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Williams College student Kailyn Gibson, left, moderates a discussion with scholar Erika Hart.

Speaker Challenges Williams College's Racist Legacy in Keynote to Daylong Dialogue

By Stephen Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
05:20PM / Saturday, February 20, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A keynote speaker for Williams College's annual Claiming Williams day challenged the school to confront its racial history, acknowledge its racist present and work toward an antiracist future.
 
Black queer femme activist Erika Hart, an adjunct faculty member at Pennsylvania's Widener University, addressed the college community and the public in an hourlong forum at the center of the college's full day of discussions and workshops with the theme "From Racial Injustice to Restoration."
 
Hart educated her audience about the roots of racism in society and the ways in which the college's own history is rooted in imperialism and white supremacy.
 
At one point, Hart pointed to the college's statements in the wake of the killing of George Floyd last May, but said those statements, like many others nationwide, ultimately ring hollow.
 
"Williams made a statement and said they were going to give money to various places, that they were going to give students money so they can continue to study racial justice," Hart said. "But the school is named after Williams, a slaveowner. And when I was reading about your school and saw that your mascot is the Ephs, I was like, 'What in the world is an Eph?' Literally, it's named after Ephraim [Williams].
 
"Why is it that all this money, $500,000 is what was on your website, all this money is being thrown to all these different places, when changing the name, which is incredibly triggering for the 7 percent of Black people who attend Williams College, incredibly triggering to be at a school whose namesake is a slave owner and also the mascot … I was very perplexed why those changes weren't made and what exactly is the school going to do to make those changes.
 
"Is the school still committed to this legacy of a slave owner? These are questions we want to be engaging in."
 
Williams' racist roots run deeper than the name and the mascot, Hart said. The college's third president, Edward Door Griffin, who led the school from 1821-36, also was a slave owner and encouraged students to donate to the American Colonization Society, which was dedicated to shipping Black people held in bondage in the U.S. back to Africa — not for the benefit of slaves but for the protection of a white population that feared slave uprisings.
 
"I know a lot of colleges [including Williams] had white students interested in abolition," Hart said. "But a lot of that was really tongue in cheek because no Black students were able to go to the schools. Indigenous people had been eradicated at this time. You have to be mindful that abolition meant very little while chattel slavery was occurring."
 
Moving forward into more contemporary times, Hart noted the racist deed restrictions in a Williamstown neighborhood that were put in place in the 1930s and which, just last year, a group of current residents banded together to address. And she mentioned a 2018 campus protest after faculty members of color resigned "due to racism happening at Williams."
 
"I was reading some of the comments of white students at Williams denying that Black students were experiencing [racism], and I want folks to understand that the history at Williams is very much steeped into the walls, into the floors, into the floorboards, into the books, into the faculty, into the president, into the trustees," Hart said. "Most of the trustees of Williams College, to the surprise of no one, are white. All of these things will contribute to a horrible experience that many Black students are having at Williams."
 
In 2008, a student group called Stand With Us created Claiming Williams day, which is celebrated on the first Thursday of each spring semester to have a "day of programming that confronts and critiques systems and practices of exclusion at Williams and beyond."
 
Thursday's activities ran from 9:15 a.m. through the day's second keynote speaker, legal scholar Michelle Alexander, who was scheduled to speak at 7:30 p.m.
 
Hart and Alexander's talks were among a handful out of nearly 20 events that were open to the general public. Another, "Town, Gown, and Police Accountability: Civic engagement in Williamstown," was scheduled for mid-afternoon on Thursday. All the public events will be available for replay on the town's community access television station, WilliNet.
 
Hart's talk was mostly focused on the college but frequently addressed and challenged its wider audience, particularly those who deny the enduring oppression of racism in society and academia.
 
"If you came here hoping to get a lot of evidence for how racism or white supremacy still exists, I invite you to consider why you need a lot of evidence for it, considering we are in a country that is founded on white supremacy," Hart said. "If you are someone who has demanded a lot of evidence from communities of color for what you have experienced, I invite you to question why you need a lot of evidence to then take action.
 
"I can give you lots of examples of the ways quantitative research has failed. But one example I'll give you is a heart-breaking story about Laquan McDonald, who was murdered in Chicago by a white police officer who had over 100 complaints against him about racism. So, the next time you think, 'We just need a lot of information about this or a lot of data … and then we can take action,' consider that that has a lot to do with silencing Black people and our concerns."
 
Hart disputed the notion of a "post-racial" America and said talk of color blindness in society was another form of privilege for white Americans who "get to exist in a way that is unraced."
 
Hart used multimedia to drive home the point, playing an extended clip from an 1993 interview given by novelist Toni Morrison.
 
"[Don't] you understand that the people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft," Morrison said. "There is something distorted about the psyche. It's a huge waste and it's a corruption and a distortion. It's like it's a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy. It is crazy and it leaves — it has just as much of a deleterious effect on white people and possibly equal that it does black people. I always knew that I had the moral high ground."
 
Hart called on white listeners to go beyond simply acknowledging their privilege and advocate for reparations for crimes committed against Black and indigenous peoples.
 
She opened by talking about the "land acknowledgements" that communities and institutions have begun to use to recognize the atrocities committed against indigenous people, like the Mahicans who were the first settlers of the land that Williams College and Williamstown now occupy. Hart said there are not enough of those acknowledgements, and that the acknowledgements themselves don't go far enough.
 
"Let's say Kailyn stole some of my records," Hart said, referring to Kailyn Gibson, the talk's student moderator and the record collection in the backdrop of Hart's Zoom screen. "And the next time she introduced a speaker, she said, I just want to acknowledge that I stole some of Erika's records. And she even said she was going to put that on her website.
 
"That wouldn't make a difference, right? I'm going to need you to do a little more, meaning I'm going to need you to give them back. The Mahican people … want their land back."
 
Bringing the issue back to academia, an attendee asked during a brief Q&A whether there are good examples Williams can follow of colleges and universities that are practicing restorative justice.
 
"No," Hart said. "Williams needs to be the model. There has been no institution that has done that work. Williams is going to have to be the model. The pressure is on Williams."

Tags: racism,   Williams College,   

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