06/05/2012 11:19 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

'A Racial Incident'


Last fall, those words appeared on the wall of a dorm bathroom at Williams, the small, private liberal arts college I attend in Massachusetts. The girl who discovered them called Campus Security. That was late on a Friday night. On Saturday morning -- when many of us were preoccupied with the day's homecoming revelry -- we received a campus-wide email from our college president, informing us that a "racial incident" had occurred. It wasn't until the next afternoon, after a number of students demanded that the administration be more transparent, that the school sent a second email, repeating the Sharpie-scrawled imperative and offering accommodations to students who felt unsafe in their dorms. Then came a third email: Monday classes were cancelled.

What replaced them was overwhelming. A handful of students led a march around the campus, chanting slogans like "Two, four, six, eight/Stop the violence, stop the hate," and periodically reciting a line from German theologian Martin Niemöller's famous "First they came" declaration and cueing the crowd to parrot it back, Occupy-style. The procession ended at the steps of our student center, where various faces of the administration and a handful of students spoke, denouncing the hate crime and exhorting us to be conscious of the community we create with our words.

But what I remember most was the hours-long open mic session that followed. It was a free-for-all: Students of all colors, creeds, and sexual orientations spoke. A white lesbian said she felt the pain of black people in the crowd. A boy from Jordan publicized the heartbreak of his culturally star-crossed relationship with his American ex-girlfriend before running off stage in choking tears; his ex-girlfriend later did the same. The theme of the day was not so much anti-racism as anti-hate.

Though not everyone participated in the day's events, no one on campus regarded them neutrally. One common view was that the words' author was not representative of the student body, and any reaction was therefore unnecessary. "I refuse to believe a Williams student wrote that," a black friend of mine said. "Some drunk dumbass who was visiting for homecoming probably did it." Another friend objected that the administration-facilitated march made a mockery of the Civil Rights protests.

What the show-stopping events of the day most fundamentally demonstrated, however, was the assumption by many at our college that the feelings dredged up by the graffiti could not be treated within our everyday conversations. When classes resumed, one of my professors pointed out how frustrating it was that the classroom is generally not regarded as a natural place for discussion -- that administrators and students had believed that something of such importance needed to be considered outside of the space where our lives interconnect. And yet the reason that the open mic had resonated with so many was that students did believe that those hateful scrawled words pertained to their everyday experiences.

Coming from a small town in Arkansas -- a state whose past includes the forced integration of the Little Rock Nine -- I had arrived on campus picturing Williams as a more progressive place than it has proven to be. When, as a freshman, I heard a tipsy dorm mate use the word "nigger," I called him out but was shushed by the group of friends we were out with. "Rose, you should drop it," they told me. That urging to sweep the matter under the rug was rooted less in their agreement with our dorm mate's racist slur than in a collegial culture that prioritizes "civility" over conflict. It is a culture that so represses everyday confrontation that people here did not know what to do when tested by a single, anonymous instance of racist graffiti other than hold a grand event where students felt they could speak without ridicule.

In many ways, the march and the speeches did not combat that risk-averse culture, but extended it. Their formality added a brick to the wall that separates discussions about race -- or, really, anything that matters to us -- from the classroom, the workplace, our tipsy small-talk. In doing so, such formal occasions -- I hesitate to call them true conversations -- make us forget that in our everyday lives, integrity does not consist of marching together, but often of standing alone.

As seniors here -- and at colleges across America -- don caps and gowns, I find my mind returning to that incident last fall and what it says about who we young people are and who we want to be. Yes, college life is in many ways insular -- with our endless parties and, in many cases, relatively homogenous student bodies -- not to mention classes on, say, the theory of the novel or (my favorite) "Ways of Knowing," the anthropology course a friend took this semester.

But it also reflects the world we've inherited and will soon enter, where political correctness formulas often paper over deeper fissures. In a country that's currently divided by questions over gay marriage, health care, and immigration, we should not only debate them within political forums, but with each other. Because it's off stage and behind the scenes where real change occurs.