By Elena Robustelli || Contributing Writer
Like you, I’ve been thinking nonstop about the current social climate of our country. I keep coming back to the racial unrest that occurred on our campus in the fall, catalyzed by several incidents that targeted students of color. Here’s the thing. As much as the necessary work and activism that leaders of multicultural organizations such as the Black Student Union, Mi Gente Latina, the Asian American Alliance, and the African and Caribbean Association put into educating the College, particularly this past November when a select number of F&M students exhibited racism on campus and many more were complicit in their behavior, it was never their job. Let me say that again. It was never their job. As much as we can appreciate how the leaders of multicultural organizations organized town halls, protests, and petitions to hold the administration accountable for its passivity on issues of racism, students of color are just that: students. They didn’t sign up to be teachers on top of balancing their rigorous course loads and extracurricular schedules. From what I understand, these students joined multicultural organizations in the first place to celebrate their culture, not defend it or educate ignorant people on it as almost a second job. As the Black Student Union wrote to the F&M community last week, “We are sick and tired of being sick and tired and we have the right to be.” That is why the first step that Franklin & Marshall College needs to take in order to begin becoming an actively anti-racist institution is to confront its distribution requirements and make space for marginalized voices to be heard regardless of major.
On November 10, President Altmann sent an email to all students and faculty that included the sentence, “I understand that faculty are considering curricular changes.” We need a stronger stance than that. I believe that to improve student life for people of color on this campus, change must start at the root of our institution itself: its academics. On social media, I see many peers who were opposed to the student-led movement in November posting Black Lives Matter content. Even more often, I’m seeing peers who were silent regarding the tensions and legitimate issues on campus in the fall posting now. I attribute this to people failing to draw the connection between the less newsworthy symptoms and manifestations of racism, such as racist Halloween costumes, and the blatantly hateful murders of many Black Americans. Every act against people of color, ranging from seemingly trivial stereotypes of Asian people being a ‘model minority,’ to non-black people saying the N-word in their favorite rap song, to, yes, police brutality and proverbial lynchings of marginalized peoples, is significant. We need to stop considering these acts as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others because they are all vile, and they all contribute to upholding the systemic racism in America. This idea is nothing new; Black scholars, in particular, have been trying to push the idea of intersectionality for decades now. It’s time for F&M to look inward and make concrete, actionable changes to our academia that influence our student life. We can’t change the racist hometowns that some Dips grew up in, but we can take stock in our power as a private college by instituting an Intersectional Justice distribution requirement that offers students a range of topics related to the study of marginalized peoples in majority-white societies.
Some people’s first thought might be, “don’t we already have a non-Western requirement”? And the answer is yes, we do, and it’s important in it of itself, but that’s precisely what reinforces the need for an Intersectional Justice requirement. You see, the subjugation of marginalized peoples is woven into the fabric of the West itself. And it’s worthy of being studied so that we can recognize it in our country and the world today and prevent more lives from being ruined by police brutality, mass incarceration, and white supremacy. To be clear, some classes that would fit into the Intersectional Justice requirement do already exist at F&M, with Introduction to African-American Studies by Professor Willard, Hip-Hop: The Global Politics of Culture by Professor Villegas, and Race/Gender/Sexuality in Latinx Cultures by Professor Mayora being three fabulous examples that I’ve had the privilege to take at F&M. But as an American Studies major, I’m naturally interested in those topics, and I think any student, ranging from Chemistry majors to Classics majors, shouldn’t be able to graduate F&M without putting the legwork and intellectual labor into taking at least one class of this ilk. It doesn’t have to be solely American Studies classes, either. How interesting would it be to take a class on the sociology of African-Americans, Eugenics & Scientific Racism or on philosophers of Color? Moreover, since I’m proposing a school-wide shift into taking such a class, it would likely allow more Professors of color to be hired by the College since the existing offerings rely on F&M’s signature discussion-based class style to have those uncomfortable, difficult conversations that facilitate our learning.
The Enlightenment philosopher Edmund Burke once wrote that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Let’s be honest, he probably owned slaves, but the general sentiment holds up. If we, as the Franklin & Marshall community, claim to be good people – actively antiracist people – then we must act immediately and rethink the structure of our educational requirements. Even if the Intersectional Justice requirement never comes to light at F&M, I would still urge anyone who believes that black lives matter to commit to the movement by taking a class that challenges your beliefs, exposes you to realities you may have never experienced, and amplifies voices of marginalized peoples. You don’t need that easy A elective space to fill your time. Let’s all commit to doing the hard, ongoing, vital work.
Elena Robustelli is a contributing writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.