By Chelsey Shannon and Alex Subbaraman
“These people seem really misguided”: a remark overheard less than an hour after the conclusion of last week’s speak out on the quad regarding the spring Frelon show—“these people” meaning people of color. We are two of “these people,” two seniors of color who have been profoundly affected by the recent events on campus, particularly the (lack of) response from the Frelon directors. Though not directly involved in the speak out, we appreciate the honesty and space it created, and want to emphasize the importance of extending these issues into a sustained and collective dialogue. Failure to do so is facilitating a campus culture that is not truly progressive and not collectively accountable. Because we believe this is a conversation all members of the campus community should be involved in, we offer this response from our perspective as both seniors and students of mixed racial heritage.
While we fully agree with the sentiment that macro-level systems of racism and oppression are at play at Kalamazoo College, the institution cannot be used as a scapegoat. As noted by Lillie Wolff ‘04, “we’re all always participating in something larger than ourselves—social systems”; in other words, human actions and the institution dynamically shape one another. So, a crucial part of dismantling institutional racism is practicing person-to-person accountability and accounting for.
None of the Frelon directors have publicly apologized for the racially insensitive choices surrounding the spring performance. Deep accounting for these mistakes is only accomplishable through an apology that is both direct and accessible to the entire campus community. While the directors issued a collective statement in which they “acknowledge the ignorance” of their actions, this statement was posted in a Facebook group and seen by approximately 50 students, all of them seniors and most of them white. Additionally, the statement was not an apology, but an acknowledgement, effectively designed to head off any public conversation about the issues—an intention underscored by the request that any further discussion take place with the Frelon directors in private.
Treating these issues as personal or private undermines their seriousness and removes them from the public sphere to which they properly belong. Such privatization of rightfully public discourse is effectively censorship. Yes, the Frelon spring show is an eagerly awaited event into which the directors put a lot of time and energy. However, this commitment doesn’t exempt the directors from critique, and neither should critique be received as insult. Constructive criticism of offensive actions is a way for community members to respect the community; it is caring for our collective container. Similarly, conversations like these should not be treated as gossip or spectacle, expected to fade from relevance in a week or two; rather, they are work, they are progress, they are positive re-shapings of our College culture, and should be held as such.
Our comments don’t have specific reformatory recommendations; rather, we are asking all members of the campus community to seek first to understand. To listen. This is not something we’ve “slept off” or chalked up to the buzz of third week. This has genuinely troubled us as members of this community, as people of color, and as peers of the Frelon directors. This book must not be slammed closed. We, however, close with a quote from Dr. Jaime Grant’s piece “Emptying the White Knapsack.”
“Listen. Listen more. Listen when you are uncomfortable.”