The Fall 2015 semester at Bard College has been marked by a campus climate of racial tension. In her article for Buzzfeed, Bard: The Secretly Bigoted Bubble, Bianka Bell, a current senior at Bard College, eloquently depicts a chronological sequence of events of racial violence and the responses of students of color to such events. Due to the nature of what is popularly coined as a “the Bard bubble”—to describe not only the physically isolated location of the institution, but also a student mentality that intellectually engages with discourses strictly inside the context of Bard, instead of outside of it—there are students who attempt to stress the importance of a world outside of ourselves. Attempting to simultaneously pop the bubble and examine the current explosion of public conversations about racial tension, violence, and experiences at Bard, students of color are reminding the Bard community that this activity merely places us as participators within a national discourse and movement outside of the college. In other words, we are not alone. This discourse on institutional racism has become a national conversation as well as becoming of interest to the public with the emergence of mainstream attention given toward the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The same voices responding to racial violence at Bard ask the question: why is the administration being so responsive now to addressing the vandalism of the Multicultural Lounge in Sawkill, the racist letter addressed toward a Black student, and the grievances and demands of students of color? And these are just a few events mentioned. Attention is also being called to the fact that these events are common acts of racial violence at Bard, that our grievances and demands are merely reiterations, and that others have fought for our same objectives for quite some time. The moment of student action is not an isolated event but occurs during a time where the nation’s Black communities are making yet another uproar in our country’s history of Black liberation movements. Timing can be just as important as the actual spectacle.
Because the mainstream has temporarily perked its interest toward Black suffering, the administration at Bard College does the same. This interest in Black suffering by the mainstream media is the farthest from genuine. Rather it is used for the exploitation of Black suffering by reproducing the dominant narrative that the Black experience is a one-dimensional existence of trauma. This is often done through exhibiting visuals of Black individuals in emotional pain and being dominated by others. Racial violence is often perpetuated in this process. This interest in Black suffering becomes objectifying—a painting on a wall for the fascination of white eyes.
Another affair engraved in Bard’s history is the Blackout Bard on November 18th, a campus wide walkout organized by students of color, though tailored to the concerns of the Black student body. The purpose of this event was to express solidary with and raise awareness of the struggle of Black students at Mizzou, Yale, Ithaca, and elsewhere. Additionally, the walkout served to bolster the voices of Black students at Bard, to call attention to the racial violence experienced and practiced at the institution, and finally, to create a space where the Black community at Bard could publically express their support and love for one another. This event witnessed an attendance of hundreds of people from students, to faculty, to staff. I remember leaning against the wooden rail on Ludlow Lawn before the beginning of the walkout, observing the sea of pale faces. I was struck with a visual reminder that we were speaking in front of a community of white liberals, radicals, conservatives, and those who politically identify with neither.
At the walkout, numerous events were advertised that supported the same interests as those discussed at the rally. Among them was a screening of the yet to be released The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, to be showcased that same evening. While attendance at the screening was decent, the majority of students present were those already at the forefront of discussions about race and other forms of institutional oppression.
Black students at Bard cry out for more events that can open student dialogue toward critical discussions about institutional oppression. These events do occur. However, whether it be the Multicultural Diversity Committee Retreat on Cultural Appropriation on December 6th 2015, or The Black Body Experience, a conference organized by Colored Womyn United, these events are continuously attended by the same group of people: students who sustain and are the impetus of the campus dialogue around this topic. Furthermore, such students are already at a level of political and racial consciousness that allows them to be this impetus in the first place. They are present at these events, look around the room to see familiar and friendly faces, and walkout disillusioned at that fact that their classmates—often those who spew racist, sexist, and/or homophobic comments during or outside of class—were absent.
Yet, many from the latter crowd attended Blackout Bard, some for the controversy the event raised, some because their professor cancelled class, allowing them the opportunity to be present, and some for their personal interest be it genuine or not. For those present at Race Monologues on December 4th, 2015, a student-organized event featuring a series of student performances on race and racial experiences, it may have been noticed that many of the students who we don’t see at the lectures, workshops, and movie screenings that are organized by students of color, attended these two events. This begs the question as to why Blackout Bard and Race Monologues were attended by a larger crowd of students—majority white—who are normally disinterested or antagonistic toward discussions around race most particularly. My concern here lies more, not with the amount of attendees the two events, but with who the attendees are. This is in comparison to many other events with similar topics but witness low attendance from this type of crowd. In the case of Race Monologues, it is easy to claim that the reason is due to the event being an artistic showcase, something the student body at our liberal arts college craves and impulsively gravitates toward.
However, I believe that, similar to the way mainstream media has a taste for Black suffering, many of the students at our predominately white college perceive the Black experience as “interesting”. Not only is it more fascinating, entertaining, and “interesting” to attend an event where Black people are publicly exposing their experiences, trauma, and expressing “what oppression feels like”, but it is more comfortable. To witness the Black individual depict their experiences of racial violence is more comfortable for the white liberal and radical than it is to be exposed their self. Too many white students at Bard tremble at the thought and avoid having to occupy spaces that challenge their consciousness. In this way, we see white privilege molding into a shield and protecting the white individual from holding their self accountable. Somehow, an illusion is constructed in a way as if racism does not oppress or affect the white person, as if racism does not function in tandem with classism and patriarchy, and as if racism itself does not corrupt the mind and soul and the white individual.
Attempting to answer how to disrupt this quality of the student behavior, as an attribution of the campus climate and intellectual culture, is the next task. As a friend spoke to me about this once, perhaps event promotion should take a new direction. A dynamic student body often regenerates the quality of the campus climate outlined in this essay and sustains the Bard bubble as a result. The influx of new students entering and departing Bard each year, those studying aboard, transferring in and out of the school, or perhaps going on leave have an impact on how this situation will and can be addressed. There are new minds to educate, revolutionize, and challenge. Students of color that are now organizing events and are at the forefront of these critical discussions will depart, and new individuals will take their place. Regardless, these successors will bring different events to campus, and different ways—whether it is subtle or not—of speaking and addressing the same concerns on campus. The accumulation of these factors will dynamically shape the sociopolitical landscape of the student body. Maneuvering ways to affectively address this must be considered.
In whatever way the compliancy of the student body is tackled, it’s important to understand that changing this student behavior has the ability to cause a disruption in the existing intellectual culture and qualities of social relations on campus. There is a reason as to why it matters that a larger white student body at Bard attend events on campus that critically engage in dialogue about institutional oppression. Obviously, attracting this audience will not solve the problem of institutional racism at Bard or anywhere else. However, it does matter.
This kind of student behavior speaks to realities that are larger and exist beyond Bard College: the sentiment that white privilege is legitimate. There are students of color at Bard that are fighting a battle against the legitimacy of white privilege that is tethered to a socioeconomic power structure. Preserving the comfortableness and compliancy of the white student body is frankly uninteresting. Eradicating the need and desire to protect white privilege is imperative. The trend of student behavior outlined in this essay is only a behavioral manifestation of a larger system that produces a culture legitimizing it. The task of delegitimizing whiteness adequately requires us to direct our actions to the roots of the system. It runs that deep.
Photographed by Keegan Holden