September 29, 2014
Dear Students, Faculty and Staff:
This letter is prompted by a Smith College event for alumnae that took place on September 22 in New York City. The program brought together a panel of alumnae and faculty to discuss how we cultivate a culture of civil discourse, diversity of thought, and freedom of expression. I served as moderator of the panel, which featured Wendy Kaminer '71, Nina Shea '75, Jaime Estrada '12, and Professor of Psychology Lauren Duncan.
One of the questions I asked the panelists was whether there was a line between free speech and hate speech. Wendy Kaminer believes that hate speech must be tolerated in order to protect free speech. To make her point, she asserted her view that the “n-word” - without euphemism - should be permissible in public discourse. After saying the “n-word,” Kaminer said “There. I said it, and nothing horrible happened.” Panelists Jamie Estrada and Lauren Duncan immediately challenged Kaminer’s claim that no one was hurt by her use of the word.
Following the panel, some members of our community wrote to me to denounce Kaminer’s statement as racist as well as to say I should have criticized her views. I take such feedback seriously, especially from students, who are at the heart of our work here at Smith. I am deeply sorry that some students and faculty were hurt as a result of this event.
Conversations about discourse and identity are hard, and few are as challenging as those about race. Within hours of returning from New York, I reached out to the students who had written to me, to the Social Justice and Equity student leaders, and to the Black Student Alliance leaders to invite them to a meeting to discuss the concerns that had been raised. We met the next day, and were joined by Dean of the College Donna Lisker, Dean of Students Julie Ohotnicky, Multicultural Affairs Director L’Tanya Richmond, Provost Katherine Rowe, and Professor Lauren Duncan.
Students of color spoke powerfully about how the use of the “n-word” makes them feel unsafe, that they view it as a “hate word,” and that “people who aren’t Black don’t understand the word.” I saw and felt their pain in our conversation, not for the first time in my career as an educator, but in a way that that has led me to a deeper understanding of these issues here at Smith. More importantly, I recognize that students’ strong reactions to the event reflect broader issues of disenfranchisement, both current and historical, at Smith.
Among our faculty, the first person to reach out to me was Assistant Professor of History Elizabeth Pryor who teaches about the history of race in America. I am grateful for her insights about how our society continues to grapple with violent language. She told me about her in-class discussions with students about whether or how it is possible to use the “n-word” in an academic space. Other faculty are doing this type of work as well; their efforts are a model for the kind of work we need to do as a community as we move forward.
We must get better at these conversations in the service of our educational mission. We need to begin with the assumption that our work must extend far beyond a single day of race-focused programming and diversity training at orientation. In a second meeting with students, they proposed a number events and programming we might sponsor, for example a panel on racialized language, ally training for faculty and staff as well as students, and colloquia with prominent scholars who work on race. Our students want dialogue, and I am heartened by this. I plan to continue to meet with this ad hoc group of student advisers throughout the year; we plan to ask others to join us.
This work belongs to all of us, people of color as well as those of us who aspire to be effective allies. I know that I can count on all members of this community to make Smith a better place for all of us. And you can count on me to be committed to working along side other members of our community to ask the right questions and to educate and be educated with respect and humility.