Published: November 14, 2012
Open Letter to Simon’s Rock Students Following the Community Meeting of 11/7/12:
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the students who organized and attended last Wednesday’s Community Meeting. I appreciate the opportunity to hear the thoughts of members of the Simon’s Rock community about the goal of diversity that is so central to the college’s mission and to my personal and professional values. The meeting allowed the airing of grievances, an important first step in resolving them, a process which will take some effort from all of us.
As a professor here and as a human being, I was deeply distressed to learn that there is hurt and there is fear among students, especially students of color. I will work in any way that I can to improve the situation. There are many responses I have to the meeting. And there are many grievances issued by the Owl’s Nest Coalition that will take time and careful thought to address properly. For example, I hope we can have a separate discussion soon about the ways that the new seminar sequence was designed in part to enhance the college’s commitment to educate its students about diversity.
But in the meantime there is another issue that I want to address, and that is the turning of students of color to faculty and staff of color when they are encountering fear and hurt about their race or ethnicity. This is a completely understandable response. However, the result is that faculty of color are being asked to advise and support students of color disproportionately from other faculty, many of whom had no idea about the “Diversity Day Challenge” that took place a few weeks ago on this campus. (This includes myself.) I want to think through this situation with you.
I teach an art history course called African American Art and Thought. It may at first seem strange that a white woman teach this course, as one can argue that it would better be taught by an art historian of color, one who has a clearer personal connection to the material. This point has validity. However, I know that if I don’t teach it, it won’t be taught at a small college like Simon’s Rock, as I am the only art historian on faculty. What’s more, I choose to teach the course not only because it’s important to offer such a course that is often missing from traditional curricula but also because I think it’s important to build coalitions across racial lines.
I know that I am perceived as white and, by virtue of my education, a privileged woman. While both of these perceptions are true, I want to point out a problem with them. I am actually of working-class ethnic heritage. If you dig a little more deeply into my family’s past, you would learn that my family of birth was composed of second-generation Italian and Polish Catholic working-class immigrants, that my paternal grandmother never learned to read or write, that as a 9-year old child my father worked picking onions on the muck farms of western New York State alongside his parents and siblings.
As a child I was extremely confused and distressed by the taunting I received for being of “mixed” ancestry in a neighborhood where ethnic divisions were distinct. I also remember the ongoing pain of financial deprivation in a family of eight children. These kinds of experiences lay at the heart of my conviction, many years later, that I needed to create African American Art and Thought here at Simon’s Rock– as a way of working toward the formation of coalitions across social divides.
But this letter is not intended primarily to be about my own biography, and I want to make it clear that I am in no way equating the devastating heritage of slavery with the prejudices suffered by those from my own socio-ethnic groups. What I want to express is that my understanding of unfairness in the world is at the root of my plea for expanding the community’s understanding of each other now. More specifically, I want to draw attention to the situation of my faculty colleagues of color who are asked, on the basis of their color, to do more work serving students of color than their white colleagues.
The ideal situation, some would argue, is that students of color have access to advisors, staff and faculty of color to discuss issues of race. But of course there are numerically many more such students than there are faculty of color here to support them, much as the goal of increasing diversity among the faculty continues to be a high priority for the college.
So this is a plea to the Simon’s Rock community to rethink the ways that identity politics can sometimes become an intellectual and practical straight jacket. There are other, perhaps more effective tactics toward achieving the goals of equality and justice for all. Let’s figure it out together: how can we learn and consider applying other models of critical race theory? Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., doyen of African American scholarship, argues that race is a social construct rather than an inherent truth about human beings. Black and white thinking can indeed be oversimplified in that such a binary doesn’t allow for complexities in people’s identities as well as in our skin tones.
Must we as a college community be locked into the same-race argument that only faculty of color can counsel students of color? Just as the Owl’s Nest has formed a coalition of multiple groups comprising students of agendas that dovetail, I encourage students of all races to look for allies in faculty of all races. Let’s form more alliances to ensure fairness and safety for all. We are working here in order to teach you; we need you to teach us about your experiences — and your needs. I can assure you that we want to respond with fairness, respect and understanding in making this learning community a model for how to live decent lives.
Joan DelPlato, Faculty in Art History
P.S.: To return to the Owl’s Nest Coalition grievance that “faculty ignorance” about the Diversity Day Challenge was unacceptable: many faculty responded to this divisive comment with puzzlement and deep concern. As this is a community devoted to the goal of teaching those who don’t yet know, this is a paradoxical comment, to say the least. I think the problem here was a communication break-down, one which, thankfully, has already begun to change.