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Reflecting On Recent Events

Presidential Letters

Published March 3, 2021

Dear students, staff, faculty and alums:

I suspect many of you had strong reactions to the recent round of media coverage about Smith College. As I read the stories, I was reminded of what a community member shared with me at the time of the July 31, 2018, incident: “We all think we know the story. We only know the perspective we bring to it.” Issues surrounding identity are complex and nuanced; yet, for the most part complexity and nuance have been absent in the recent public conversation. Rest assured we will not allow any newspaper story to define us, especially those that misrepresent the facts or shade the truth. 

I am not going to revisit the events of July 31, 2018, in this letter. Instead, I want to share three observations about the context in which we live and work.

First, ample data shows that people of color face discrimination in the areas of education, health care, criminal justice, and housing, among many others. This is why education on structural inequalities matters.

Second, many studies prove how bias, whether explicit or implicit, operates—and can lead to racial profiling. To take just a few examples, a person with a name that résumé screeners associate with Black people is less likely to get a job interview; Black people are more likely to be stopped for traffic violations; and Black people are more likely to be followed by security guards in stores. This is why education on bias matters.

Third, today’s college students came of age witnessing killings or assaults of Black people that onlookers captured on their cell phones. Elizabeth Alexander, poet and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, wrote a poignant New Yorker essay about the impact of racial violence on young people: “I call the young people who grew up in the past twenty-five years the Trayvon Generation. They always knew these stories. These stories formed their world view. These stories helped instruct young African-Americans about their embodiment and their vulnerability. The stories were primers in fear and futility. The stories were the ground soil of their rage. These stories instructed them that anti-black hatred and violence were never far.” This is why education on racial justice matters.

We are living in a moment of profound division in this country, as the media coverage of the past week has underscored. Smith College is an educational institution that prides itself on being a continuous learning community. As members of this community, we are called to engage with complex issues using rigor and evidence, ensuring every individual feels heard, inside and outside the classroom. This work is hard, but it is the foundation for change. 

Let us give one another grace as we seek the courage to have the critical conversations that will move us forward. 


Kathleen McCartney