Dismantling White Supremacy at Vassar

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?

You can’t.

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?

You can’t.

How can you support the well-being of those who find imitations of nooses at their office doors and those who make them?

You can’t.

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.

When the Bullets Aren’t Rubber: Racism and Violence in Brazil’s Protests

On June 13, Brazilian military police shot journalist Giuliana Vallone in the eye with a rubber bullet. That night police violently repressed a street protest in São Paulo, Brazil where thousands had gone to demand the reversal of a recent 7% bus fare increase. Local media and organizations like Amnesty International denounced the police’s “excessive use of force,” including its indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets. News of the police repression in São Paulo sparked indignation across the country. This photo of Vallone went viral.

(Image source)

Within the week, mass mobilizations spread across Brazil reaching numbers unprecedented in its recent history. On June 20, more than a million protesters demonstrated in the streets. As the movement grew, protesters called for an end to political and financial corruption and – instead of the 2014 World Cup – better healthcare, better education, and affordable (if not free) public transit.

Yet the degree of indignation the earlier image of Vallone caused, and the photo’s subsequent place as a rallying cry in the movement as posters emerged stating “we will not forget,” warrants particular attention.

(Image source)

Vallone, as a young white Brazilian woman, came to serve as a somatic representative of the national body politic. An attack on her “innocent” body was seen as an attack on all Brazilians.

As both the movement and the corresponding police repression continued to grow, photos of violence enacted on white female bodies also continued to go viral. While the photo of Vallone played a unique role in sparking increased indignation and mobilizations, later photos of white female victims were similarly privileged. Other examples of this trend can be seen in this image, where a white woman is being pepper sprayed by the police.

(Image source)

And, it’s also evident in this image, where a black police officer hits a white Brazilian woman with his baton, forcing her to fall into the arms of another light-skinned protester.


Police with baton and falling woman

(Image source)


These three images appeared again and again in domestic and international media coverage, as well as through social media platforms like Facebook and in YouTube videos that compiled images of police repression.

Media coverage of participants in the June 2013 demonstrations in Brazil framed whites as legitimate protesters and representative members of the national body politic, and, particularly white women, as the wrongful victims of police repression. But how have black Brazilian protesters been represented within the movement and in media coverage? Is violence against them similarly understood as an illegitimate attack on the national body politic?

In and out of the movement, black Brazilians were largely stripped of their right to demonstrate. The media, among others, branded them not as concerned protesters, but as violent vandals, whose own experiences of police brutality were deemed of little interest. Not only has the police brutality against nonwhites not appeared in media coverage, the media’s visual accompaniments have marked them instead as the instigators of illegitimate “violence.”


(Image source)

In one Washington Post piece, for example, the contrast is startling.  While it includes two photos of white women suffering the effects of tear gas and pepper spray, the two images of black men show one with an Anonymous mask in front of a burning barricade, and the other in front of a line of vandalized ATMs (photo above). While neither is actually engaged in an illegal act, the photographs’ compositions work to associate black youths, and indeed, blackness, with vandalism. These photos of black male protesters work to generate a very different type of indignation. While the photos of white female protesters produce a rallying cry against the external threat of police repression to the movement and its members, photos of black male protesters work to mark and chastise them as an internal threat to the movement’s success and future.

These racist framings were also palpable on the streets. On June 20, I watched as a mob of thousands heckled a lone black male protester for attempting to attach a (likely political) poster to a downtown statue. They jeered at him, gesturing thumbs down in unison, as many flashed green lasers into his eyes, making it impossible for him to climb down from atop the statue structure. Through multiple levels of coverage, discourse and practices, black male protesters became not civilians engaging in their civil right to protest against concerns affecting both the nation as a whole and their communities specifically, but – in the words of Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari – “violent troublemakers.”

These examples are not the only black bodies that appeared in media coverage, nor are only black protesters linked with acts of vandalism. Yet the overwhelming tendency within the movement and from local and international media sources has been to reinforce particular discourses of violence and the nation that circumscribe nonwhite Brazilians, particularly young men, as illegitimate members of the nation engaged in illegitimate acts. In the words of Brazilian anthropologist Jaime Alves, the “black position within the Brazilian racialized regime of citizenship points to the ontological impossibility of fully participating in the nation.”

These exclusionary discourses manifest themselves in racist practices with lethal consequences. The police repression white middle-class Brazilian protesters have experienced over the last few weeks pales in comparison to the violent police brutality nonwhites experience everyday throughout Brazil. This differential treatment has not escaped the recent wave of protests.

On June 24, military police action by the BOPE Special Forces (the inspiration for Elite Squad) in the favela community Nova Holanda, in the Complexo da Maré, left 9 residents dead. The deadly raid followed a peaceful demonstration in the neighboring area Bonsucesso.

While subsequent protests have made reference to these deaths, the massacre in Maré has failed to spark the same level of indignation or coverage seen with the rubber bullet that struck white female journalist Vallone. While the racial identities of the victims are still unknown, statistics regarding the confluence of race and class in Brazil, particularly with regard to sociospatial relegation to Rio’s favelas, has left little doubt in many people’s minds. As one protest sign I observed during a demonstration in Rio on June 27, “I am black, woman, young, from Maré…don’t kill me, please!!!”

Troublingly, domestic coverage in the U.S. has highlighted that only two of the dead did not have criminal records. Media sources more generally have called them “gang members” and drug traffickers, unquestioningly accepting police claims, even though there remains great uncertainty regarding the reasoning for the police raid or its high death toll. In the meantime, and with the recent end of the Confederations Cup soccer tournament, it seems that much of the international media has already moved on.

Why do the rubber bullets against white skin move more than the real bullets that kill the black population everyday?

(Image via Facebook)

This protester’s sign, from a protest in the days before the Maré massacre, resonates now with even greater tragic weight and sadness: “Why do the rubber bullets against white skin move [people] more than the real bullets that kill the black population everyday?”


~ Katherine Jensen is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, currently living and doing research in Brazil.