NEW LONDON — Connecticut College suspended life as usual Monday as students, faculty and administrators came together for a dayong dialogue on racism and hate speech prompted by the discovery Sunday of racist graffiti in a college bathroom.
The discovery comes after a controversy earlier this month over the language a professor used to describe the Gaza Strip conflict in a Facebook post.
College President Katherine Bergeron, who canceled classes and worked with students and faculty late into Sunday night to arrange the mandatory Monday program, said it’s been a “difficult month” and that “these issues show without a doubt the kind of harm that can be done by language that is bigoted and hateful and what kind of harm they can have in a community. … We shouldn’t tolerate this. Connecticut College is better than that.”
As she opened Monday’s program, Bergeron spoke to about 1,300 students who filled Palmer Auditorium: “The conversations of the last week, while painful and difficult, have also given me reason to hope that this is a place that is going to be an exemplar in the world of higher education for what we can do about diversity and our education.
“This is an important day for all of us and I hope we all learn as much as we can in order to move forward in the most positive way for this campus and for all who have experienced the pain and hurt of the last week.”
The faculty-led discussion included a chance for students to speak eon a wide range of topics, touching on issues from the history of racism in the U.S. to the frustration some students expressed at what they feel is the college’s failure to properly address complaints about racist or biased behavior on campus.
David Kim, an associate professor in religious studies who helped lead the discussion, said, “We talk about ourselves as a paragon of freedom and equality and we rarely talk aloud about the ways in which we are a nation that is a paragon of white supremacy.
“It’s not just here and now at Connecticut College. … Racism is not merely a reflection of how I feel or how you feel. There are structures in place out in the world that shape how we think and feel. It’s unavoidable. Racism is awfully stubborn. … It regenerates itself. It’s like the matrix.”
Kim urged the students to “understand the ways in which language makes certain folks suffer. It’s more than just free speech rights. … Language does not just hurt. Behind language is a threat of violence.”
Connecticut College faculty members address a forum about the weekend racism incident. Connecticut College faculty members address a forum about the weekend racism incident. See more videos –>
Deion Jordan, a sophomore and an African American, spoke about complaints of racist or biased behavior that have been made to the college administration but, he said, have never been adequately addressed.
“These are things that people of color have to deal with on a consistent basis,” Jordan said. “It’s up to all of us to condemn hate speech. It is up to all of us to condemn bigotry and prejudice and racism. … We cannot wait for the administration to say, ‘I condemn it.’ We are the largest body of this community. It’s up to us.”
Jordan said it’s not unusual for students of color to be stopped by security as they cross the bucolic, seaside campus and bw asked, “Do you attend this institution? … Are you a New London resident? Are you supposed to be here?”
Deborah MacDonnell, spokeswoman for the college, said the college does its best to address complaints of bias and to follow through with discipline when appropriate, but she said the complaints are often difficult to verify.
In remarks made last week, Bergeron said she is committed to “update our protocol for bias incidents so that those who come forward under these circumstances are well-served by the process.”
Several white students talked about how the graffiti found in a bathroom at the college’s student center and the community’s response had raised their awareness about racism.
“I am so sorry. I am sorry that it took 18 years of my life to realize that racism still exists,” said Trevor Bates, a freshman. “I have been blind to the fact that racist acts occur in communities like ours. I cannot show how sorry I am that my fellow community members, students and friends have been hurting and I have done nothing to help them.”
“I am willing, able and ready to denounce hate crimes, racism and bigotry in this world,” Bates said. “I will not stop until my fellow community members feel safe. …This needs to be people’s home, and when people feel attacked in this space or treated disrespectfully, it is no longer a home; it’s a hell.”
Jake Muhlfelder, a sophomore, said, “I’d just like to say something that initially is going to sound incredibly unpopular and that’s to the coward who decided to write those words up on a bathroom wall: Thank you, because your disgusting attempt to try to further marginalize and destroy this community has created wounds that initially may be so deep. …” But Muhlfelder said he expects the community to “heal stronger and better and tougher than we’ve ever been before.”
Several students also referred to what they felt was the college administration’s inadequate response to the incident involving philosophy Professor Andrew Pessin.
Pessin’s Facebook post was made in August, but has been receiving attention recently. In his post, Pessin compared Gaza to a “rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.”
“Gaza is in the cage because of its repeated efforts to destroy Israel and the Jews,” Pessin wrote.
Pessin apologized and said he referred to the Hamas leaders and not to Palestinians. Bergeron did not denounce the post, refusing requests from many on campus to do so, and said Pessin and his critics have a right to free speech.
Last week, the college held an evening forum to address the situation involving Pessin.
Ayal Zuraw-Friedland, a senior and editor-in-chief of the College Voice, the college’s student newspaper, said that the lack of a strong statement from the college last week on hate speech “opened the door for white supremacy to come back. … It opened the door for someone who felt as if they were entitled to write these words on the bathroom wall.” She called this “an important connection to make.”
Last week, Bergeron, ordered a review of the school’s social media policies and an update of how bias incidents are handled.
After Sunday’s incident, Bergeron wrote in a letter to the community that she will not tolerate “racist or hateful speech designed to demean, denigrate or dehumanize.”