The past few months have seen what is arguably a historic rise in the visibility of racial tensions on American college campuses. Students of color at universities around the country are drawing attention to the myriad ways in which they experience discrimination and hostility from institutions meant to be their place of learning. Though Swarthmore has not been at the center of this increased national attention as have institutions like Yale or the University of Missouri, the college has had its own experiences with instances of institutional and individual racism. Last November, Public Safety officials responded to a call that the photographs of several students of color — part of a poster belonging to the French department — had been vandalized. The students’ faces had been torn out of the poster while the photographs of their white peers had been left untouched, leading many to believe that the act was racially motivated and prompting serious concerns about the safety of students of color on campus.
Within three days of the discovery of the defaced poster, President Valerie Smith addressed the student body via email. In the email, President Smith situated the incident in the context of similar episodes of racial prejudice at colleges across the country, and stressed that Swarthmore is not immune to such displays of racism.
In keeping with the college’s Quaker tradition, the email also publicized a campus-wide collection to be held the following Monday, at which students, faculty, and staff would have the the opportunity to voice their concerns and thoughts regarding the disturbing event.
Just one day later, on Thursday, November 26, Dean of Students Liz Braun also issued an email to the student body on behalf of the college’s newly formed Bias Response Group, which, in Dean Braun’s own words, seeks “to investigate, and to ensure that the College [sic] responds swiftly, strongly, and appropriately to any cases of bias, harassment, or hate crimes on our campus.” The email condemned the incident, encouraged students who may have been affected to seek out resources on campus, and urged anyone with knowledge of the incident to step forward. Dean Braun also referenced the collection as a time to “dialogue about racism, inequality, and justice”.
Niyah Dantzler ’18 attended the Monday night collection, and while she emphasized that the contributions from students and faculty were both cathartic and productive, she admitted confusion about the lack of input from the administration at the collection.
“It definitely only felt like the first step”, Dantzler said. “I feel like a lot of people came out of it thinking ‘why was something not done sooner and why weren’t we notified sooner?’ And no one really got an answer to that.”
Louis Lainé ’16, who was also in attendance Monday night, questioned whether the collection format was the most effectual response to incidents such as this. For Lainé, the problem lay in who was absent from the collection on Monday.
“I think this campus needs to have conversations that invite people who are not usually in them. Because people who don’t care about these things won’t come [to these collections] when big issues happen.”
Lainé went on to say that he felt as though collections fail to compel those unaffected by racial bias to be part of a conversation about racism on campus.
“From my conversations with others, we do want more acknowledgement of the everyday issues that we go through without having to feel like we’re put on a stage to perform that for people. The onus should be on people who are perpetuating these cultures to find it within themselves to support us and not have us always be the ones to facilitate and teach others.”
Speaking as the co-president of the Swarthmore African American Student Society (SASS), A’Dorian Murray-Thomas reiterated this point, suggesting that such discussions are most productive when all members of the community participate.
“I do think people appreciated the collection, but also question the extent to which it is always an effective response to acts of hate/bias like this one when not done in conjunction with measures that are mandatory and formally institutionalize having these critical dialogues.”
Murray-Thomas also spoke on SASS’s role in the aftermath of the incident, pointing out that several of the victims of the vandalism were SASS alumni.
“Mostly, we focused on healing and creating a safe space to vent with each other rather than concentrating on having some formal ‘action’. That feeling that we always have to publicly ‘respond’ to instances of hate like these can come at the expense of community healing and self-care.”
Both Dantzler and Lainé expressed the timely nature of the collection, with the results of the Campus Climate Survey — meant to assess “the access for, inclusion of, and level of respect for individual and group needs, abilities, and potential,” according to the college’s website — having been released just several weeks earlier. However, neither student was aware of actions being undertaken by the administration to facilitate further dialogue on the vandalism incident in particular.
In a statement sent via email, student and administrative representatives of the Intercultural Center echoed this sentiment: “The collection enabled us as a community to acknowledge the vandalism, and it created a reflective space where we could hear, and see, the pain, frustrations, and concerns of all those affected by the incident. Yet, concrete next-steps were not broached during the gathering.”
Following the Climate Survey, the Self Study Action Committee, a group composed of students, faculty, and administrators, was created for the purposes of generating action based on the survey’s findings. Since its formation in Fall 2015, the Committee has initiated a series of opportunities for community input on the issue of on-campus prejudice or bias, including community roundtable discussions to be held on March 18 and anonymous “idea” boxes located at strategic points around campus.
Dean Braun emphasized that contributions from students, faculty, and staff are integral to formulating steps for increased awareness around campus racism.
“The Climate Action Committee has called on the campus to take advantage of a variety of opportunities to join in a broader dialogue and generation of specific action items to improve our campus climate overall. I look forward to seeing what types of ideas are generated by the community and for us to engage in the action planning collectively — students, staff, and faculty.”
It remains to be seen whether measures taken in response to the Climate Survey will include spaces designated for reflection on and mobilization around the kind of incidents that took place last November, or the kinds of microaggressions that Lainé has observed.
However, as multiple student and administration-led groups on campus work towards a more inclusive environment, the need expressed by students of color for transparency and leadership from the college on issues of campus racism is clear, a view shared by representatives of the IC.
“The labour … is a collective one, and the IC is just one space, among others, where we can work together to improve our shared experiences at Swarthmore. With patience, empathy, and by holding ourselves accountable to each other, we can realize the ideals that we aspire towards as a community.”
For Dantzler and Murray-Thomas, regardless of what happens next, the events of last November and the ensuing conversations are a salient reminder that Swarthmore is not immune to racism on an individual or an institutional level.
“Racism exists everywhere but I never thought that someone here would ever be so bold as to do that,” Dantzler said.
Murray Thomas agreed, saying “We as black students and POCs more broadly (since there were also Asians and Latinos defaced if I can recall) are never far removed from being a direct subject of hate or some form of violence (because the physical act of specifically targeting POCs and ripping their pictures from the wall is actually pretty violent), even in our own community. The Swat ‘bubble’ we’d like to believe exists couldn’t be further from the truth.”