A Martin Luther King Jr. Day community luncheon in Foss dining hall Monday, including remarks by President David A. Greene and a panel discussion with alumni in careers dedicated to inclusion and social justice, continued Colby’s ongoing reflections on how to strengthen a culture firmly rooted in equity, justice, and access. The keynote MLK Day event in the afternoon of Jan. 18, “The History of White People: A Conversation about Race Relations,” with Nell Irvin Painter, Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University and a leading historian of the United States, drew a standing-room-only crowd in Diamond’s Ostrove Auditorium.
President Greene introduced the program at lunch with a robust list of efforts undertaken by the College to address issues of diversity and inclusion and to make progress toward Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision since a similar meeting last year that asked “Where Do We Go from Here?”
The main program was a panel discussion featuring Jocelyn Wooten Giangrande ’88, whose career has included empowering women, challenging gender inequities, and advocating diversity in corporate organizations; Eric Barthold ’12, who conducts “Man Up and Open Up” workshops to prevent sexual violence and contextualize gender roles, particularly with male high school and college students (he’s also assistant Alpine skiing coach at Colby); and Jessica Boyle ’12, an advocate for first-generation students and a crusader for better access to college for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
The event blended hopefulness and a sense of progress with the sobering recognition that there remains much to be done to achieve King’s visions of nonviolence, peace, and justice for all.
“Colby is definitely going in the right direction, and actually at turbo speed,” Giangrande told hundreds of assembled students, faculty, and staff members. In the next moment she recalled the struggles and anger of being a student who felt she had to represent and initiate and take the lead. “It was a tremendous burden. I just wanted to be a student,” she said.
Boyle recalled arriving at Colby from a homeless program in Maine, going on her COOT orientation trip, and listening to her peers discussing what their parents did. “It got real uncomfortable, real fast,” she said.
Asked about the weight and struggle in their respective work toward inclusion and equity, all three panelists said that, now out in the world, that work energizes and inspires them more than it feels like a burden.
Following the panel, small groups discussed their reactions and a range of questions related to Colby’s goals of equity, justice, and access. At one table the students were more restrained in their assessment of the speed of progress than was Giangrande. They worried that struggles continue and events like the luncheon end up “preaching to the choir,” allowing a bit reluctantly that “at least there is a choir” at Colby and that the well-attended event showed it’s not insignificant.
Tashia Bradley, senior associate dean of students and diversity, inclusion, and equity programs, and Associate Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies Chandra Bhimull moderated the panel discussion.
In the afternoon Painter blended her talk on the construction of a white race beginning in the mid 18th century with a consideration of visual arts, showing her own paintings—abstracts of Venus and Serena Williams juxtaposed with images inspired by the modernist painter Robert Motherwell. Painter discussed the history of constructs of a white race or races, from when the Irish were considered white but inferior through the concept of a superior Nordic race to a 20th-century categorization of races as Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid.
“Things change,” was her overriding observation. Explaining current U.S. census categories of race and ethnicity, she concluded “the census is in taxonomical meltdown” and declined to speculate what categories will exist on future census forms.