Published on: November 29, 2012
Since its inception in 2006, Diversity Day has hardly run smoothly. Born out of racial conflict on campus, the first set of workshops, entitled “Bursting the Bubble at Simon’s Rock: A One-Day Teach-In on Diversity,” was challenged by students feeling that their time and money was being wasted on useless workshops when they could be spent in class.
This year, the event we now know as Diversity Day was met with similar opposition – this time coming not from those minimizing the struggles of community members of marginalized identities, but from many of these community members themselves. The Diversity Day Boycott comprised initially of over thirty students was spearheaded by leaders and members of the campus’s identity groups: The Black Student Alliance, Feminism is for Everybody, International Students Club, Latino Student Alliance, Queer Straight Alliance, Race Task Force. Many of these participants were also the leaders of workshops that day, and due to this a number of them were unable to run as planned.
These thirty-four individuals – a group made up of students from first-years to thesising seniors, students of racial and sexual minorities and their allies both – ‘occupied’ the space between the two Classrooms buildings beginning the morning of Nov. 14 at approximately 9:15 a.m. with varying motivations.
Those that the group as a whole could agree on were outlined in a document that was quite ubiquitous on campus that day: plastered around the library and classrooms, where the majority of workshops were to be run, as well as in parts of the Daniel Arts Center and the Fisher Science Center; one blown-up version, taller than some students, posted onto the side of the building nearest the demonstration; a final print on a would-be senior thesis poster, which the original boycotters as well as those who joined throughout the day, amassing a total eighty-one signatures by the time the boycott ended at 5 p.m. that evening.
Those sentiments written down in the document cite not only a “complete and willful failure of those in power… to acknowledge or address the needs of students or marginalized identities,” who have felt especially unsafe and unwanted in their own community this past semester with the introduction of white supremacy and Neo-Nazism on campus, but also a “larger institutional problem.”
This refers not only to the actions of an administration they feel has offered lukewarm support and then gone back even on that – most painfully in the provost’s veto of a decision by a number of committees to have a student perceived as dangerous leave campus – but also to those of fellow students and faculty. These include the fostering of a campus environment that makes it acceptable for students not of marginalized identities to frame those offended by racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise oppressive language and thought as bullies themselves when they react peacefully to said oppressive language. The most public instance of this came when the “Diversity Wall,” a display in the Snack Bar of multicolored cutouts of hearts, people holding hands, and kissing llamas created in opposition to the “Diversity Day Challenge,” was criticized as a group attack against the First Amendment rights of the Challenge’s distributor, former student. Those behind this sentiment – about fourteen individuals – signed a statement hung adjacent to the display.
Later, when confronted with exactly what they were supporting, a number of these students apologized and withdrew their support of “First Amendment rights,” now clearly betrayed as being hate speech. Another paper has since been put up in its place proclaiming, “Do not ask me to tolerate white supremacist ideology,” and marked with the signatures of over a dozen students.
There is also among the boycotters the prevailing notion that “Diversity Day operates, at best, as a consolation prize where the actual needs and rights of oppressed students have been ignored.”
As one student put it, “The intentions behind Diversity Day notwithstanding, its institutionalization and enforcement appears to be almost a form of appeasement through which white neo-liberal circles can seek to rid themselves of their white patriarchal guilt by triumphantly pointing toward different workshop-related activities as a sign of proof that they have rid themselves of their racist/patriarchal tendencies.”
A number of upperclassmen who had run workshops throughout their years at Simon’s Rock explained, moreover, that they have frequently felt triggered by these experiences. Rather than feeling as if they had accomplished something and really informed peers about issues they otherwise might be ignorant to, one senior was reminded constantly how “alone,” she is, both within the context of our campus community and in a white patriarchal society at large.
The boycotters were met early in the demonstration by important members of the administration: Provost Peter Laipson, who had been called out by name in their boycott statement; Bob Graves, Dean of Students; and Anne O’Dwyer, Dean of Academic Affairs, who herself was set to run at least one workshop that day.
The ensuing conversation has been deemed a success by a number of those present, on every ‘side.’ Finally, those with the most power to effect social and institutional change at Simon’s Rock have been made expressly if not painfully aware of the issues at hand, including their own missteps; and finally they are taking steps in the public forum to bring about the desired and needed reforms on this campus.
A number of improvements are already being made. Changes regarding the Community Grievances aired by the Owl’s Nest Coalition at the Community Meeting the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 7, a week before the boycott, are being put into effect and will continue to be throughout the semester and the school year. The next two Race Task Force meetings, on Mondays, Dec. 3 and 10 at 5:30 p.m. in Classroom 2 will be dedicated to a conversation with Judith Win from Health Services about hiring a counselor specializing in issues faced by People of Color and the consideration of financial need in the awarding of the AEP Scholarship, respectively.
In the conversation struck up at the boycott, O’Dwyer stated that the school was already looking into hiring an outside group to add a ‘diversity training’ component to the Writing and Thinking Workshop during first-years’ Orientation Week and to visit multiple times throughout the year.
In a less cheerful development, students’ feelings of danger on campus have been finally met with the presence of police on campus, a response to threads on white supremacist forums violently targeting Simon’s Rock in general and some of its community members in particular.
While students of marginalized identities are seeing their demands fulfilled, it is, as one professor put it, “a poignant social commentary,” that it took a semester of unsuccessful conversations, a string of threats of bodily harm, and a shocking protest for change to come about.