• Daisy L Phillips

Race At MMC, or, The Writing of a Blog Post That Took Over my 2019 and All That Followed

Is that title cultural appropriation? MMC's favorite white savior tells all.


If you're reading this, I'm assuming that you're aware that on January 9th of this year, I wrote a blog post calling out a Marymount Manhattan College Dean of Students for using the N-word. Since graduating in May, I've taken some time to ruminate on its impact.


If you had told me that night that, as of writing this, 2,353 people (only a handful less than the student population of Marymount) would click on that post, I wouldn't have believed you. I was writing out of emotion more than anything and thought that my proofreaders, my mom, and a couple people from home who like to see what I'm up to would be the extent of my outreach.


No.


After posting it on my Facebook profile around midnight, I woke up for rehearsal the next morning to see that it had over 1,000 clicks and a hearty number of shares. I was overwhelmed, to say the least. But grateful to see that so many past and current MMC students had a positive response. Initially, at least.


By the time we got back from January break, everyone had an opinion. I wasn't used to being the center of conversation at Marymount, I was used to flying under the radar, so this was a bit of a shift for me. It didn't really matter - my friends were still my friends, and the people I had verified the story with all felt like I had told their stories honestly and they still appreciated that I had said something. The opinions of strangers, whether they thought of me as a white savior, a legitimate ally, or something else entirely, were easy to let roll off my back. Very few people had the courage to share their feelings to my face, anyway.


I didn't respond to most of the commentary, but I did have one productive twitter exchange in which a student of color called out a certain sentence as sounding white savior-y. I responded to say that if she thought that I was being a white savior, she was the one with the authority on the matter, but that I had actually only included the sentence in question to call out that I knew I wasn't the perfect person to be writing that post. She reread the post, apologized for her misinterpretation, and we now have a friendly relationship.


On the 31st of January, we received a school-wide email from President Walk, pasted here:


Dear MMC Community, 
It gives me great pleasure to welcome each of you to the Spring 2019 semester. I offer a special welcome to our new students, faculty, and staff, who join a campus community that aspires to provide a welcoming environment for all, and to celebrate the diversity of our personal identities.
Aspirations are, by their very nature, hopes and goals not yet achieved. I want to take this opportunity of my first message of the new semester to address and reflect upon an important topic of conversation among many members of our community: racism at MMC and a specific incident that has further sparked this conversation.
A core value of the College is to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion, and to interrupt racism and other forms of hatred and bigotry. To this end, a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) joined the Office of the President in February 2016, during my first year in office, and the President’s Advisory Committee for Inclusivity was soon established. In the current academic year, under the leadership of our new CDO, Rebecca Mattis-Pinard, the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Strategic Planning Team was formed with the goal of developing a strategic plan that will help our campus climate continue to evolve in positive ways.
Although progress has been made toward creating a welcoming campus for all, there is still much work to be done, as many members of our community are acutely aware. The College’s outstanding production of James Baldwin’s play *Blues for Mister Charlie* last semester, Fall 2018, underscored the truth of this statement. The play centers on a town’s split reaction to the murder of a young Black man in the segregated South of the 1960s. MMC’s production was a powerful provocation, challenging audience members to explore and confront deep personal attitudes toward race, racism, and bigotry. The talkbacks held in association with the MMC production illustrated the profound impact it had on those of us who experienced it.
On November 28, 2018, I held a gathering to honor and thank the students who had brought *Blues for Mister Charlie* to life for our campus community. The discussion was moving and intense as the students described what the play, and their participation in it, meant to them. In the course of this discussion, Carol Jackson, Vice President for Student Affairs, used the “N-word” in the context of a discussion about the racially offensive language used in the play.
In the weeks following the gathering, concerns were raised via social media about Carol’s use of the word. In response, I asked Rebecca Mattis-Pinard to convene the Bias Incident Response Team (excluding Student Affairs members) and reach out to students who were known to be affected. Based on her interviews of several individuals, Rebecca heard a consistent account: interviewees confirmed that Carol said the “N-word” twice when describing her personal experiences as a civil rights activist in the 1960s, and her shock at hearing the word used repeatedly in the play.
Out of context, Carol’s use of the “N-word” has had a far different impact from the one intended. But even in context, the use of this word, which is historically bound up with anti-Black attitudes and actions, can trigger feelings of pain, anger, and degradation in those who hear it, especially members of the Black community. As conversations on campus and across the nation have suggested, the use of this hateful word in such contexts as the one I’ve described was deeply unfortunate and ill-advised. Moreover, I recognize that the other senior administrator and I who were present at the gathering should have paused the discussion and questioned the use of the word. I regret that we did not. Regardless of context or intent, it is incumbent upon those of us who bear responsibility for our students’ education to speak up and ask questions when hateful and potentially triggering words are used in such settings.
Carol feels great remorse about her use of this word at the gathering. She will be reaching out to members of our community, particularly the students involved in the production of *Blues for Mister Charlie*, to try and repair the hurt and anger that they may have experienced. Below are additional steps that will be taken:
- The College’s senior leadership will participate in mandatory anti-racism trainings over the next few weeks.
- College leaders who report directly to the Vice Presidents will participate in mandatory anti-racism trainings at our annual College leadership retreat.
- Anti-racism workshops and trainings will be offered on an ongoing basis to all faculty, staff, and students. I will request that the faculty leadership strongly encourage full faculty participation.
- Forums for open and honest conversation among students, faculty, and staff will take place in February and in the months ahead. The first such forum will be a Talking About the N-Word discussion on Thursday, February 14, 2019, 1:00-3:00pm in the Regina Peruggi Room.
- I will hold multiple gatherings for students of color who are interested in discussing their experiences at MMC. The first such gathering will be specifically for Black students on Tuesday, February 19, 2019, 5:30-6:45pm in my residence, above Nugent Hall.
I want to end by acknowledging that many incidents have taken place at the College, from micro-aggressions to flagrant racism, that have created a hostile campus climate for members of the Black community and other historically marginalized groups. My sincere hope is that the discussions about race and racism at MMC that have long been taking place, and that will continue to take place in part because of this incident, will make MMC a stronger, more just, and more inclusive and welcoming college.
Sincerely,
Kerry Walk, Ph.D.
President

I take issue with the fact that even though the incident in question took place in President Walk's apartment and that she acknowledged that she was there for the incident, there was still a need to conduct an investigation of students to confirm whether it had occurred or not, and I denounce the use of defensive language suggesting that I had posted without regard for the necessary context, but I have made my peace with this.


What really mattered to me was the fact that steps were being taken to make sure that future MMC students would not be subject to such flippant use of slurs by the faculty of our institution. Beyond what was mentioned in the email, I was told on multiple accounts from both friends and professors that faculty had started holding themselves and their peers more accountable when faced with the potentiality of being called out next. When MMC produced "Tommy" in the Spring, I can only assume that our programs included a dramaturgical packet that, among other things, highlighted the context in which ableist language was presented in the production, was included (at least in part) because of that post.


When looking at its impact, it is impossible to regret making that post. Even if it did probably take some of the fun out of my last semester of college.


There is, though, the issue of the fact that all it took for the administration to actually acknowledge Marymount's race problem was... a blog post?


If there is one thing about that first post I regret, it's the title. "Marymount Has a Race Problem - and it's Time to Start Talking About it.". I knew well before hearing about Jackson's misstep that Marymount had a race problem, and I knew well before writing the post that my fellow students were taking it upon themselves to combat racism every day. I knew about the poster for Our Country's Good that featured the lynching of a black man and subsequently sparked protest and was taken down. I knew that my best friend had fought with the Theatre department over only being assigned stereotypical roles in Acting. I knew that "unauthorized" posters criticizing the administration were taken down during Black History Month. The movement towards equality at MMC was taking place long before I entered the conversation, and in no way do I believe that I am the one who ended it.


But still, why did some white girl's blog post turn the tide?


To be completely honest, I think it has more to do with the fact that that post is the 3rd result when you google "Carol Jackson MMC" than anything else, but I can't imagine how frustrating it must have been for my peers of color to watch so much change happen over one social media post written in a fit of frustration and, sure, white saviorism.


At the end of the day, I need to cut my losses. Regardless of their opinion of me now, I'm appreciative of the fact that I wrote something that resonated with so many people. I'm grateful for the drunk girl at a Valentine's Day party who, after introducing myself to her exclaimed "oh! I know you - the blog post! You know, a lot of people really don't like you, but I think you did the right thing". I don't have words for the fact that students of color that I didn't even know told me that they felt more comfortable speaking out about their own experiences because of what I wrote. Possibly more than anything, I am honored by the fact that when I met the person who ran MMCconfessions at Mel's the night of our graduation, she told me that she'd used the post as a reference in her thesis. The situation was messy and imperfect, but social change needs to be.


My advice to anyone who wants to spur further social change on campus? I'd take this as a cue. Clearly the administration fears social media - use that to your advantage, but maybe use it more intelligently than I did. Get loud, be public, and be prepared for literally everyone's opinion.


Sincerely,

Your White Savior of Marymount Manhattan College

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