December 5, 2013
A little over two months ago, on Thursday, Sept. 26, Hamilton held a town hall meeting to talk about race as it pertained to our community. The meeting brought together hundreds of students and faculty to openly discuss tensions on the Hill stemming from the Days-Massolo Center’s controversial—and subsequently cancelled—event, “Real Talk: A Dialogue about Internalized Racism,” along with the variety of heated responses in the form of campus-wide emails, speeches at Student Assembly, anonymous postings on HamiltonSecrets and signs along Martin’s Way.
On the day of the town hall meeting, The Spectator editorial board wrote, “We hope that this discussion is productive and progressive, and that it leads to further enterprising conversations about race relations at Hamilton… We anticipate that this meeting will not serve as the endpoint. If anything, it should serve as a beginning.”
The general consensus on campus indicated that the September town hall meeting—along with the conversations that took place in Commons after the meeting—served as a cathartic experience after a tense few weeks. The initial fervor has since died away, however, and most students have returned to the usual discussion topics of academic and social life.
As the saying goes, though, “Experience without reflection is like eating without digestion.” Has anything changed at Hamilton since Sept. 26? Did the town hall meeting truly serve as a beginning?
The cynical, albeit justified, reaction to those questions is “no.” While Hamilton is certainly a socially progressive and welcoming institution, racial and class tensions persist. Those tensions existed before the ‘Real Talk’ controversy and rose to the forefront during the controversy. While they have since dwindled, the sense of profound difference and, for some, alienation remains beneath the surface.
We would never naively suggest that complex concepts like ‘race relations’ or ‘communal harmony’ are measurable. But some encouraging events did take place in the last two months. Besides the conversations facilitated by some professors in the classroom, Writing Center tutors and a group of campus leaders participated in a workshop about the “language of difference” in late November. That same week, the Days-Massolo Center hosted a well-attended discussion with James S. Sherman Professor of Government Phil Klinkner on the “meaning of whiteness,” which turned from a typical lecture into an open discourse about unseen privileges. In the most grassroots response to the events of September, many students have voluntarily “unliked” the HamiltonSecrets Facebook page, a major source of hurtful and unaccountable attacks on Hamilton community members.
Still, all of these positive steps have limits: Discussions aimed at reaching understanding about racial and class differences often self-select an audience, for example. Future events to allow for meaningful conversation between students of different backgrounds could come from the administration (for example, a freshman seminar addressing diversity) as well as from the student body (for example, normally-separated clubs hosting parties with each other.) Of course, a good amount of the Hamilton community will not pay attention to any such efforts, because they place higher priority on other issues. But that should not prevent more reflection and action from those who do care about making Hamilton a more welcoming and integrated environment.