On Wednesday members of the Amherst community gathered in the Cole Assembly Room to discuss racism, diversity, and the climate on campus. President Martin called the meeting in response to a racist incident which occurred over the weekend. An Amherst student found the “N-word” written in the snow on top of a faculty member’s car, parked near campus. In an email to the campus she wrote, “We cannot undo what is done, but we can call racism by its name, agree that it will not be tolerated on our campus, and counter it by doing more to create a culture that honors our differences and our shared humanity.”
The group that came, approximately fifty people, was equally represented by students (who were majority people of color) and faculty and staff (who were majority white). After a few opening remarks by President Biddy Martin, the floor was opened up to anyone who wanted to express ideas and concerns.
Students led the way, commenting on their experience at Amherst, and changes they hope for, while staff mostly listened and took notes. Many students echoed the sentiment that the incident this weekend was part of a larger culture of racism. As one young woman put it “This did not prove to us that racism exists on campus, we already know it exists because we face it every day.” They warned against focusing on the specifics of this crime instead of analyzing the system as a whole.
Many students expressed disappointment over what they perceived as apathy on the part of their peers. One young woman noted that when issues of marginalization and equity arise on campus, there is always a small core group of people who participate in events such as this meeting. She thought that others may hold back out of fear of saying something un-politically correct, and urged for understanding during dialogue. Another student urged for more discussions and trainings that are mandatory for everyone. He noted that we are all in different phases of learning about power and oppression; and although some people may stay silent or appear to resist social justice rhetoric, these conversations can spark a small change. Faculty shared that they are considering creating a mandatory course on these issues. Student life is looking at extending freshman orientation, or adding orientations for sophomores or juniors which deal with social justice.
A student shared her belief that conversations and workshops are not effective if we are not serious about punishing offenders. She expressed feeling unsafe when “we see things happening again and again with no consequence.” She explained that there are people walking around campus who feel entitled to, say, rape and assault others, and they will feel entitled until they are faced with real penalties.
The discussion moved to the issue of space for student organizations and affinity groups on campus, in particular the Multicultural Resource Center and the Women’s Center. Currently these are housed in the basement of Keefe. Biddy Martin encouraged students to “dream big” and imagine what they would like to see. This meeting proved to me that with the sharp analysis and vision of students, and implementation and resources from administration, Amherst can become an inclusive space where diversity is celebrated and supported.