The recent instances of violence toward low-income/working class, queer, international students and students of color on Smith campus are just a few examples of ongoing, daily forms of institutionalized violence. The institutional culture of Smith College sanctions these types of violence. Violence encompasses not only physical attacks but also includes all language that can damage, hurt and traumatize. These are everyday lived experiences and not just recent and unfortunate situations. Note: the content below is incredibly violent and perverse.
Anne Spurzem’s Letter to the Editor did not simply represent ignorance and bigotry but was an act of violence reflecting dominant ideologies of power, privilege and education. Her letter reinforces the dominant idea that only white, heterosexual, and affluent women deserve to be at Smith College, a prestigious liberal arts institution. This dominant idea of belonging and entitlement creates an institutional culture that sanctions violence on our campus every day — in houses, classrooms, dining halls and on campus towards low-income/working class, queer, international students and students of color. Violence is manifested in coded language around race and class and in daily microaggressions - subtle and normalized actions that are reminders of who “belongs” here and who does not. The institutional assertion that house community serves as a “home away from a home,” masks how houses perpetuate acts of violence and allow for ongoing cultures of aggression and exclusion.
The language in the following paragraph is violent and potentially triggering.
On March 12, 2012, the night of an intergenerational dialogue about Smith’s evolving community, a first year student came home to Parsons House and received a hateful, violent, homophobic, xenophobic, racist and classist note slipped under her door. The note said, “Spurzem was right, go back to where you came from you freeloader, sandnigger, dyke.” About two weeks later, on April 1 the same first year student in Parsons House received another note that said, “It doesn’t matter how many white friends you have, you are still a sandnigger. You don’t belong here.” These three notes (Anne Spurzem’s letter in addition to the two student notes) are a series of violent attacks on our community and individuals as human beings.
The present climate is nothing new. Twenty years ago, there were several instances where four students of color were racially targeted in their houses. Posted on the doors of their rooms were lyrical poems crafted specifically for these women explaining why they do not belong at Smith and how they would be harmed if they did not leave. Other instances involved black dolls hung on nooses in houses; swastikas painted in menstrual blood; “Niggers go home” painted on the walls of Lilly Hall; homophobic slogans spray-painted in front of student rooms in Jordan, Hubbard, and Tyler Houses; and several more racist notes posted on doors of students’ rooms.
Ten years ago, similar instances of violence occurred on Smith campus. One white student threw silverware at a student of color working at the dining hall in Cutter House. Queer students and students of color woke up to extreme hate speech on four separate occasions within two weeks on campus. In Gillett House, a practicing Muslim student, who had left a water bottle in the bathroom for her daily ablutions, found her water bottle stolen then defaced by housemates. To our knowledge, even in cases where the students’ identities were known, they were not held accountable for their actions.
Both in 1988 and in 2001, student movements emerged to collectively resist. Both Concerned Students of All Colors (1988) and Grassroots (2001) organized walk-outs and sit-ins in College Hall, producing a list of demands calling for institutional change.
As the present day demonstrates, the institution has historically failed to meet student demands. Today, the institutional response has been equally inadequate. The emails sent to the community by Dean Mahoney and President Christ did not address the fact that students feel hurt and are unsafe on campus, nor did it make available resources to help students struggling daily with the climate of pervasive racism and violence. The language in these emails falsely framed the notes as the work of a single perpetrator and disassociated the institution from its role in perpetuating the culture of racism at Smith. “Racial tension” has always been here behind the mirage of “diversity.” Emails are not institutional action, and a police investigation will not heal our grief.
History has shown us that to feel whole and to feel like a human being with dignity on this campus is an ongoing struggle. Smith is a microcosm of the larger society. The institution has created initiatives since 1988 to foster a safer environment, but social justice is an ongoing process and there are many structural changes that need to occur at the college in order for us to eliminate oppressive practices and ideologies. The diversity we have today (i.e. class, race/ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, age) signifies progress, but not necessarily harmony. Diversity without critical consciousness about what it will take for each of us to transform oppressive power relations across the campus means that acts of violence like Spurzem’s letter can and will occur every day. We must all (as individuals and as an institution) recognize and understand our inner Anne Spurzems and be conscious of our own privileges and power. Simply recognizing that diversity is beautiful, and a central commitment of the college, does not end institutionalized oppression. Moreover, disassociating from racism and racists only contributes to the problem. Our present moment is part of a continuum. Let’s complicate the idea of diversity with histories of oppression and resistance.
Student organizing is not enough. By definition, it will reach only a portion of campus. We need campus-wide communication accessible to all students, and this is something that can happen only with the support of the institution and administration. When racist threats happened at Williams College last Fall, the president immediately responded by cancelling classes, and stating that “in the wake of a shock such as this [racist incident], the campus community [needed] to take a pause.”* We too must take a pause: now. This will not wait ten days.
We are calling for greater administrative action; but our entire community needs to be held accountable. We must all address the fact that we create and perpetuate this culture. We make up this institution. Without the people, there is no institution; and that fact is too powerful to ignore.
The Students of Mobilizing Smith College