More than 500 members of the campus community—students, faculty, and staff—gathered outside Cotter Union Thursday, April 16, to hear from President David A. Greene and show solidarity for students who expressed feeling unsafe after anonymous racist comments appeared on the social media platform Yik Yak.
The message from Greene was clear. “Those who raise their voices in support of social justice deserve our gratitude and our attention,” he said. “Those who promote bigotry and targeted hatred have no place at Colby.”
“We come to say that an attack on any member of our community is an attack on all of us, that we won’t stand for it, and that our strength is in the goodness of the overwhelming majority of this community who care deeply about social justice and equality.”
After a group of about 30 students protested violence against African Americans by police officers in cities around the country, comments on Yik Yak challenged students’ need to protest and complained that the protest disrupted classes. Some comments went much further, invoking targeted bigotry.
According to Greene, student protesters introduced an opportunity to educate the community and the College will seize it. “When our students rise to remind us of injustices in this world, they do us a favor,” he said. “I want to be reminded of the privileges I enjoy but I did not earn. … I want to be reminded that when a white police officer unloads his gun in the back of an African American man in North Charleston, South Carolina, or in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that we are all culpable for creating and supporting a society that thrives on inequity and racial injustice.”
This event marked the beginning of hard work around these issues at Colby. “I know, I know that we can become the community we want and need to be at Colby,” Greene said. “But we don’t get to take a day off from the work that makes it so.”
In the spirit of looking forward, Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy Jill Gordon urged the white students in attendance to act upon the words we often utter in these situations. “We will not tolerate this. … I want to challenge you to be part of the we who will not tolerate this,” she said.
“So now what does it mean not to tolerate this? It means speaking up,” she said. “It means taking a social risk. It means telling someone you disagree with them. It means telling someone that their words and their actions are inappropriate. It means telling someone that their words and their actions are offensive. And yes, it can sometimes mean telling someone that their words and actions are racist.”
Associate Professor of Government Walter Hatch told the crowd that white members of the community need to engage in the work required to combat racism. “Colby has a tremendous amount of learning to do. Much of the work against racism has been done by students and faculty of color for a long time at Colby.”
He urged students, faculty, and staff to engage in a teach-in planned Tuesday, April 21, even though it won’t be a comfortable conversation for all. Racism and the ugly manifestation of it on social media this week, Hatch said, “is something we can and should get angry about.”
Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Pugh Center Tashia Bradley said the experience of this week was not simply that some students didn’t like what someone said, it was that the repugnant messages reinforced some students’ sense that they don’t belong in the Colby community. “Some of our students, some of our faculty, and some of our staff members feel vulnerable in ways that people cannot imagine,” she said.
“It’s not just that people are angry or upset, but they are asking you, Colby College, … to come together and to think about problems that are happening every single day—in our community, in the national context, and the international context—and to be part of the solution. Because the reality is, as people have said, racism exists.”
Bradley thanked the students who staged the initial protest, to loud applause, and described their contribution as a gift to the community. It gives everyone an opportunity to ask, “What do I do now?” She asked allies not to ask “How can I help? That’s different. But ‘What can I do?’ ‘How can I help’ … almost reinforces that it’s someone else’s problem,” she said. “’What can I do’ lets us know that it’s all of our experience.”
She invited all members of the community, including staff, to engage in the teach-in planned for April 21, when classes will be disrupted for students, faculty, and staff to engage in dialogue and to seek solutions. “Come prepared,” she advised.