In Solidarity: A Letter from Alumni
Issue   |   Tue, 09/19/2017 - 23:18

Note: The following is a letter sent by an alumnus to The Student as well as several other publications. It has been edited for style and clarity.

To the Amherst Community,

No doubt, the present climate (both on campus and as it relates to society at large) is one of volatility, discomfort and palpable fear. Instances such as these challenge the character and resilience of community and can foster division, magnify mistrust and force us to belabor each other’s faults and shortcomings if not handled properly. As promogulated in the message below, I believe apathy yields silent complicity, ultimately working to perpetuate problematic instances like the one that transpired on Sept. 5. It’s incumbent upon all of us — victims, allies, and bystanders — to reject a passive ideology and to work diligently and actively for the change that we hope will materialize, both on campus and in the world.

On Sept. 9, I wrote the message below to members of the administration, to which scores of alumni from vastly different ethnicities, class years and walks of life affixed their names in solidarity. To be clear, the administrative response was swift and reassuring, noting among other things the severity with which they are treating the issue, the despicable nature of the act itself and an intention to take seriously the concern and plight of students through active dialogue.

In sharing this message with the community, I hope it provides solace to people of color, women and all students who may see facets or tenets of their own experiences through recounting mine. In so doing — and as the compendium of signatures make clear — I hope you recognize that you are not alone, that there are people to which you can always reach out to for advice, that your struggles and strife — while unique and potent presently — will not bind you forever, that you will be able to overcome these obstacles and that through adversity we are tested and made better and more resilient. I pray that in times of hardship, both present or future, you will always be reminded of this message from students who came before you.

In addition, I hope this clarifies for allies and other students the hardships and realities particular members of the community are forced to internalize and fight on a daily basis, and that it can provide a frame of reference by which to empathize and assist in constructing a campus community that works to involve all of its members.

__

I write in response to the disturbing and inexcusable racist actions that transpired on Sept. 5, involving the hanging of a noose on Pratt Field. Such a deliberate act of hate cannot go unpunished and cannot be remedied with words alone. Every reflection on these instances requires the same preface: we know racism still exists, there are institutions (public and private) devoted to its posterity, this is not the first of these instances (and won’t be the last) and once again, the aggrieved is forced to assimilate to “normalcy” in their daily activities despite all of this.

In the public imagination, as well as in practice, Amherst’s reputability as an academic institution remains largely unchallenged. Its diverse and open curriculum, the caliber of its faculty, the rigor of the community’s academic ethos and its emphasis on fostering intellectual skepticism promulgate this fact.

The scope of its opportunity, assessed from history through the present day, is virtually limitless. Former presidents and politicians, federal and U.S. Supreme Court justices, award-winning authors and actors and artists all claim alumnus status. The value of the Amherst education can hardly be overstated, of which I am a product and proponent (I am currently studying at Columbia Law, and I don’t doubt that the education I received accounts for a significant portion of my current circumstances).

While I acknowledge the academic value of the Amherst education, as a person of color, I never found myself with much “school spirit.” I did not cheer for the football or lacrosse teams with pride. I did not wear Amherst clothing with a sense of honor, but rather with marked infamy and shame. I felt an imperative to self-isolate and self-segregate as more and more places on campus shifted from feeling merely uncomfortable to patently unsafe. The classrooms started to reek of entrapment, the community spirit felt more diminished, the air more fraught with division, the dining hall less welcoming to persons with brown and black skin, the campus itself too volatile — indeed, over time, my Amherst experience began to feel like something to be merely endured, not one to be enjoyed. It was marketed as a grand experience; however, it was one to which I could not fully claim entitlement, because of certain (obvious) immutable characteristics. Of course, every criticism has a corresponding qualification, as I mentioned earlier: I indeed met people I am proud to call lifelong friends and allies, including faculty, students and staff from all walks of life.

However, empirical exceptions are too often relied upon to dispute non-universal claims and truths. The establishment of some good cases cannot be properly said to mitigate or annul the rising ubiquity of egregious ones. The list of campus “incidents” targeting women and students of particular religions and color is long, and would be longer still if not for a palpable fear of reporting on behalf of the marginalized population.

The Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) initially lived in the basement of Keefe, their move being delayed so that a game room may take priority. Countless anecdotes demonstrate that classroom microaggressions have overlooked and posited as overreactions. Students crying political foul defaced a week devoted to recognizing the value of black lives. A young woman failed to find any recourse after the most physically and emotionally scarring experience imaginable (and hundreds more have been forced into silence). A murky sense of free speech rights has been prioritized over the bodily security of students. An athletics team was discovered to have systematically spoken in a degrading manner about women and people of color. Students in the socials and cars in the snow have borne racial expletives. The few non-obligatory “days of dialogue” again placed the onus upon the aggrieved to educate their aggressors. People of color face and internalize countless such instances and experiences on a daily basis.

The world itself provides no further solace. White supremacy, racism and Nazism permeate politics and social interactions. We have an executive who encourages police brutality, openly discriminates against minorities and revokes programs under the guise of nationalism; indeed, “Make America Great Again” sounds more like a dictatorial salute than a weak political slogan.

Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Laquan McDonald: all victims of a system designed to bring about their untimely and unjust deaths.
This is all to say, in sum, two things.

First, in my experience and that of several others, the relevant question isn’t the harm, but the subsequent silence that yields tactful complicity of that harm. (As a metaphor, murder isn’t what intimidates the public; it’s the thought of murderers roaming free, without justice finding them.) A noose, while traumatizing and reminiscent of a shocking historical fact, is made more terrifying by the silence that emboldens its proponents. People of color, of particular religions and of certain ideologies and beliefs are not just insecure, they are being commanded to live in constant fear by those who seek to harm them and by the complicity of those who fail to actively denounce them.

Secondly, considering these facts, it is incumbent upon us all to recognize the inadequacy of passive judgment and the need for active recourse. In a world where solace cannot be found in school, on the street, on the television or radio or even sometimes in our own homes, it is imperative for those with power and privilege to use it. Denunciation, even in its strongest form, is not adequate to allay the well-founded concerns of students of color. Securing peace of mind requires substantive action: to commit to holding the individuals responsible with harsh sanctions, to institute mandatory cultural competency education for sports teams and social groups, to provide incentives (such as cancelling sports seasons or social initiatives) to yield timely reporting of these instances, to diversify administrative, scholastic and athletic faculty boards, to liaison with persons of color and affinity organizations often and much, and most importantly, to treat this on par with any other substantive threat that may face the Amherst community.

To be clear, this is not an “incident,” and none of the aforementioned cases are isolated. It is a threat to the physical and mental security of all persons who would like to call Amherst College their home. I would hope (and expect) that the circumstances would be treated as severely as, say, knowledge of one walking around the school with a weapon — the exigency is tantamount.

I offer these opinions with no particular recourse in mind beyond what I have mentioned. I have been away from the school for some time, and it’s plausible that some of these suggestions may have been instituted and may therefore be gratuitous (in which case, I obviously apologize for my oversight). Even assuming the truth of this, however, a larger problem still remains: the recurrence of these instances. I believe patterns and frequencies are illustrative of circumstances, of cultural tendencies, of ideologies and of priorities. It’s important that we continue to ask questions about why these instances recur, how they may relate to admission and administrative structures and how we may be complicit in their perpetuation. However, what’s imperative following this incident is that substantive attention is given to the plight of current students and to an approach that prioritizes their well-being and proposed initiatives. It is a day that I never thought I would see or hear of on the Amherst College campus and one that will be carved into its historical annals for time immemorial.

Amherst has demonstrated its capacity for “positive” change in the past: the MRC was moved, attention to student concern was granted and the problematic mascot was done away with. Indeed, I hope that same spirit of amelioration can be carried through here, and it’s primarily from this belief in the administration that I convey this message. Too often, a bit of advancement becomes a license to atrophy, and moral reactive attitudes become supplanted by apathy. And unfortunately, often each instance of change comes after bitter work and is not generally or immediately accepted with openness.

I am an Amherst alumnus, and as such, I am uniquely interested in its trajectory. But I am also a person of color who can understand instantly the fear students now face even more potently walking around campus. We all still share that fear either walking down the street, or in predominately white neighborhoods, or around police officers. Make no mistake: the resilience of the aggrieved community will always outweigh the spite of the hateful, but such a battle will always be waged without comprehensive steps toward appropriate sanctions and community healing.

I remain grateful for the time I spent at Amherst, and in full reflection, the experience I had there. But as stated before, recognition of the good cannot overshadow the specter of the heinous.

It’s nothing short of unjust for this paranoia to bleed so potently into a place devoted to safety and learning. I hope that this serves as a reminder of the progress that has yet to be made, of the doubtless need for liaison with current students and groups and of the suffering of those who still strive to call Amherst a place to look upon with fondness.

I hope you’ll agree.

Best,
Kobina Quaye ’15

In Solidarity

Aida Orozo ’14
Albert Joo ’15
Alejandro Javier Paulino ’14
Alexander Sondak ’13
Alexandra James ’16
Alina de Cordoba ’16
Allyson A. Leach ’14
Andrew Drinkwater ’17
Andrew Lindsay ’16
Araceli Aponte ’17
Arlette De La Cruz ’09
Ashley Felix ’15
Ashley Finigan ’08
Ashley McCall ’12
Ashley M. Montgomery ’16
Asia-Sierra Millette ’11
Benaias Esayeas ’18E
Bolatito Kolawole ’14
Briana Hanny ’13
Brianna Wiggins ’15
Candice Jackson ’17
Caroline Katba ’15
Caryce Tirop ’17
Changhee Han ’12
Chloe McKenzie ’14
Christina Croak ’13
Christina Gutierrez ’09
Christine Ayanna Croasdaile ’17
Christopher Lewis ’13
Christopher Porras ’12
Cole Morgan ’13
Constance Paige ’15
Cristian Navarro ’16
Daejione Jones ’15
Daniella Bennett ’17
David Huante ’16
Dee Mandiyan ’10
Donna Kim ’16
Elena Villafana ’14
Elias Baez ’15
Emerson King ’16
Emily Figueroa ’11
Erika Sologuren ’13
Evan Nabrit ’06E
Everlena Tenn ’16
Farah Haidari ’16
Francis Comesanas ’13
Gabriel Wirz ’15
Greg Genco ’10E
Hyunsun Roh ’15
Imani Marshall ’16
Irma Zamora ’17
Jacqueline Chavez ’16
Jake Samuels ’13
Janna Joassainte ’17
Jeanne Lee ’16
Jelani Long ’14E
Jelani Rooks ’13
Jensen Bouzi ’14
Jessica Maposa ’17
Jessica McMillin ’15
Jesus Zelaya ’16
Jia Liang ’17
Jia Mizell ’13
Joelle Comrie ’14
John Riggins ’12
Juan Enrique Davila ’06
Karen Blake ’17
Kayla Collado ’16
Lauren Carter ’17
Lauren Horn ’17
Lexi Ligon ’17
Lilia Paz ’16
Lorraine Thomas ’16
Maïkha Jean-Baptiste ’10
Mapate Diop ’16
Matt Randolph ’16
Maya Sisneros ’13
Mbatang Acha ’17
Megan Kim ’16
Melissa Aybar ’14
Mercedes MacAlpine ’16
Myles Gaines ’17
Natalie King ’14
Nia James ’15
Nicole Sanches ’13
Nneka Ugwu ’16
Noely Mendoza ’17
Tomi Williams ’16
Ornella Noubissie Wafo ’16
Paula Escobar ’13
Pierre Joseph ’15
Quincy Ogutu ’16
Rachael Abernethy ’16
Rachel Duong ’16
Rachel A. Johnson ’15
Rachel Nghe ’16
Ralph Washington ’16
Rebecca Chun ’17
Rebecca Emiru ’11
Robert Edney ’14
Sabrina Lee ’15
Samanta English ’15
Saran Hall ’15
Seanna McCall ’17
Shanera Brodie ’16
Shaunpaul Jones ’17
Sidney Lin ’17
Siobhan McKissic ’12
Stephanie Sneed ’08
Susanna An ’13
Talia Plummer ’15
Thais Calderon ’17
Thais Laney ’16
Thomas Matthew ’16
Uchechi Onyebuchi ’15
Valerie Salcido ’17

Anchor
Comments
Amherst Alumnus (not verified) says:
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 14:44

I commend Mr. Quaye for writing this letter, and mustering the support of so many alumni across the classes. I wonder only if his eloquence was misplaced when focused on this incident, which turned out not to involve any perpetrators associated with the College. With that knowledge, should this incident be the catalyst for denouncing athletic teams and (presumably otherwise-benign) social groups? Should the subsequent condemnation of this incident by the College and the community be the basis to condemn "the silence that emboldens?" And is a doubtlessly racist act by townspeople really something that we would deign to claim will be "be carved into [Amherst's] historical annals for time immemorial?"

All of this only to say that perhaps the author's eloquence would be better directed to a more public audience, such as the readers of a general-circulation newspaper, since indications are that it is members of the general public that committed the conduct at issue here.

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