Marymount Has a Race Problem - and it's Time to Start Talking About it.
Updated: Jan 10, 2019
Carol L Jackson has served as Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Marymount Manhattan College since October 2008. Today, as I was enjoying lunch with my peers, a situation involving her came up yet again - as it has countless times since we returned from Thanksgiving break last year.
MMC put on a production of James Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie - a play revolving around the murder trial of a young, black man at the hands of a white business owner who had been known to have racist tendencies before the incident in question. The production itself was incredibly moving and was handled and contextualized beautifully - the cast, crew, and creative team should all be very proud of the work they did. The emotional labor of putting on a show like Blues cannot be taken lightly, especially as we look at the backdrop of America in 2018.
In my Stage Management class, I listened once a week to the SM team behind Blues as they went through months of sensitivity training - especially around the show's heavy use of the n-word. It is impossible to have a show like Blues without the presence of this word, it is integral to the reality of the situation at hand, but such usage should not be taken lightly - especially when it is used by actors and team members who are white. A safe space, lead by their dramaturg - a female student of color - was the only place that this what may otherwise be seen as flippant use of the n-word could be appropriate. Only when it served the story, and only when that story was speaking to the reality of what racism in America was in 1964 when Baldwin penned the play - and what that reality is today.
That sanctity, allegedly, was broken by Dean Jackson at a salon thrown by our school's president, honoring the cast, crew, and creatives for their emotional labor for the sake of the betterment of the MMC community and contributing to the national dialogue around racism in a meaningful way. Since that first week back after Thanksgiving, I have heard from no less than 7 people, white and black, who were present at the time of the alleged incident - all of whom have described the situation in the same way.
Allegedly, in a room full of students - white and black - who had spent nearly an entire semester talking about racism and the n-word's place in it, Dean Carol Jackson chose to use that word. Twice. They all say that up until that point in the discussion, all participants had referred to it exclusively as "The N-word". Almost all of them described the air in the room shifting after this happened. It created tension, but no one spoke up. Everyone who told me their side of the story told me they wanted to speak up, but were too afraid to confront a Dean.
I have heard this story from half a dozen different students, all involved with the production and claiming to be present, all of whom brought it up on their own accord. Students were talking about this, people outside of those present are painfully aware that it happened, and yet there has been continued silence from our administration.
For a few weeks, as I heard this story told over and over, I was at a loss. I was not present at the time of the alleged conversation. I could not prove it happened. Aside from the sympathy I had for my friends of color, I had no serious reason to be demanding answers for the situation. There were no grounds on which I would be taken seriously. Still, I felt like something had to be said even if I didn't think I had the right to be the whistleblower - I tried to find a way to start that conversation. On December 5th, I submitted this post to a popular anonymous instagram for MMC students:
People did start talking. Supposedly, the post got back to our administration and I have been told that some potential "suspects" had been called in to answer whether they had submitted this post or not. Well, I can confirm that they are all innocent.
A week or so later, I was talking to a friend (who is both black and Jewish, which will be relevant in a moment, I promise) - one not involved in the production - when she brought up the post, unaware that I had submitted it. She articulated what is really at the crux of what makes this whole situation so upsetting. On November 14th of 2018, all of MMC received this email:
55th Street is our school's freshman dorm building. Our entire school community got an email detailing a bias incident because some freshman was dumb enough to draw a swastika on school property. We were reminded that symbols like that don't belong on MMC campus - they don't, and that hate speech is wrong - it is. On a campus of only approximately 2,000 students, this is the exact reaction our administration should have had to nip this racist, anti-semitic behavior in the bud. They did follow up with that campus wide Forum, and I have all the faith in the world that the student in question was punished accordingly for their behavior. But, below our President's signature, look who is listed as the first person to contact on the Bias Incident Response Team:
Who do students turn to, then, when the person they are supposed to reach out to is the one to blame for the bias incident at hand?
As I was talking to my friend, who has deeper racial and religious ties to both situations than I ever will, I was able to piece together why this incident was so upsetting. One student did one horrible, unforgivable thing and we reacted accordingly - but radio silence when the Dean of Students commits a comparable act against a different oppressed group? A student does something awful behind closed doors and we find a way of bringing it to light for the whole of campus to learn from, but the Vice President for Student Affairs says the N-word in a room full of students of color and it can only be spoken about in whispers and on anonymous instagram accounts?
The biggest issue in all of this is that a person who has influence over our entire school, who through her position alone plays a huge part in setting the standards of our community's culture, can get away with saying a word that is so deeply hurtful to people of color without any formal conversation taking place about why that is wrong.
I don't blame the members of the Blues team for keeping their silence on this matter. I understand why they would want to fly under the radar until they get to graduation. I understand that Carol Jackson will keep her job despite this infraction. I understand that we have reached the new year and that I shouldn't be waiting for the shoe to drop - there probably will not be an email, there probably will not be a Forum. And I understand that by May we will have stopped talking about this.
This isn't my story to tell. I wasn't there, I don't have enough facts, it doesn't hurt me directly. But, no one has denied it happened, and people keep bringing it up. I have heard the same story over and over, told with the same details, weeks and months apart. The Dean of Students used hate speech in a room full of students and it has been swept under the rug. I don't want to look back on my college career and think about the time I bit my tongue because I wanted someone more qualified to speak up. I wasn't there. I will never have all the facts. But this is my community, these are my friends who are hurting and angry and don't know who to turn to, this does effect me directly. Someone needed to say something, so here I am. I'm not going to be the white guy who talked the talk for three acts just to remain silent when it mattered.