A message appeared in my inbox last Thursday from Vassar College President Catharine Hill, addressed to parents and alumnae/i of Vassar like myself. It serves as Hill’s official response to the national attention the college has received in recent days and what she names “a very challenging time for our community.”
While she does not name them, she references “several online articles” regarding race, class, and sexual assault, which “reflect the frustration and pain of individuals in our community.” These include pieces like Kiese Laymon’s “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK” and Eve Dunbar’s “Who Really Burns: Quitting a Dean’s Job in the Age of Mike Brown,” which have garnered national attention from venues like Inside Higher Ed in “Black and Not Feeling Welcome.”
The letter is peppered with two words – we and our. It is filled with phrases like “our campus” and “our community.” But who is this we that Hill addresses? Who is this our that lays claim to the campus, that is entitled to be in and the right to be of Vassar?
The forceful rhetorical assertion of our community has multifarious consequences. It counts individuals in the “our community” whose everyday experiences in that institution are not characterized by such a warm and fuzzy inclusion. As Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America powerfully asserts, this purported inclusion is tenuous at best. He and others are consistently reminded of the transgression their inclusion in this historical and still white institution entails. Such assertions of our community incorporate people who do not experience inclusion in their daily lives – and do so without their consent and without their voices.
Writing that this is a troubling and “challenging time for our community” also suggests that it is the institution itself that is suffering. As Sara Ahmed notes in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, such rhetorical work is not uncommon when academic institutions of higher education come under such fire. It dilutes the critiques by applying them to the whole community, rather than recognizing the unequal distribution of suffering which is leveled at particular groups by that very community.
But what I found most unnerving about the College’s response were the following phrases:
“…these issues are extremely troubling for me and for all of us at Vassar who are working to build a community that supports every student, faculty member, and staff member.”
“…our priorities are to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone on campus.”
“We must do all we can to ensure that all our community members feel safe and supported – and we will.”
The dream is a community that supports everyone. Where everyone feels safe and supported. Where everyone’s well-being is ensured. A true academic utopia.
That goal is unachievable. It is impossible to make all those who live, study and work at Vassar feel safe and supported. How can you make both people of color and those who maintain a possessive investment in whiteness comfortable?
Kiese Laymon, a black male English professor at Vassar, prolific and published author, writes that a white senior professor said he could speak in Ebonics to him if he liked. Eve Dunbar writes of a senior black female colleague who told her others in her department would not support her receiving tenure because, as a black woman, she had nothing to offer white people.
The rhetoric of our community and of universal support ignores the obvious impossibility of creating a supportive atmosphere for both the black professor and the colleague who denies that said qualified black professor deserves tenure.
During my time as an undergraduate at Vassar, a black female professor found a piece of wire fashioned into a noose attached to her office door. If I remember correctly, it was constructed of paperclips. What that professor experienced was much more than a single unnerving threat of racial violence. I cannot even imagine what that was like for her. It would be a disservice to her experience, and to the discrimination other people of color have faced at Vassar, to think that I could. But I do know that after that threat, there were no official campus-wide messages like the ones I am now receiving in my inbox. If that professor hadn’t had the courage to share it with us, a group of students, I never would have known. The internet suggests she no longer works there.
How can you make students, staff and faculty of color feel safe while you also offer support to those who institutionally maintain white supremacy and enact it interpersonally?
How can you support the well-being of those who find imitations of nooses at their office doors and those who make them?
President Hill, it is impossible to make everyone supported and everyone comfortable while dismantling white supremacy and racial discrimination at our institution. And I say our institution here purposefully.
Without downplaying the important issue of sexual assault on college campuses throughout the US, I, as a white woman, am not sure I ever felt truly unsafe during my time at Vassar. Indeed, I am in many ways what Nirmal Puwar calls the somatic norm of that institution. Vassar, a liberal arts college founded for women in 1861, is an institution made for people like me. I am a white Vassar legacy.
I love Vassar. It is the only college to which I applied for my undergraduate degree, because it is the only place I wanted to go. But it is easy for someone like me to love Vassar. I never had to struggle to love an institution that also shunned me, that pulled me close while pricking and prodding me. I was never figuratively burned and I never suffered the indignities of which Dunbar writes.
It was in this safe and supportive, and exclusive, atmosphere, in what we all called the “Vassar bubble,” that white supremacy and racism could continue. It was in feeling so secure in our self-congratulatory progressive politics that we could continue to make racist jokes—because we knew we knew better. Or at least that’s what we told ourselves. That is the We I knew. That is the our community in which I earned my undergraduate degree.
President Hill, if we truly seek the same change, rather than coddling ourselves in the warm and fuzzy blanketing rhetoric of community and support, we need to make a lot of people uncomfortable. And I mean a lot of white people. I mean a lot of people like me. An equitable and compassionate community will not come from “working across differences” or “ongoing campus discussion, where we can listen and speak with one another frankly”. In such an institution, that continues to be predominantly and overwhelmingly white on all fronts, such a conversation cannot but drown out dissenting voices. That is not “the only way to assure that we can make progress.”
These issues go beyond Vassar. Comments to Laymon’s and Dunbar’s pieces from institutions around the country make that abundantly clear. And I wish I could say I had not seen or heard of analogous instances of racial threats, white ignorance and institutional silence since the noose or my years at Vassar. I cannot say that.
We need to make a lot more people nestled in white privilege uncomfortable and take institutional steps to dismantle that privilege, not give them equal opportunities to speak. I think we’ve spoken enough. And talking is not enough.