Racial Awareness Week, planned by Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) and the Pugh Cultural Board in November, included a well-attended panel discussion on "microagressions," the term used to describe sometimes unintentional but still hurtful slights directed at students of color. Events also included a film, a dinner discussion and a coffee-hour forum. But messages displayed in sidewalk chalking and on banners were the most controversial.
Among the slogans on banners was "You only got in 'cuz you're white," a reversal of a comment students of color say they hear from white students. Chalked messages included profanity and racial epithets aimed at raising awareness of racist attitudes and intended to be a provocative and ironic way of getting the attention of the campus community.
"The problem was, when you have a poster or some banners [that say] 'Come to this,' people can say, 'Whatever.' Or, 'That's for those kids. That doesn't affect me. I've got practice. I've got work to do,'" said Chelsea Downs '06, a SOAR board member. The plan was to find ways to get students' attention, Downs said; to "hit 'em and make them literally stop in their tracks, look, read, comprehend and think."
The messages sparked immediate and heated debate, including postings on the Digest of Civil Discourse, an e-mail digest where students exchange ideas. Some students supported the Racial Awareness Week campaign; others decried the use of profanity, epithets and the general tone of the messages.
"The slogans scrawled all over our campus sound much more like war cries than ideas or facts intended to facilitate productive discussion," one student wrote. "If you want a civilized discussion you should treat the people on the ïother side' like rational beings, otherwise they likely won't respond in a rational way and/or will assume that you are too irrational to participate in discussion."
While some students were indignant, others urged their peers to recognize the broader purpose of the slogans. "None of them was personal, none of them was serious," one student wrote. "Look at the meaning instead. Just put yourself in somebody else's shoes. That's the whole philosophy. Nobody accused you of getting into Colby because you are white. But how would you feel if somebody actually thought so and said it in your face?"
SOAR board member Antonio Mendez '06, one of the event organizers, said he e-mailed students who had posted messages. He congratulated some and asked others to come to events and enter into a face-to-face discussion of issues related to race. Mendez said he hoped more students would find ways to talk about the issues rather than ignore them or tune out of the discussion. "If anything, it's the apathy that hurts," he said.
President William Adams and Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Janice Kassman both weighed in with messages to students urging civility and constructive dialogue.
"Although the College does not prohibit the use of profane expletives or the right of students to express themselves, it is difficult to see how such language fosters meaningful dialogue," Kassman wrote in an e-mail to the Colby community.
"Not walking away from the conversation is an expression of belief in the necessity of civility and of your fundamental willingness to learn," Adams advised students in a message urging civil discourse in such debates. "I hope that when you leave Colby after graduation you will be stronger, wiser and more assured of your ability to wrestle with moral issues that arise in a diverse society," he told students.