration, and even hatred that ensued.

That night, I was threatened with violence and accused of white supremacy, almost entirely by students I had never met. My Twitter and Facebook feeds were filled with both fury and support over what the AHI had done. Since the emails were sent from my personal account, much of the emotion was directed at me. I had never seen my school so divided.

On Monday, September 23, I attended the Hamilton Student Assembly meeting (which, according to the SA President, was the most widely attended such meeting he’d ever seen) to clarify and reiterate what I said in my emails.

I did so in the face of an audience that was overwhelmingly biased against me. Almost every comment made by students either implicitly or explicitly attacked my character.

On Tuesday morning, the campus was littered with hundreds of pieces of paper posted on trees, windows, doors, and everywhere else imaginable with various quotes and slogans about social justice.

Hamilton College poster - Racist

(Poster on Hamilton College campus)

One urged students not to be the victim of “somebody else’s ignorance.”

Hamilton’s campus was no “safe zone” for me or anyone sympathetic to what the Alexander Hamilton Institute did.

I’m proud that the AHI’s actions led to the event being opened to all races. I’m proud that what we did helped to spark a conversation Hamilton quite clearly needs to have.

I’m ashamed, however, at the way in which the conversation has unfolded. Every one of the fliers posted on Tuesday was anonymous. Much of the community’s public discussion has taken place through an anonymous Facebook forum called Hamilton Secrets.

And sadly, even what has been said anonymously has been dogmatic and uncivil.

This is a conversation that needs to happen respectfully, face-to-face. Until it does, Hamilton College will not be a safe zone for anybody.

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Dean Ball attends Hamilton College and is President of the AHI Undergraduate Fellows.  Dean previously was featured in our post, a Hamilton College student speaks out against the real diversity problem on campus.

Related background posts at Legal Insurrection regarding the diversity program controversy:

Prior posts regarding the Alexander Hamilton Institute: