When we arrive at elite, “liberal” institutions like Williams, we are told to question everything we know–our community’s beliefs, histories, and social structures. The politically conservative, non-critical thinking religion-upholder comes out a skeptic, a humanist, a scientist, an agnostic/atheist, and supposedly a “liberal.” From conversations that I’ve had with several students, many of us go back home feeling enlightened, and in some cases, maybe even too enlightened to bother giving lectures to folks from our communities that “will never listen or understand.” Many may even entertain discussions in so far as the discussions support our “liberal” values. However, what does being liberal really mean?
I’m not going to pretend like I am the only one that knows or understands its definition, for I very well may not. I am only going to use the definition that many people have agreed with at Williams. As aforementioned, when we arrive at Williams we are told to think “critically.” Thinking critically is supposed to open us up to different beliefs and opinions in terms of understanding why some individuals may fully believe in things that we may personally find questionable as well as show why many of our previous believes are themselves questionable. Many of us go through a very specific process in which we adopt the Williams culture. We are told AND we say, “Everyone’s opinions matter because as we have critically observed, what is presented as truth may just be a scheme that a particular interest group is using to oppress and dominate another in order to stay-in/attain power.” We go around and pretend to hold the following belief: “You can believe whatever you want in so far as it does not affect the way that I want to express myself or live my life.” Yet for some reason, all hell breaks lose when a rapper is invited on campus for using artistic freedom of speech or when a politician that is viewed as being “too controversial” in terms of his perceived intentions and beliefs, is invited to give a speech at graduation.
I’ve been on this campus for nearly 4 years and I intend on being specific on many of the contradictory ways in which we have behaved as students that are supposed to accept/tolerate difference. The reason why I am not singling out the administration in many of these cases, is because the administration does not initiate but generally reacts to students’ concerns during controversial times. Here are some examples in order of their occurrences:
1) QUEER BASH
I never actually experienced this event full-throttle since it was first banned my freshmen year. The concern for some students was that there was going to be pornography on the walls and that this was not conducive to the social atmosphere that we want to promote at Williams– too much support for questionable, sexual promiscuity/behavior. It was almost approved again the following year and then shut-down last minute for the same reason.
2) JIZZ LEE
A porn actor/actress/performer comes to the campus to give a presentation on LGBTQ topics, particularly genderqueerness, and I guess uses her pornography as a medium to discuss this. Before she even gets to the campus, all hell breaks lose because some students think pornography is not academic while others think it is. Some “liberal” students even argued that they found pornography itself very offensive, and viewed it as being antithetical to feminist theory. An alum writes an op-ed and shows concern for the display of pornography as an academic inquiry. Yes, the very pornography that queer bash was banned for. A student replies and tells the alum that he is “out-of-touch” and doesn’t really understand Williams culture anymore. What do we have in this occasion? Different groups of “liberal” students telling each other and others what ought to be expressed on the Williams campus while at the same time rejecting the opinions of others that we are supposed to at least listen to. What do I do in this case? My Sex, Gender, and Political Theory class at the time tells me to go check it out. I do. I watch an hour of a genderqueer porn performer ejaculate into other performers’ mouths as well as a lot of “pegging.” At the end I am left wondering what exactly it was that I was supposed to get from that that I hadn’t already gotten from my class. I shut up and move on with my life for not only would raising concern be dangerous, but it is possible that other students got something out of it.
Uses his artistic freedom of speech and says the word “f*ggot” in a song in which he talks about identity discrimination being bad. In the end, the context doesn’t really matter for he is a guest expressing himself the way he wants to and not the Williams community. He is allowed to perform during Spring Fling or whatever it’s called. Everything is fine.
4) CHANCE THE RAPPER
Uses his artistic freedom of speech to say the word “f*ggot” a few times and “n*gga” more times than I can count. After having an incident last year in which a student wrote “all n*ggers must die,” it is very evident at the all-campus talk that the word “n*gger” should never be used. Interestingly however, students raise hell about Chance’s use of the word “f*ggot” but not “n*gga,” even after it had previously been fine. Two contradictions at once. Some students claim it is the QSU vs. the BSU, both groups made up of “liberal” students that are supposed to bring up certain minority group interests to the campus community while at the same time upholding Williams’ liberal values (which if we have not forgotten, consist of LISTENING to other people’s opinions). Interestingly, neither group claims to be responsible for the controversies. This is fair, for it was individuals that brought up the issue. What do I do, shrug it off, continue to listen to Chance because I enjoy his art and view his questionable lyrics as just that, art.
5) FORMER NYC MAYOR BLOOMBERG
Supposed to come talk at my graduation in June. Very rich. Very white. Very old Williams. Some students complain and say he is too conservative even though he raised taxes, public school teachers’ salaries, and enforced certain public health regulations in NYC. Others say he’s just a racist because he enforced stop-and-frisk after getting safety concerns from New York City residents as well as the White House after 9/11. Instead of making a statement by boycotting the event, certain students want to protest the event and prevent him from coming to the campus because he is too controversial, even though at Williams, we are told to “lean into discomfort” and “listen to the other side.” I claim he’s really just an extremely wealthy politician that does whatever he wants to get the job done as he deems fit and as democratically appropriate. Is the job well done? For the most part, most of the time. Do I know what I’m talking about as a Latino that was born, raised, and have pretty much always lived in NYC alongside many of the minorities that are apparently being directly targeted by Bloomberg? I guess not… Why? Some Latinos, Blacks, Asians, and other minorities at Williams tell me I don’t look or act Latino enough (even though my parents are Dominican immigrants) to understand where they are coming from. Meanwhile, the white friends tell me I’m not white enough to understand where they are coming from as well when they feel like their voices are belittled. What am I? I guess I’ll never know in so far as I let Williams students decide that for me. What do I do as a result of supposedly not being oppressed enough or privileged enough to talk about anything during four years at Williams? I refuse to participate in controversial, seemingly one-sided discussions such as Claiming Williams. I refuse to remind my Latino/Hispanic, Black, White, Asian, etc. friends that Latino/Hispanic are really just ethnographic tags that describe the many Whites, Blacks, Asians and mixed individuals that live in their respective Spanish-speaking countries. It all in the end appears to not be worth my time because I am afraid of being marginalized. That is, until now.
What is the common denominator in all of these situations? We claim to be liberal students that are supposed to respect others’ opinions as well as challenge those opinions. Instead, we prevent certain opinions from even being expressed. We paradoxically claim to uphold liberalism while having very specific ideas that may or may not be expressed within the community. Interestingly, having very specific ideas as to how things ought to be IS a meta-narrative, my main reasoning as to why most people that claim to be Postmodern on this campus are not.
6) ANONYMOUS RACIST-SOUNDING LETTER LEFT AT RECORD + RESPONSE
Somebody leaves an anonymous letter telling black students to learn their place and quit demanding so much from the school. This sounds pretty racist. Somebody else leaves an anonymous response telling the racist-sounding individual that they are part of the problem. What is my issue with this incident? Both contributors are anonymous. Why aren’t the racist writer and the respondent having a face to face conversation in which they may both continue speaking and perhaps make the discussion more effective? Because they are both afraid. The event further promotes anonymity due to the belief that there are certain things that can’t be said from either side without feeling repercussions. Well guess what, life is all about repercussions.
7) THE CLASSROOM
We attempt to talk about controversial issues in the classroom: In a particular course that I’m in, a professor asks us if Williams students from our generation view anything good (if at all) stemming from capitalism. We have just bashed this particular set of beliefs and shown how it is bad (for which I plead guilty). As soon as a student talks about how capitalism is beneficial for some things, another students jumps in and says, “YOU ALL NEED TO CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE.” Really? I think I can safely say that no matter where we come from, Williams acculturation produces what may be perceived as “cultural yuppies.” I think we all understand that, yes, to a certain extent, no matter what our socioeconomic backgrounds are, at Williams, we are a bunch of cultural yuppies at an elite “liberal” institution that exists in one of the world’s most developed economies, a development which is generally attributed to worldwide exploitation. There we go. I said it. Now, can we move on and actually talk about shit without being afraid of being told to check our privileges, even during instances in which the person may have no fucking idea who you are, where you are from, and the shit you’ve been through?
To conclude: no, I’m not a “conservative,” or a “liberal.” Williams, American history, and the rest of the world make me question what either concept means every day to such an extent that the meanings have become irrelevant to me. I find identifying with either rather silly. Say what you need to say to others around you, but don’t prevent people from saying what they want to say, especially if these people are speakers that aren’t even part of the Williams community. If we have already [unfortunately] accepted that there is a very specific way of thinking and living at Williams, at least lean into discomfort, give it a chance, challenge the controversy on your campus, and look forward to it as way of promoting critical thinking. At the end of the day, when you leave Williams, most people don’t give a flying f*ck what you believe. Go ahead, speak to any alum that is dealing with the post-Williams realities of life. Many of them may even say that they wish Williams had been a place where they practiced dealing with people that they disagreed with.