Last Monday, students, professors, and administrators filled Admissions Commons to participate in a collection to discuss issues of racism and systemic inequality in light of recent events on Swarthmore’s campus and throughout the nation as a whole. After a moment of silence, President Smith began the collection, “People often use the metaphor of a bubble to describe the world of college and university campuses, as if what happens in these spaces is cut off from the rest of the world. But I am convinced that the hierarchies of power that shape economic, racial, sociopolitical, gender, and sexual relationships in the world have an impact on the lived experience of our campuses as well.”
Much of the subsequent dialogue centered around the defacement of students of color from the French Department poster, the fact that the administration had not directly addressed it, and, more generally, how Swarthmore should educate about race and inequality.
“I think the administration needs to work harder to respond to incidents like the one that occurred in the French department,” said Killian McGinnis ’19 in an email to The Daily Gazette. “It seems to me that the administration handles these incidents by holding Collections, etc., but does not actually give publicity to the incidents until students – particularly those affected most immediately by the incidents – call attention to them.”
In reply to concerns about the way the administration has dealt with some of these issues, Dean Rachel Head said, “I sometimes feel that if I don’t have the ‘right’ answer, it can be really challenging to take the risk–I don’t want to say something that is not going be helpful to the situation, and I definitely don’t want to do something that will make things worse.”
While some students were upset about the Administration’s response to the incident with the French poster, others felt that this collection focused too much on this one incident and failed to discuss racial issues on campus as a whole.
“I believe the campus focuses on symbolic issues, while leaving questions of material allocation and statistics on the wayside: what this does is confine dialogue into a space that allows the school to skimp on substantive or challenging change,” said junior Charlie Aprile.
“Focusing on individual events leaves real institutional questions unanswered,” continued Aprile. “The real issues of racial equity have to do with the efforts or lack thereof the school is making to recruit and support low income and minority students, the wages and rights of our largely black staff, and the investments we make (e.g. do we invest in private prisons?).”
Louis Laine ’16 also expressed concern about the way the dialogue unfolded.
“I left the community dialogue feeling a bit worried that everyone left the room not understanding how complex all of the issues that were being echoed actually are,” said Laine. “‘Community’ should be understood as a verb. Furthermore, ‘welcoming community’ is very much an active verb, which entails that everyone who considers him or herself a member of the Swat community needs to take an active role in creating an environment that everyone would want to be a part of. That sort of active role requires more than just responding to clear incidents of bias.”
Much of the dialogue at the collection also focused on larger, institutional changes Swarthmore could make to address issues of inequality head on. Students who attended this collection had diverse thoughts about how these issues could be tackled on campus.
In accordance with sentiments expressed by a lot of students and faculty at the collection, McGinnis also stated: “I would like to see a campus-wide invitation by administrators to have an open dialogue with interested students about how to actively combat racism on campus, especially through a diversity/social justice academic requirement or similar mechanism.”
Avni Fatehpuria ’18 echoed similar thoughts: “I don’t see how Swarthmore can justify all of us having some grounding in, say, the natural sciences, as being essential and having some basic understanding of pervasive power structures and the experiences of oppressed peoples as not.”
In an email to The Daily Gazette, Dean Diane Anderson referenced tangible actions the institution plans on taking to tackle the issues discussed at the collection. She wrote, “In implementing the [College’s Self-Study on Learning, Working, and Living] during the spring of 2015, the College administration pledged to respond with 3-4 actions, by the end of spring 2016, to address what the [study] would raise up as problems. Therefore, an Action Committee will be formed to begin work in early 2016.”
Anderson continued, “That said, many concerns raised in the survey are more difficult to solve in a single action. Therefore, this spring will be only the beginning of the process of response. President Smith, other senior administrators, and I are committed to seeing this through and making Swarthmore a place where everyone feels they belong and are supported in their studies, work, and scholarship.”
In regard to the more individual, interpersonal nature of confronting difference, Laine wrote: “For me, what I hope to come after this meeting is an attempt, on the part of everyone who attended, to reach out to people more, say hello more, share their stories; because that’s how trust is built.”
Note: All quotations used in this article were obtained subsequent to the collection itself and used with the explicit permission of those to whom they are attributed