“CRITICAL MASS”: RACE ON ST. MARY’S CAMPUS

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On February 8, 2016, President Tuajuanda Jordan sent out an all-student email addressing an incident at a basketball game the previous Wednesday, wherein a student came to the auditorium wearing a Confederate flag. By the time her email was sent, the incident in question had already sparked campus-wide conversation and argument. “I am shocked, disappointed, and frustrated that this happened,” wrote President Jordan.

But what followed? The flag incident, as well as the debacle after the campus wide Natty B’oh Hunt, was center-stage at the forum hosted by a reformed Multiculturalism, Advocacy and Partnership for Progress later that following week. An audience member asked how people had responded in the moment, answered by another attendee saying that people at the game had stepped up and said the flag was inappropriate and had asked the student to leave. The student complied and left the game. As mentioned in the email by President Jordan, the student had chosen to complete a class assignment on subverting cultural norms and the “violation of a folkway” by wearing the flag.

“I think it’s unfair that there are no consequences,” said one audience member, “except for what we are doing as St. Mary’s students.” Students also discussed the effects of racist messages and general negativity on Yik Yak, the first amendment’s protection of free speech and its place in a public school setting, and, of course, President Jordan’s response.

Without naming the student, President Jordan explicitly referred to and recounted the incident in her email. This has perhaps been the divisive point of her response. At the forum and beyond, some have expressed discomfort at her singling out the student. Others are heartened by the administration’s open support and response to racism; this is the tone, for instance, of Dr. Sybol Anderson’s all-student email reply. The sentiment was shared by some at the forum who were heartened by the response, and felt supported by, or at least more optimistic about, the administration.

The discussion at the forum was passionate, but never uncivil. The audience was encouraged to anonymize the student in question who had sparked this particular conversation, but some in the audience were in the same class as the student and spoke frankly about what they felt to be, again, a lack of consequences for the student’s actions.

Further still, audience members at the MAPP Forum expressed feeling at a loss. Members of the audience talked about their friends, students of color, wanting to transfer from St. Mary’s not just in response to this particular incident, but with this incident as an indicator of a broader campus culture. Grace Chao, the Student Coordinator of the MAPP Program and one of three student moderators at the event, said in particular that she has felt the pressure of being the only person of color in a classroom. When potential students have asked her what it is like to attend St. Mary’s as a minority, she said, “I don’t know what to tell them.”

“It’s always the same people at these events,” said one audience member, citing the idea of ‘preaching to the choir’ and a need for more outreach on campus.

Later in February, I was able to speak with with Dean of Students, Leonard Brown. He addressed the MAPP event; the Multiculturalism, Advocacy and Partnership for Progress Program had been dormant but reformed immediately in response to the incident to hold the forum. Dean Brown, however, was not sure what actions had been taken by the professor of the class in which the original project had been assigned.

When asked what the general atmosphere of the campus has been since the incident on racism, Dean Brown said, “I’ve personally talked to a number of students who I think are very astute in describing how challenging and difficult the climate can be for students of color on campus. It has to be placed in that context. The response institutionally needs to be on that level and not just focus on this one situation.” Brown said, in short, racism was a larger issue beyond the issue that had perhaps brought it to a head — there are structural changes that need to be made. “It’s our responsibility on an administrative level to put things into place to address the larger culture,” he said.

In discussing the response of the university, Dean Brown discussed the formation of IDES Workgroups — the Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Work Groups, led by himself and several faculty; they have been most publicly responsible for the Thrive Survey, sent out to assess the climate on campus: whether or not students are “thriving.”

Going forward, Dean Brown emphasized coming together as a community with respect for each other and being able to listen when others are saying they have been hurt. “Professor Bates, I think he described it well: St. Mary’s is a place where we have an opportunity for an ethos that is truly concerned about the other person,” said Dean Brown. “If we could start with that concern for the other person, as opposed to trying to be right or trying to put our opinion on the other person, when something occurs and someone is hurt…our first reaction is, ‘how can I contribute, how can I help?’”

Dean Brown said, however, that no students had come forward to him specifically about wanting to transfer in the wake of the confederate flag incident, but the sentiment that has been expressed to him is that students want to be part of the solution.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he said, “but I do think we have the ability to make progress.”

Among the faculty leadership of the IDES Work Groups mentioned by Dean Brown is Dr. Sybol Anderson. Anderson was also among the faculty who wrote an all-student response to President Jordan’s email, mentioning the IDES Work Groups and the work they do, but also addressing the idea of the flag as a heritage issue. “I reject the flag because the heritage it symbolizes would have me in chains today if it had had its way,” wrote Anderson. Anderson’s response got a warm shout-out at the forum, and its sentiments have been echoed many times since in addressing why, specifically, the Confederate flag is a hurtful symbol.

When interviewed, Anderson reaffirmed her support of the email sent out by President Jordan, saying that in the past, the administration had been unresponsive on similar incidents, leaving some students feeling unheard. “It’s hurtful in ways that some people don’t really understand,” she said. She also stated that, given her position in the institution, President Jordan’s message and gesture of support was ‘huge.’ She countered criticism of Jordan’s handling as too specific to the student by noting that it is important to “name harms” to keep them from becoming invisible.

The other thing she wanted to address was the legacy of the Confederate flag. “What I wanted to convey to the student was a sense of, while I can understand a display of the flag that wasn’t meant to harm…it’s still the case that it was a harmful display.”

Anderson went on to say that problems on the St. Mary’s campus were not tied just to the Confederate flag incident, but that students’ discomfort with the climate of campus on issues of race has gone back much further. “Students have talked about wanting to transfer in their first year, but recognizing some value in being in St. Mary’s, and wanting to stay here, stick it out, be the change they wanna see. But they’ve talked about still feeling alienated, unwelcome, unsafe.” But dealing with these feelings and microaggressions — which are smaller, everyday nonverbal and verbal slights that target an oppressed group — in an environment that feels intolerant and unaware can be exhausting. One student feeling this way told Anderson, “It would be great just to be able to focus academics.”

Anderson cemented that cultural responsibility, civic engagement, and social justice must be among our goals as an institution and a community. Writing others off as oversensitive or letting conversations end because of differences in opinion will not bridge gaps in perspective. “For faculty in particular, we have to understand that if we really care about our students, we will extend ourselves,” Anderson said. Moving forward, Anderson described herself as hopeful that the St. Mary’s community would be up to the challenge of creating change. “We have a critical mass of people on campus who are saying, yeah, let’s do this. We’ve got the leadership of the institution behind us. What’s stopping us?”

Early in the morning on March 23, Public Safety descended on Goodpaster Hall to wipe down faculty white boards, in classrooms and in offices. Someone had gotten into Goodpaster over night, and had left slogans from the Black Lives Matter movement written on boards all over the building. Some #BlackLivesMatter scrawls had been left neglected in the basement, present for the next day of class. This happened in the same week of the Natty Boh Hunt.

The Natty Boh Hunt is a St. Mary’s College tradition that might not need introduction in a St. Mary’s paper. It happens the weekend of Easter, with seniors hiding painted cans of National Bohemian beer in the style of an Easter egg hunt for underclassmen to find around campus. This year, Natty Boh cans were found painted with rape jokes, anti-semitic jokes, and, again, the Confederate flag, among other things. This event was discussed with the arson incidents in Dorchester in an all-student email from Eric Schroeder, Student Trustee, as part of a pattern of behavior that St. Mary’s should stand against. Large swathes of this email were later quoted in a Washington Post article, which profiled the events on campus.

Within the week after the Natty Boh Hunt, a message from President Jordan was sent out announcing a campus-wide meeting to discuss the recent events and “to begin our work as a community – students, faculty, and staff – to find solutions to these challenges.” The meeting, which would fill the Michael P. O’Brien Athletic and Recreation Center, would go on for two hours, starting at 9:45 A.M.; students in 9:20 A.M. classes were to attend class and walk to the meeting with professors. The Great Room, the Pub, the Daily Grind and the Campus Store all closed during this time, and announced their closure in advance to support attendance to the event.

Both students from leadership positions and faculty were on the stage for the event. Though she had comments, President Jordan ultimately acted as one of many moderators for the meeting. Microphones were run through the audience by faculty and staff, and at the hour mark, President Jordan tasked students with breaking into groups to discuss what they wouldn’t change about St. Mary’s; the second question addressed next steps to take.

“Traditions like Natty Boh Hunt and Mardigreens, that should continue,” said an audience member in one of the initial remarks after the first question posed to the groups, to resounding applause. This point was a recurring theme in answers from the groups.

“The traditions themselves are not harmful,” said another member of the audience, “but the people need to change.” The attendee continued, “We don’t feel as though the St. Mary’s Way should change — that is what we want to be. But that is not who we are.”

“Keeping St. Mary’s weird means keeping it awkward,” noted one attendee, referring to the awkwardness that can surround discussions of race or privilege.

The meeting’s format addressed concerns about the “preaching to the choir” aspect of campus forums on race, but a counterpoint discussed from more than one member of the audience was that people forced to listen might not take anything meaningful from discussion. When discussing options for moving forward, a prevailing suggestion was more forums for discussion, which had also been mentioned when discussing things that shouldn’t change. “We need to have situations where we have a smaller group of people and much more back and forth conversation,” said one attendee. A faculty member, meanwhile, suggested diversity training. The effect of Yik Yak and online anonymity was also discussed, and similarly, a change in campus culture of interpersonal connection.

As the event came to a close, a faculty moderator and microphone runner commented, saying, “We have very little, and I really want to hear from those who are suffering most.” She then asked “white, straight males” to sit down, which was met with a very mixed response from the crowd. One of the last members of the audience to take a microphone proclaimed themselves to be a straight, white male in prefacing their comments.

When interviewed, Sybol Anderson stated that some students were left wondering at faculty’s lack of a general comment or response to the Confederate flag incident, though she had contextualized it as part of a larger issue at St. Mary’s. In the wake of Natty Boh and leading up to A Moment to Pause, individual departments all sent out statements to condemn recent incidents on campus. There have been in-class discussions, with multiple professors in different departments going so far as to redirect their syllabi to address racism, social justice and civility in response.

After the week’s events, many echoed the same statement, like Vera Demanka, Vice President of the Black Student Union, who said: “Don’t let the conversation end here.” Events such as the Round Table Discussion on Race with members of the faculty, and the Drawing SMCM Together Community Conversation meetings at the start of the fall semester, have continued the discussion. For now, it seems the conversation will surely continue. Spring 2016 was a semester that will set the tone for the St. Mary’s community going forward, for better or for worse.

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