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Friday, November 14, 2003

An Open Letter to the William and Mary Community

by Deirdre A. Royster

Students, white and black, in my courses have been alerting me about recent and troubling activities on the campus--activities led by students who are hostile to affirmative action and programs that assist students of color in managing racially hostile environments, like some majority-white college settings. Of course, many white students are not aware that many majority-white institutions, including colleges, have been and continue to be hostile environments for many students of color. We tend to think of colleges as welcoming spaces for all--but most majority-white colleges didn't admit significant numbers of minorities, like African Americans, until the late 1960s and early 1970s. The backlash against the admission of even a few black (and many other minority) students has been open and severe, but now it is usually more covert. William and Mary's student body is 80% white and 4% black--even though the state of Virginia is 70% white and 20% black--with such small numbers of African American students, we might expect racial hostilities to remain hidden or undercover in our publicly-supported college, but that's not what's happening.

Hostilities have come above ground in at least two ways. They have come above ground in op ed pieces that hurt and annoy my students, who have been examining research that directly contradicts both the faulty logic and information expressed in the editorials. And they have come above ground in more creative public strategies. Apparently, a group of students recently held a bake sale in the UC in which white students were expected to pay one amount for goods, while students of color were charged far less--and all the while the cookie-peddlers played the game of "ghetto-opoly" (a racially-insensitive and repugnant "game"). I'm sure this scenario was played out to illustrate the alleged advantages of being of color and disadvantages of being white these days--but I wonder if the students are aware how ironic their display was. Afterall, it demonstrates the need for programs to support students of color who must endure just those kinds of painful and hostile scenarios.

The scenario had the effect of deeply disturbing my students, especially those of color, who were made to feel even less welcome on the campus than they already felt. My white students were annoyed and angered by the acts of their co-racials who seem unaware of the persisting and pressing patterns of racial vulnerability that people of color face in labors markets, housing markets, consumer markets and other spheres within American society. My students don't understand how people who have not learned about the nature of racial privilege and disadvantage in the U.S can smugly assert opinions that are not supported by research. They do not share and cannot understand that sort of arrogance, nor can they imagine that such efforts can actually undermine college policies that try to enhance the experiences of racially vulnerable students. And yet they are watching it happen.

I share their concerns, but I remain a committed protector of freedom of speech--even hostile, hurtful, and uninformed speech. Why? Because when views are closeted, especially widely held ones, they cannot be addressed and challenged. I see colleges as wonderful and appropriate spaces within which to address faulty thinking. But I hate it that my students of color and their many white friends are hurting and frustrated at what they accurately perceive to be hostile acts designed to create disunity in the student body as well as to topple any college efforts to make William and Mary more welcoming for students of color.

As chair of the sociology department, I would like to encourage--no, invite--all students who would like to be better informed about patterns of racial inequality and policies that aim to address that inequality to take sociology courses. We have many insights and tools to offer that will enable you to subject the views expressed in editorials (and other activities) to serious critical analysis. I challenge the students who have participated in the sorts of activities I've mentioned to stop posing as authorities and subject your views to critical analysis--within William and Mary classrooms and beyond. Stay tuned for public forums…


Deirdre A Royster
Associate Professor and Chair,
Department of Sociology


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