by Bill Sweet
Discussions about race and racism can be painful, acrimonious or, perhaps worse, avoided all together. However, sensing the need to bring the national discussion here, Amherst College recently stopped everything to thoughtfully consider how this issue plays out on campus.
"The terrain we will cross is rough terrain," said Melvin Rogers ’99, associate professor of political science and African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who spoke at a panel discussion for the Jan. 23 Day of Dialogue on Race and Racism.
The College ceased from its usual operations to allow for participation in the Day of Dialogue. More than 1,300 students, faculty and staff attended a morning panel discussion featuring key educators, and later broke off into discussion groups to share their concerns and float ideas for the future.
"It's not enough to bring people together in a college community from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds," said Amherst President Biddy Martin, referencing the College’s strong commitment to diversity. "In order to make good upon our promise of access, community and educational benefit, we have to work against a long history.”
"There is a national problem that we are not immune to," said Briana Wiggins ’15, one of a group of students who organized Black Lives Matter Awareness Week last semester, in the wake of grand juries choosing to not indict police officers in the deaths of two black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. In the fall the group approached the Amherst administration and faculty to propose a Day of Dialogue.
"We think there's been progress, and the help from the administration has definitely been positive," Wiggins said.
Panelists and participants spoke of the ways in which racism poisons society, and its ill effects on education.
Rogers discussed understanding entitlement, using travel as a metaphor. He quoted a former student of his at Carleton College who was frustrated at how empathy can be a one-way street: "I always needed to travel to where my white counterpart stood, and they didn't need to do the same in return."
Racism can surface in obvious ways, such as slur-laden graffiti or vandalism, or it can bubble up in the form of micro-aggressions or insensitive comments that may not be intentionally offensive but are all the more painful if not confronted. Even worse is the assumption by some that racism is a thing of the past, speakers said.
"We need to accept that post-racism is a myth," said panelist Shinhee Han, clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty member at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
Panelist David Eng, Richard L. Fisher Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, went further, noting that claims of society being done with racism are not simply ignorance or naiveté.
"Color blindness itself is the historical form in which racism manifests itself," he said.
The turnout for the event impressed the panelists.
"I'm moved profoundly by your presence," said moderator Danielle Allen, UPS Foundation Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and incoming director of Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, and a Trustee of the College.
"I've never seen this happen anywhere. These conversations are hard,” she said.
"I get a sense of a will to change, from all sectors, bottom up to top down," said Eng.
“Today is really just the beginning of an effort to open up conversation and make it easier to talk about these issues,” said Martin. “It's just a step in the journey."