To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing this letter to draw attention to a situation at my college, Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts, that is and has been threatening the physical and emotional security of myself and my fellow classmates. It takes some time to tell this story; please bear with me. This is a desperate call for coverage, assistance, and dialogue.
We begin on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, when an unknown person or group drew multiple swastikas on the wall of a common area in a dormitory. This elicited an email from the administration condemning the graffiti and requesting information as to the perpetrator. To the best of my knowledge, this is all we know—any action taken by the administration after this point would be confidential information.
Shortly thereafter, a student (Noah Steadman) circulated a flier on campus questioning the relevance of Diversity Day, a yearly Teach-In initiated several years ago by students during which students and faculty hold workshops on issues of diversity, oppression, and identity. The “Diversity Day Challenge” was to name five benefits of Diversity “besides ethnic food and music.”
Admittedly, this might initially seem, to an external observer (and it did to many people on campus), a fairly benign piece of agitation. For many of us, however, this flier generated immediate outrage. If you are not acquainted with our school, Simon’s Rock is an early college (with both an A.A. and B.A. program, accredited through Bard College) that accepts students who have not yet earned their high school diplomas. We are an extremely small liberal arts institution, largely isolated from the surrounding area. I remember that when I applied, the Princeton Review had ranked us as the #1 gay-friendly college in America. We are a small and intimate community of people who, by and large, were discontented with the educational opportunities offered to us, namely the often terrifying and prison-like environments of American public and private secondary education. Both Bard and Simon’s Rock pride themselves on combating inequality and oppression through educational methods; Bard’s prison education initiative is one notable example. Simon’s Rock provides extensive scholarship to students of color, international students, and Diversity Day is but one example of the institutional and pedagogical commitment to fighting inequality that made many students, until recently, proud to anticipate calling this school our alma mater.
A substantial portion of the student body, and I proudly count myself among them, experienced indignation and outrage at the distribution of this flier. The demeaning and marginalizing wording of the flier had apparent connections to the language and ideology of the reactionary right-wing. To us, the denial of minority students’ identities, cultures, histories, sufferings and struggles was clearly explicit, not implicit, in the document. It represented the perpetuation of hundreds of years of racial, gender, and sexual oppression. We saw the violence of that question, especially considering it’s author, a cisgendered, able-bodied white male. We understood that it was a very real threat to the integrity and security of the school community.
Determined to rise above the taunting tone of Noah’s challenge (“you could win a Macbook Air!”), the existing coalition of identity-based student groups on campus made photocopies of the document and cut them into strings of snowflakes, human figures holding hands, and the like, putting them up in a collective student space. Within hours, a document was posted next to them declaring Noah’s first-amendment right to free speech, decrying student outrage against him as hate speech, and asking people in support of Noah’s right to express himself to sign their names. The threat we initially (and correctly) sensed being leveled against our community continued unabated.
I fully appreciate that, at this point, many a reader would be experiencing the same reaction that the anonymous poster of this statement did: if Simon’s Rock is committed to diversity, how is it just to criticize one student’s opinion, which surely he is entitled to? weren’t people overreacting? how is any of this a threat to student safety? granting the offensiveness of Noah’s challenge, doesn’t it still legitimate him to call further attention to it? These are the sort of misconceptions, understandable but by no means acceptable, which have brought us to the point we are at today.
Today, violence is being explicitly threatened by white supremacists targeted at our school property, administration, and the student body. Maps of campus, images of students, and personal information has been circulated accompanying frenzied battle cries for the sake of the “white race.” Let me ask you, who is in danger here? I have extremely good reason to believe that Noah Steadman is currently contacting white supremacist activist organizations to bring further attention to this situation. As I write this, students on campus and at home for Thanksgiving break are wondering if their lives are in danger, or if we are going to get a call or an email informing us that acts of violence have been committed towards our classmates or teachers. And in reality, we have been living in this state of fear with little respite for more than two months.
In light of our concerns, students were told to suppress their worry; someone else was taking care of campus safety, namely the college’s Anti-Harassment and Anti-Discrimination Committee which adjudicates claims between members of the college which breach the college’s policies on discrimination, harassment, and diversity. For a while, then, Noah was nowhere to be found on campus and we were able to breath a sigh of at least partial relief. Rather abruptly, however, Noah appeared back on campus, and many students were left confused. The feelings of threat and fear returned with a vengeance. In response, a group of students wrote up a document addressing the school’s attitudes and actions around identity based oppression and held a demonstration expressing their disapproval with an institution that colludes with the bloodstained legacy of patriarchal violence.
A student made video documenting the protest was posted on youtube. Shortly after being posted, a barrage of explicitly hostile and violent comments were posted in response to the video. (“Gas these socialists. Hitler was right. WHITE POWER” is just one representative example of the flavor of comments). In addition to the youtube comments, an online forum was discovered where the details of Noah’s actions and our community’s responses to them were being discussed by Noah and others. These comments expressed White Nationalist sentiments of praise and admiration for Noah and vehement hatred for the “Marxists, faggots, and dykes.” Violent threats (bombs, shooting, rape) were made, specific students’ images and information shared.
We refuse to passively accept the continuation of a violent history of systemic inequality which attempts to control our interpretations of freedom, inequality, and being. Moreover, we assert our agency to create a society that allows us to participate in speech that is genuinely free.The attitude I described above, the attitude of conciliatory apologetics, free speech, tolerance, and civility, is precisely what myself and my classmates are fighting against. It assumes that words and feelings are expressed in a historical void of objective universalism, that all speakers enter conversations on equal footing, and that words have no substance other than the ideas and concrete objects they signify. What students like myself have been arguing for the last two months is that when a person coming from a place of innumerable privileges publicly questions diversity on our campus, they are bringing the full weight of systemic oppression and violence hundreds of years old to bear on each and every other student. We have been arguing that Noah’s ability and “right” to express his opinions is in direct confrontation with the very existence of every Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Indigenous, Gay, Lesbian, Female, Transgendered, Disabled, Queer, Jewish, Muslim, non-White, non-Christian, non-Male, non-Heterosexual, non-Cisgendered, person in our community. And for some reason, utterly incomprehensible to myself, people still don’t get why we have been saying this. Perhaps the literal threat of harm, written out, will prove galvanizing enough.
We feel it is urgent that stories such as this one reach the general public especially in light of pervasive sentiments that trivialize identity based oppression, and ideas that attempt to demonstrate that we live in a colorblind, post-race society. These are not issues of the past; they characterize the immediate present, and without necessary attention will intensify into our future. As is clearly exhibited by our story, race hatred and identity based violence thrives both on the internet and in our material lives. We have a duty to uncover it and deny it the legitimacy it attempts to claim. Please spread this story. It is crucial that people be made aware of the threats made against us and the severity of this situation before groups such as FIRE and American Renaissance (who we know Noah has personally contacted) get involved.
Here is a link to a dropbox containing screenshots of several threads Noah started on an image forum, in which you will find numerous threats of violence and countless affirmations of white supremacy, including Noah’s own account of his meeting with the school and the map of campus he posted with bulls-eyes indicating the locations of the 1992 shooting at Simon’s Rock, as well as the International Center. One further thread, which I do not believe is contained in the screenshots, can be found here.