It’s been some time since I’ve been able to update, as the month of February just hasn’t been a great one around these parts. There was the madness of job candidate season, though the candidates themselves and their various visits were great. There were committee crises. There have been, and continue to be, the general bits of teaching nuttiness: big classes, many senior theses, and the like. Most recently, I’ve been down with a nasty bout of bronchitis, an illness that arrived out of nowhere and is showing no signs of packing its bags and heading for home, gigantic antibiotics notwithstanding.
But there’s been some other stuff, too, and it’s stuff that’s hard to write about. Hard to face. Southern California’s a wonderfully diverse place, and Claremont’s a generally enlightened town, and the students here embody the best of the liberal arts tradition. But things have gone hugely wrong this semester, and it’s bringing to the surface all the stuff that always lies festering under even the most liberal of American communities.
And it’s really, really ugly.
There was a cross-burning on one of the other Claremont campuses this January. Some are insisting that that statement — that there was a cross-burning — is a mischaracterization, that the students involved (students, I am only partially relieved to report, not from my institution, but from three of the other colleges in town) didn’t “mean” anything by it, but were just drunk and stupid. That’s precisely where things start to get ugly for me: in the assertion that the burning of a very large cruciform structure can ever be divorced from its symbolic history, an assertion that is itself an attempt, made by those privileged enough not to be threatened by this sign, to erase the sign’s history, and the histories of those at whom this sign has been wielded.
Here are some of the details: a piece of student art, an eleven-foot-tall cross constructed of a metal frame covered in fabric, was stolen from our campus, carried to another of the neighboring campuses, and set on fire outside one of the residence halls. The remnants of the burned cross were discovered the next morning by staff members of that college, who, once they realized that it had been a cross, thought at first that it might have been a retaliation for the charges a student at that campus had brought against an off-campus person. After a few days, the dean of that college emailed all of the students who were present on campus during winter break to ask whether they had any information; at that time, one student admitted responsibility and named three other students who had also participated in the theft and burning.
Information about the incident only became widely available in the Claremont community two weeks afterward, in part due to massive failures in intercampus communication. One of the college presidents — president of a campus at which one of the students involved was enrolled — was moreover heard to assess the incident as standard drunken student behavior, dismissing the notion that there were any racial implications to the event. The discourse, given this president’s comments, and given the comments of many others in Claremont, began to circulate around what the students “meant” by the incident. Which was, according to those folks, nothing.
I’m proud to say that many of my students refused this answer, insisting (like good English and Media Studies majors, all) that the intended message is beside the point, that the message is both inseparable from the history that it invokes and from the contexts that its individual readers bring to it. There has been much organizing on campus, including a protest march that got fairly wide coverage in the area.
But there’s been enormous amounts of damage done, a very fragile sense of safety and community shattered. And that, sad to say, isn’t the only incident.
A new student social club (we don’t have fraternities-proper, but “social clubs” instead) held a photo scavenger hunt as part of its rush week. One item on the list of images to be gathered was “a photo with 10 or more Asians.”
This story broke at the end of last week. It so happened that this week, one of my classes was set to discuss Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and bell hooks’s “Eating the Other”. My class and I were able to have a good conversation about the power relations involved in image-production (who gets to look, and who is the object of looking) and about the neocolonialism involved in such fetishized images of the other.
But again, that was my students, who have voluntarily enrolled in a class designed to raise such questions. The general community response has not been so universally enlightened, by any stretch.
One of my former students wrote a moving letter to the editor of the student paper, recounting one of his own brushes with such hostile acts, sensitively documenting the myriad ways in which students of color (and others as well) are repeatedly made to feel unwelcome on campus.
The student paper’s new website, however, allows for comments on articles. And the initial comments, taken down from the paper’s site but preserved on the letter-writer’s own site, are nothing short of horrifying.
Between all of this, my work-overload, and the mass-production of mucus on which my membranes have embarked, I’ve been a bit too dazed, too depressed, too bewildered to know what to say. Any illusion that the place in which I live is genuinely pluralist has been ripped away — though perhaps that’s not a bad thing, to be reminded of the things that too many people around me are never really allowed to forget.