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The emails heard 'round the Hill

By Bonnie Wertheim '14

September 26, 2013

It’s highly unusual that an event at Hamilton College isn’t free and open to the public. Our campus hosts more opportunities for education and enrichment every week than any single student could possibly attend, so it makes sense that not everyone at Hamilton takes advantage of every talk and show that the College offers. That said, most recognize that they have the ability to attend any event on campus when work permits. So, when Director of Diversity & Inclusion Amit Taneja sent an email to students, faculty and staff on Sept. 19 announcing that the first installment of a three-part discussion series would be open to “people of color only,” the email understandably gave members of the community pause.

The topic of the Real Talk series was internalized racism, or the projection of negative attitudes onto one’s own racial or ethnic group. “This three-part series really came out of student input,” Taneja told The Spectator. His vision in hosting three separate discussions—one for people of color, one for white members of the community and one that would be open to the entire campus—was to create a “safe space” where individuals could air their thoughts and confusions about the topic before addressing Hamilton as a theoretical whole.

The format is not without precedent. Institutions such as the University of Michigan, Syracuse University, Arizona State University, the University of Maryland, UMass Amherst, Skidmore College and Mt. Holyoke College all have intergroup dialogue programs that allow students to discuss topics among people who share their identities, then reconvene as a full group for further dialogue.

“The research on this pedagogical approach is very positive,” Taneja explained. “It gives people some time to work out their feelings and say the things they won’t feel comfortable saying in front of the other. And then, when you bring people together, the dialogue is much more meaningful. It’s a way of incremental dialogue that just gets more complex.”

Yet when Taneja tried to implement the same kind of program on the Hill, members of the community and the outside media were quick to criticize its design. One of the more inflammatory headlines, The Daily Caller’s “Trustafarian rich-kid college brings back separate-but-equal race segregation,” suggested that the program was a reversion to the oppressive social structures that preceded the Civil Rights Movement.

“Amit’s goal was very inclusive, but the wording gave rise to misconceptions,” President Joan Hinde Stewart commented to The Spectator.

Of the responses Taneja’s invitation received, none generated as much conversation on campus as an email that Dean Ball ’14, president of the Alexander Hamilton Institute Undergraduate Fellows (AHIUF), sent to the entire community on Sept. 22. The email proposed an alternative to the Real Talk event, hosted by AHIUF, and concluded with the disclaimer, “It will not be a safe zone”—a signoff that echoed and opened up an ongoing campus-wide dialogue about discourse.

“We specifically discussed whether or not to include the phrase, ‘It will not be a safe zone’—those seven words —for literally 20 minutes,” Ball told The Spectator. He collaborated with one of the AHIUF’s co-leaders, Paul Carrier ’14, in authoring the all-campus email.

That evening, Taneja sent a response email in which he opened up Thursday’s dialogue to the entire campus, rather than limiting its attendance to students of color, and the AHIUF subsequently canceled its competing event.

At Monday’s Student Assembly meeting, Ball apologized to students who were offended by his email’s content, specifically its final line.  Additionally, he and Taneja had opportunities to share their own definitions of what a safe space is. Ball explained that safe spaces are ones where people can express opinions—forums for debate—whereas Taneja explained these spaces as ones in which experiences may be shared without judgment.

“I’ve personally never been to a safe zone, and I failed to understand how sensitive it is for some people and how much it helps some people,” Ball admitted.

“If the consensus is that Amit’s ‘messaging was off,’ the same courtesy must be extended to Dean,” Scott Milne ’14, an AHI undergraduate fellow, said.

Discussion of safe zones continued to pervade Hamilton on Tuesday, when members of the community woke up to find the College postered with quotations from prominent black thinkers and artists such as Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni and Tupac Shakur. This conversation was much bigger than a few emails, and the cross-campus graffiti by “The Movement” illustrated its impact.

“I knew it would be controversial,” Ball said. “I didn’t know it would generate the kind of controversy that it did.”

On Thursday, Sept. 26 at 4:15 p.m., a conversation led by Taneja will take place in the Alumni Gym. Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to attend and help address the questions: “What does a meaningful dialogue about race look like?” and “How can we best structure such a dialogue?” Whereas Taneja’s original event was a discussion about a specific topic, Taneja hopes that the reinvisioned meeting will “take a pulse of the campus” and allow the community to consider what it needs to engage in productive dialogue.

“I don’t think one meeting is going to solve [this issue],” Taneja said, “but I think of it as a very healthy place for everybody to come together and start having that conversation.”

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