Last Monday, the Black Student League (BSL) hosted a “Blackout” in the Dining Center lobby during dinner to raise awareness about police brutality and unwarranted violence against people of color.
At the event, roughly 20 students wearing all black clothing ate in silence, with the name or a picture of a victim of racially motivated violence on their back such as Michael Brown Jr., the Central Park Five, and Trayvon Martin. The goal of the Blackout, as described by BSL Executive Board member Tionney Nix ‘17, was to open a dialogue among students about such events in anticipation of the grand jury’s decision on indicting Officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown in August.
“Blackout was planned by the BSL as our way of recognizing that there was a silence on campus about the recent issues of police brutality,” said Nix.
However, in the days since the event, dialogue about police brutality has taken a backseat to discussion about the anonymous response board that the BSL set up in the DC lobby. Following the event, students were asked to anonymously submit their opinions of how race is handled at Haverford to the BSL online.
“We hope to start real dialogue on campus about race,” Nix said on behalf on the BSL in a campus-wide email sent on Wednesday. “Because we know this is a difficult and uncomfortable conversation, we want to start small by opening up an anonymous dialogue.”
By Thursday morning, several anonymous comments had been printed out and posted on a bulletin board in the DC lobby. Some of the responses directly answered the prompt, while others included inflammatory statements and verbal attacks.
“I wish our campus included more students and faculty of color,” one student wrote. Directly below that comment, another student had written, “F*** white people.”
Other responses posted on the board touched on topics including the Customs Program, the Honor Code, Haverford athletic teams, and racial and cultural tensions on campus. Reactions to the board were mixed.
“While the anonymous board definitely got the issue of race out in the open at Haverford, I am afraid the more polarized expressions and opinions are now floating around our community,” said Katie Rose Sullivan ‘18. “I cannot ask questions, opinions, or “pick the mind of” those who wrote the spectrum of opinions on the Blackout board.”
Others thought it served as an effective way to open a dialogue on campus.
“I think it’s good that they’ve opened it up to discussion, because people clearly care about it,” said Daniel Waranch ‘16.
Nix agreed with this line of thought, saying that the response board successful in engaging different parts of the student body in the discussion about race on campus. However, she did acknowledge criticisms of the board’s anonymity.
“We recognize that anonymous responses can and may result in faceless attacks that are unproductive in starting effective conversations,” Nix said. “Although such responses are present on our response board, they were in no way the only types of responses we got.”
To illustrate this, the BSL posted a pie chart on the response board with a breakdown of the different categories of responses they received: 20% of the responses were verbally aggressive, 13% were personal stories of discrimination or micro-aggressions, 33% argued that racial diversity is a problem on campus, 10% argued that racial diversity is made out to be a larger problem than it is, 8% shared their opinions of Blackout, and 7% of responses fell into the category of ‘other.’
Issues of racial diversity have been felt by the Bi-College community this school year, beginning with the Confederate flag controversy at Bryn Mawr College in September. To deal with issues of inclusion and diversity, Haverford has recently convened a task force of students, faculty, and staff, as announced by President Daniel H. Weiss on November 5.
“The administration is deeply committed to fostering an environment that is healthy, respectful, and meaningful for all of us,” said Weiss said via email in an interview with The Clerk. “To the degree that we fall short of these goals we have stated clearly our objective to improve, and we are taking action.”
Weiss also shared his thoughts on the BSL event and response board.
“I must also say that I am not comfortable with a forum that affirms anonymous voices that make disparaging categorical statements. Whereas I recognize the depth of feeling behind such statements, I don’t think this approach represents fairly the values of our community, whether they are directed at white people, black people, Jews, Quakers, or anyone else,” said Weiss.“That is not how our community best engages in meaningful dialogue. The BSL Blackout offers us an opportunity to reflect on how we communicate with each other as well.”