Commentary #1: “The Poem,” it’s Racial Implications, and the Silence that Followed.

Weeks have past since Dangers of a Single Narrative has formed and began to engage Sarah Lawrence Community about the negative racial climate we perpetuate and participate in through our interactions, our language and behavior on campus. This commentary will be the beginning of our responses, our critiques of the racial hostility and unsafe environment that is created for students of color. We will use our voices, our ability to write to bring to light the racist, problematic implications of numerous incidents on campus. Sarah Lawrence prides itself on being a progressive institution. We, Dangesr of a Single Narrative, challenge the SLC community to see the glaring contradictions and limits to this ‘progressive’ community and open up the conversation for real dialogue. Sarah Lawrence, as a community, have seen many troubling, horrible situations transpire this semester. Our short essays will address the racist nature of many of these interactions and call into question the lack of discussion about them. This lack of dialogue has caused the silencing and feelings of unsafety among many students.

This commentary will focus on a poem that was written by a student who accused another student of rape. This incident was extremely public in every step of the way. This sexual assault was only one of a number of sexual assaults that have become known around campus this year and had become utilized as a face of the growing student mobilization against a “growing rape culture” on campus. This incident of sexual assault between a white female student and black male student, became all the campus talked about, posted about, rallied around. What started out as a mobilization for transparency from the Administration in the way they handle claims of sexual assault, acknowledgement of the multiplicities of the types of sexual assault that exist at SLC (not just heteronormative occurrences), and the care of the survivors, turned into something different.  It turned into something scary to watch, sickening to listen to because the majority of the conversation wasn’t about the issues raised by the smaller sect of students working for policy change. It became a faceless mob of students trying the one black student in the realm of public opinion. Calling into question his relationship with a tenured black professor, questioning this professor’s dignity, statements about this black professor “condoning” and “enabling” this black male student to assault students on campus and protecting him. Calling into question this student’s mother, a long time employee of the College, bringing her name and history into this mobilization, accusing her of nepotism. Together the tenured black professor and the mother became key people in this “sexual assault mobilization” their character were put on trial to make a case that this black male student didn’t belong here anyways. Only through these presumed shady actions and connections his family has in SLC was why he was even a student at this institution, many said outright. Students talked about the tenured black professor as part of the “problem,” questions were raised about taking away his tenure as a way to answer to the black student’s “alleged” actions. Dean Green, our black male Dean of Studies became enemy number one. Accused by students as protecting rapists, especially this one and his family members connected to the school. He became the face of blame. His name was now used interchangeably with the Administration.

Even though a hearing was in sight, the black student and his family had already been tried and convicted in the public opinion more than any other student who had been accused of sexual assault this year. The names of his step-father and mother were written and rewritten in group messages with numerous students names, whispering about their “involvement” defaming them each step of the way. His name (the black accused student) was the one on petitions screaming for his immediate removal from campus before any hearing took place or a decision to hold a hearing happened. Students rallied behind this call of his immediate removal and became angered when they were reminded that we live in a country where everyone has the right to due process. To raise a voice against this campus rage against him gave the growing mob the right to declare this individual against “victims of sexual assault” and a “silencer of women’s voices.” Students and other community members were in fear of voicing a difference of opinion. Scared to question why only this one student out of the few who had been accused has now become the only one openly attacked by the community, rejected by the community, tried and convicted by the community. What happened to the others? Where was their public trial? What stood out about this one student and his family that they all were attacked in this way and no one was saying anything? Many students, like us, stayed quiet watching in disgust and fear as the mob mentality moved forward. We stayed silent until we couldn’t any longer.

In early October, the white female student who accused the black male student penned and posted a poem titled “An Open Letter to Dean Green in Response to His Message to the Student Body [by one of the victims].”  In this poem she describes her feelings of body not being her own since the attack, the pain and suffering she is subjected to since that night. She pens the anxiety and fear she feels that her attacker can exist freely on this campus while she is left caged in her body. She describes the silencing of victims voices as white men become the face of the movement, telling the survivors they must be “professional,” she shows us the sheer ridiculousness of the entire affair. Women who have been violated, attacked and survived must now take direction, scolding by these men who have now taken pseudo control of the mobilization for the survivors. We read this poem, understood and recognized her truth in the stanzas.  This commentary is not to delegitimate her voice, her right to write and bear testimony. This commentary is to describe the scary implications of the closing lines of her last stanza.

“Until then, I will be tying nooses with the strong cords of my voice.

I will be hanging your boys up and invoking my no

until the spirit takes them and their legs stop twitching.”

The terror and deplorable images of her last lines evoked, burned into our minds. The “tying of nooses with the strong cords of [her] voice.” Should we, as the reading audience, ignore the historical legacy of black men in this country that have been hung up and lynched on the sole word of white women who have declared rape? Should we pretend that this poem was not written to our black male Dean of Studies declaring that his boys will be hung up “until the spirit takes them?”  Who are these boys? Should we ignore the historical use of this term and how it has been connected to demoralizing and dehumanizing black men? Are we wrong for being horrified by the image of a twitching of leg?  The images that put this incident of violence back in the racially hostile context of Sarah Lawrence campus. What is more telling is that this poem was public, posted on Facebook and no one stood up and spoke to these racist history, to the violent legacy. It was ‘liked’ and glorified by comments underneath it. Students who saw it, who were horrified by the implications in the last stanza felt that they were not allowed to speak against it. The fear of retaliation kept many quiet. What we all need to internalize is that silence is affirmation, silence  is consent(in the face of racist oppression)***. We and the community members who stand with us are done silently consenting to the racial hostility.   As conscious members of the community we cannot ignore these violent implications that stand in this poem and that exists through out our community. This poem is just one example of racial hostility, so is the silence that accompanied it.  Both, the poem and the silence, was not seen as a threat, yet it threatened the livelihoods of many students. There was no letter from any part of the Administration speaking against such violent language and it’s implications. There was no security, no Larry Hoffman announcement. It was as if no foul and inflammatory words were shared. This leaves us to question how do we define protection? Do students of color obtain protection when these types of language, imagery are said, shared for public consumption within a mob mentality? These lines in the poem’s stanza is terrifying in its own right, but the lack of action, words, sentiments uttered to protect or show care for students, staff or administrators of color heightens the level racial hostility and unsafety through the consenting silence. As a community, how do we interpret these series of events and use them to strengthen our community? How do we move on from here?

 

***   TO CLARIFY OUR USE OF CONSENT IN THE SPECIFIC CONTEXT OF RACIST OPPRESSION. We are aware of the anti survivor rhetoric of rape culture that bastardizes this Plato quote, “Auto de to sigan homologountos esti sou” (your silence gives consent) known to us widely as “silence is consent,” but this is clearly not our meaning or use of the phrase in our commentary. This controversial use of this phrase does not define this phrase and all its possible meanings. This phrase is used throughout the world in different contexts of social justice to mobilize people to take part in their community’s activism against different systems of structural oppression ( i.e. racism,imperialism, neocolonialism,homophobia, xenophobia etc).   “Silence is consent” in the context of standing the face of racism and not challenging it, speaking against is consenting, we all have responsibility. The silence in this specific context of racism ( not sexual assault) works as legitimating the structural systematic of racist oppression. We believe that words reify many meanings depending on the context, society and experience. In the context of sexual assault and victim blaming of survivors we agree this anti survivor ideology that misuses this phrase “ silence is consent” has no grounds but we are not talking about that, we are not alluding to that. This phrase is not constrained to that misguided meaning alone. The use of this phrase in our commentary against apathy towards racism is not at all referring to survivors of assault not saying “yes or no.” We are exclusively talking about societal silence, community silence as consenting and affirmation of racist actions.   We are not running from this phrase in the way that we find it to ring true. Sitting quiet in the face of racism is giving that racism license to continue. In this context, the only one we are referring to, speaking to, writing about “silence is consent.”