By Rachel Genovese
On Monday, April 7, Bryn Mawr’s Town Hall on Race was held at Thomas Great Hall. The Town Hall was attended by staff, faculty, and students. President Kim Cassidy opened by saying, “It’s a shame that this meeting had to happen, but I am optimistic to see so many of the community here.”
The four main purposes of the Town Hall were to provide context of the meeting, to look deeply at the structures that cause these issues, to explore the possibilities that are available for students, and to move towards action by finding solutions that can work and be sustained.
Interim Dean of the College Judy Balthazar followed Cassidy by proposing that even though “we have formed assumptions about race outside of the Bryn Mawr Bubble, now we must enter and be a part of the Bubble with open eyes and hearts.”
A short history of how Bryn Mawr has addressed race in the past was also part of the introduction. During her time at Bryn Mawr, former President Nancy Vickers expanded a diversity leadership group by adding new positions in order to have more of an impact and to better address matters of diversity and inclusion on campus. Since then, there have been efforts to increase faculty diversity, to gain feedback from campus climate assessments, and to address issues that are brought before the administration.
Professor Michael Tratner of the English Department spoke on the issue of faculty diversity. He realized that Bryn Mawr still has a ways to go when it comes to hiring professors. He admitted that he and other professors have unintentionally looked for qualities in candidates that are the same as everyone else in a given department. He further explained that they have turned candidates away because their qualities might not “fit in,” while these qualities are only different because of the candidates’ background or race.
Professor Tratner admitted that these inherently racist actions and attitudes only add to Bryn Mawr’s “bubble of homogeneity.”
His testimony was received by the snapping of fingers throughout Thomas Great Hall.
Mary Osirim is a sociology professor as well as the Co-Director of the Center of International Studies and Faculty Diversity Liaison. Osirim provided context for the Town Hall:
After Hell Week, Professor Kalala Ngalamulume of the History Department received 31 copies of a photo on his office door which depicted a large bird chasing a stereotyped depiction of a black man across what could be assumed was African plains. In the middle of the photos was a small message that said, “This is me.”
After Professor Ngalamulume reported the incident to Campus Safety, an email was sent to the Bryn Mawr community, explaining broadly the incident and requesting that the person responsible to come forward to Professor Ngalamulume and the Honor Board.
The student did come forward and admit that she honestly believed that the professor would find the pictures humorous. The student was someone who had been in Professor Ngalamulume’s class previously. In their class, they had even discussed the negative images of Africa.
Since the incident, the student has apologized to Professor Ngalamulume, has met with the Honor Board, and has been assigned to attend seminars on race and diversity.
Three students came to the stage to present a plethora of individual experiences and statements from students across campus. These statements ranged from racist statements directed toward students of color to reactions to such statements and assumptions.
Some of the reaction statements addressed how not all people of a given ethnicity are the same and dismissed outsiders’ assumptions that they are international students. Some comments that were reported followed the lines of “Stop victimizing yourself” and generalizations such as, “Students like you…”
One statement that resulted in gasps and hushed murmurs throughout the audience was, “If you can pass for white, why do you admit that you’re Mexican?”
After this introductory segment of the Town Hall, the audience was split up into nine small groups of approximately 20 people, comprised of students, staff, and faculty. The small groups were meant as safe spaces for reactions, the sharing of personal experiences, and discussion of possible solutions to the issues of racism on campus.
In my own small group, students shared their views on how Bryn Mawr is a place for white people and to fit in, people of color must give up parts of themselves and their culture to seem more white. Another student commented on how it is not only whites who push this stance, but other students of color as well, so racism must be fixed across the spectrum. Class was also mentioned as a dividing point between students. The Honor Code was brought up in how its system of confrontation does not help solve problems of race and how many students of color are ignored when they bring complaints of racism to the Honor Board. Another student explored how trigger warnings in syllabi assume a white audience and do not consider that some students, such as students of color, may be triggered by depictions of colonialism and other occurrences.
After the groups had time to meet, representatives of each group presented different solutions that could be considered. These ideas included the following:
- More transparency
- An Ethnic Studies Department
- A diversity literacy course for first years, as part of ESEMs, Customs Week, or Wellness courses
- More diversity in the classroom
- Faculty liaison/partnership for affinity groups
- More funding for affinity groups
- A yearly report from a student survey of the most important issues on campus
- Mandatory diversity training for staff and faculty
- More stress on intentionality and accountability when speaking
- Debriefing problematic material in classes
- Addressing how the Honor Board approaches issues of race
- Finding out how international students fit into the discussion
The Town Hall ended soon after the discussion of solutions. Even though there have been mixed reactions to the event, President Kim Cassidy shows dedication to honoring the proposed ideas and finding ones that can work now and in the future.
The full list of solutions will be released soon by the administrators of the Town Hall and will hopefully continue discussion around Bryn Mawr.
The Bi-College News is open to opinions pieces from community members based on their reactions of the Town Hall on Race. Interested writers can submit pieces and ask further questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.