This past February, the Senate of the Student Assembly held a vote on the Higher Standards Resolution, which called for the immediate resignation of Governor Ralph Northam, the revocation of his honorary degree by the Board of Visitors, the firing of adjunct professor Senator Thomas Norment and the creation of an ad-hoc race relations Senate committee. The Senate meeting saw impressive turnout from the student body and many students of color gave personal stories of their experiences with racism and other forms of bigotry. Many in attendance were moved to tears. The Senate passed the resolution unanimously, showing that it will not stand silent to racial intolerance.
While we are glad that the resolution passed, we still feel as if the weight of Northam’s actions has not been fully appreciated. In fact, we believe that parts of the campus community — whether in Student Assembly or any other part of campus — do not agree with us in that Northam’s actions deserved the strong response that the Senate offered in their resolution. In fact, many who defend Northam and those like him say that their actions were committed during a different time — a time when racist expressions were acceptable to most people. We think this is correct; social standards were different in Northam’s day. People wore blackface and caricatured black people and culture much more openly than people do now, so obviously something has changed in our social consciousness. But while this points to such actions being “acceptable” then, it says nothing about whether they were right. This, we believe, is the crux of the disagreement between those who think otherwise and our beliefs.
If we as Americans are going to commit ourselves to the basic and foundational idea that there are right and wrong things in our world, we need to have standards for what makes those things right or wrong. These standards must be consistent and can’t be nullified by what society thought was right, wrong or unworthy of consideration. Otherwise, every atrocity in American history that was either approved or left unconsidered by the majority of people — typically white, well-meaning people who did not think too hard about what was going on or what the consequences of their complicity would be — is no longer subject to moral judgment. Slavery, the Trail of Tears, Japanese internment, the Tuskegee studies and every other injustice under the sun can be justified by saying, “Well, it was a different time. These things seem bad to us now, but people didn’t know any better.” But consistent, historical objections to each one of these examples show that someone did know better — a small group of people often had the courage to think for themselves, stand up, and loudly proclaim that what was happening was wrong.
Even then, the objection might be raised: what if nobody truly knew better back then? What if nobody was there to protest injustice, to fight against the mainstream? To this we say: so what? If we limit ourselves to thinking that the people of today do not have the power to judge the people of yesterday, then we have given up our very ability to think that we are capable of being better, more decent people than the monsters of our history. Northam is not a monster — he’s probably far from it. But we must realize that his past is not something that can be cut away. We must realize that this racism and intolerance is something that we have to talk about, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
With all this in mind, the question we now face is: what now? How do we combat institutionalized racism within our collegiate realm? Do we shame and admonish them? Do we drag them through the streets and make an example of them?
The easy solution is to say “yes” and welcome these forms of punishment, but we hope everyone can see how detrimental that is to the goal of understanding, equality, and civility. As humans, we fear what we do not understand. How are we going to come to terms with one another if we are threatening to harm each other? It is already a big ask for humans to let go of their preconceived notions of one another. While we think we’re right and that basic social awareness confirms our position, we don’t think that forcing and reprimanding with shame and violence is the answer. History has already proven those tactics do not work.
Instead, we should create spaces where we can have revealing and meaningful conversations that can dismantle pedestals of privilege and ignorance. These are not the dubbed “safe spaces,” but areas for free speech to express different perspectives and experiences. We should have spaces where someone can come and say, “I don’t understand why blackface is bad. Can anyone explain it to me?” It may seem trivial to some who see Northam’s actions as egregious, regardless of the time period, but the fact of the matter is that not everyone does. Should we not try to get them up to the same speed as the rest of us? We are too quick to abandon those who are more ignorant than we are. All of us have fallen to ignorance at some point in our lives, and we should give them the same courtesy as was given to us then. After all, during the debate over the resolution, that’s what we had to do. If we had shut down our colleagues at every juncture and did not allow them to express their thoughts, we would have never succeeded in swaying their opinions.
Furthermore, we need to acknowledge our own privilege. We are students at the College of William and Mary, one of the best schools in the country. We are receiving a premier education in the liberal arts and sciences. While more Americans are now deciding to attend college, many before us did not, and many of those who currently do attend often are not receiving the caliber of education that we are. We are not suggesting that we stop discussing the College’s shortcomings, but that we instead should take some initiative to continue to learn about one another’s lives and experiences. Is that not why we are here? Don’t we come to college to learn something that we do not understand, in hopes that we can use it for something meaningful someday? Why do we not share that approach to different social perspectives? Is that not the purpose of a liberal arts education? Do not take our stance as sympathy for the white supremacist, the homophobe or the misogynist. This is not about all of us holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” This is about seeing the humanity in one another. This is about giving people a forum where they can try to understand. These spaces do not have to be sanctioned by the College or even run by a club. These are spaces that can form within groups of friends and residence halls. We cannot expect understanding to happen on its own then start complaining and wondering how this happened or asking, “what time period are they still stuck in?” We should take the time to have these conversations from the very beginning.
For those who are still on the fence or claim that we have done enough, we strongly urge you to reconsider. The civil rights movement did not die with its activists — it died because of the complacency amongst the American people, namely the white electorate. So, we hope that our colleagues read this, harken back to the importance of receiving a social education, and decide to be involved in the dialogue. It begs your immediate and resolute attention — our silence is damning.
Email SA Review Board Chair Henry Blackburn ‘20
and Sen. Anthony Joseph ‘21 at email@example.com.