Are Bates Students Too Respectable?

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On September 6, 2017, I made my way to the Office of Intercultural Education for a Welcome Back Event that was being hosted in the space. I’m not sure I can say I knew what to expect, but, at the very least, I predicted it would be a strange environment.

After all, President Spencer, towards whom students have held innumerable public and private complaints recently and over the years, was speaking — and, in a space where students of color, first generation, international, and LGBTQ+ students yearn to make feel safe and comfortable for them.

Following the assault on a male student of color by a security officer at the end of the last academic year, students formed a coalition for racial justice called Bates+Who?, a riff on Bates’ capital campaign called Bates+You, which sought to raise $300 million dollars for the college. One of their primary demands after the assault directly sought “honesty from President Spencer.” They claimed that “President Clayton Spencer’s email response [following the assault] concealed the reality that Bates Security used excessive force during this incident” and that she has a duty to “notify all members of the Bates community (i.e. including alumni and parents) of this event and the role that racism played.” Of course, this did not happen. Instead, Bates formed two working groups that statedly sought to examine and improve “how Security frames and carries out its interactions with students.”

So, I fumbled into the event with my head down, my mind swirling with theory and emotions. After just leaving a meeting with my professor during which we discussed Asian American assimilation and anti-Black racism, respectability politics — attempts by members of marginalized groups to demonstrate their alignment with socially acceptable ways of behaving rather than assertively challenging structural problems like racism — was on my mind.

I lifted my head to greet some friends who were distractedly goofing around with each other while President Spencer spoke. Looking around, I saw some members of the audience nodding in agreement and others staring at the President behind a Bates engraved podium. The majority of the audience were people of color, though there were a number of white folks present as well.

What surprised me most in the first few minutes that I was at the event was that, after Bates+Who? and a long summer, nobody said a word while President Spencer went on about her openness to discussions with students, and while she referred to the current global political climate as “interesting” and then comparing it to a slow car crash. Nobody dared to say, “what about our demands?” None of us — nobody in the room — spoke up.

After the event, while the Bates photographer swirled around the room photographing students and staff who were speaking with one another — an act which many students have claimed to be attempts at demonstrating token diversity — everybody went on as usual. Speaking, laughing, and engaging eagerly with one another.

And let me be clear. I’m not insinuating that the onus for disruption in this instance should have been on the people of color present. If people of color were to rise up every time a white person at a PWI (predominantly white institution) like Bates said something slightly racist, we would be … very much risen. It’s really not worth it in every instance.

But I think all students, myself included, can do a good deal of thinking around whether this culture of Lingua Franca type discussions, continued tokenizations, and microaggressions of that nature are bearable, and what we can do to resist them (within our emotional capacities) to produce tangible change for more marginalized people on this campus.

 

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