By Sarah M. Ramirez
It has been more than a year since the student-lead group MoHonest first decorated campus with slips of paper detailing personal experiences of racism in our college community. In response to outrage surrounding the unjust arrest of a Mount Holyoke student, the College and Administration scrambled to host residence hall conversations, have open meetings with students, and offer more workshops and opportunities to engage with racism and microaggressions. Since then, Mount Holyoke College certainly has paid closer attention to it’s social climate on paper.
But has anything really changed?
Let me be clear: tensions between the College as an administrative entity and racial minorities on campus have existed since students of color first entered through the MHC gates. According to a post on the LITS blog by Megan Haaga:
“Although our college today is eager to celebrate diversity, it wasn't until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954 that Mount Holyoke and other colleges began to racially integrate on a significant level. Because racial integration started at elite private colleges due to a federal mandate, instead of an internal decision by the college administration, many of the students of color during the 1950s and 60s felt that the college was unprepared for them.”
It is important to recognize that Mount Holyoke is not unique when it comes to diversity. Despite aggressive ad campaigns boasting high numbers of students of color, Mount Holyoke College is still a white institution in a white-dominated culture. “At Mount Holyoke College we don’t just talk about diversity. We live it,” states the MHC website. “Faculty, staff, and students are committed to an inclusive approach that supports, educates, and nurtures the identity differences of everyone in our community.” Our college boasts higher percentages of students of color (28% of domestic students) and international students (20% of the student body). Yet Mount Holyoke, like so many other colleges, suffers from a liberal crisis of wanting to be “inclusive” without the dirty work involved in meaningfully honoring that goal.
We may have high numbers of students of color, but by no means does that make our community a truly diverse forum for engagement. According to the most recent Campus Climate Report (2013), participants reported that racism, xenophobia, eurocentrism, and Christian values dominate campus culture for students, faculty, and staff. People of color report feeling pressured to justify and explain their experiences to their peers, yet are not supported by these same community members in their day-to-day lives. Why does this disconnect continue to exist? How can a campus that sells itself as an exemplar of diversity be so willing to overlook these experiences? Does Mount Holyoke really value students of color?
Unfortunately, I believe the answer to the last question to be a resounding no. As a board member of a cultural organization on campus -- namely, La Unidad -- several experiences have informed my growing suspicion of the Administration and the College as a whole. With the exception of the cultural offices, the only other part of the College to reach out to us directly is the Office of Admissions. It is difficult not to feel manipulated as a person of color when the only interest the College takes in your identity is to further a message of inclusion that you know is not accurate.
Our cultural organizations have fought tooth and nail to have the cultural houses we have today, and yet, every year we have faced threats of having them taken away. Our houses are located on the edge of campus, a jarring metaphor for how (un)welcome we feel here as students of color. I have spoken with student activists who have worked to get our cultural organizations a shared office in the Blanchard Student Center to centralize our presence, but this request has been denied. The new Facilities Master Plan includes the demolition of the Cultural Houses in favor of a shared cultural building that would be more central, yet it is hard to trust that the College will not simply take our space and further minimize our presence. We do not trust the College. In turn, it seems the College does not really trust us, either.
Lack of communication and direct action is perhaps the most hurtful piece of our fragmentary race relations at Mount Holyoke. When the College makes substantial decisions in the name of diversity, students of color are consistently left out of the conversation. Additionally, our major criticisms are flat out ignored or not answered directly. To this day, the Administration has yet to formally acknowledge the list of demands sent out by MoHonest last Spring. They had no problem, however, alluding to specific ideas and details from the document in emails explaining future plans of action (though the student authors of the demands were not credited for their input). Students have continually criticized Mount Holyoke for devoting an entire month to our deceased founder’s birthday rather Black History Month, yet every January we still get a red “It’s Almost FebruMary!” reminder of what really matters to this institution.
Celebrations of diversity are treated much like discussions of racial matters in the classroom: leave it to the students of color to take care of it.
The Administration has failed us, but in many ways, this resistance and struggle is to be expected. Even more heartbreaking than our problems with the Administration, however, is the glaring lack of caring commitment on the part fellow students and peers. As a women’s college, the ideal of community is championed as one of our defining features.
When a fellow Mount Holyoke student was arrested and thrown in jail for a non-violent, school-related offense, why did many students emphatically question her character while ignoring the fear and despair that swept our community of color? When the College does host dialogues and workshops about race, why are they predominantly attended by the students who best understand their importance, and not those who most need to be there? When another student of color was sexually assaulted and treated disrespectfully and dishonestly by the Administration, why was she left so alone and socially isolated at a school praised for its inclusivity?
Mount Holyoke, I love you, and I realize that these issues are difficult to confront. But we, your classmates, as students of color, have no choice but to combat these problems. We live these experiences every day. It is exhausting to face microaggressions and discrimination while also bearing the burden of creating awareness on campus. We do not want your support, we need it. Your fellow peers are in pain, suffering from a climate that each and every one of us has a part in making. Caring about community means caring about the wellbeing of all members, regardless of their backgrounds or politics. Community means taking action even when doing so is uncomfortable or inconvenient. None of us are neutral in constructing our campus culture.
A student from the group Sisters of All Races (SOAR) was quoted in a 1986 Mount Holyoke News article saying, “We have to start with dialogue, but after dialogue has to be action, because talk is cheap." Unfortunately, talk appears to be the go-to option for Mount Holyoke College regarding racism today. But this does not have to be the case as we forge into the future. If we, the community of Mount Holyoke College, collectively decide to prioritize race relations and care for marginalized students, growth can (and will) happen. It will not be easy. It will be difficult, long, and uncomfortable. But as members of a school full of fearless and uncommon people, Mount Holyoke students have never been the type to shy away from a challenge.