Reflections on Amherst Uprising by Sara Schulwolf ’17

Wake-Up Call

When I woke up on the morning of November 12th, 2015, grudgingly emerging from beneath my warm blanket, my first thought was of a phone interview scheduled for later that day. My second thought was wondering if I’d have enough time to grab a quick breakfast. My third, whether I could find any clean pants within the tangle of laundry on my floor.

Later that day, as I sat on the floor of Frost Library listening to my peers of color present testimonial after testimonial describing pain, anguish, and suffering, I considered the thoughts that I had not had. The thoughts that it had not been necessary for me to have the instant I got out of bed.

I did not consider whether I’d feel safe walking around campus or into town. I did not wonder if today would be a day when I felt secure and confident in my identity, able to love and appreciate myself. Or whether I’d field stares and ostracism, comments about my speech or appearance, and wish that I had never woken up. I did not question whether professors would pronounce my name correctly, or whether every eyeball in the classroom would swivel towards me should someone bring up an issue of race or class. And I certainly did not think about the fact that such thoughts and feelings were all too present and real for many students across this campus.

In literature, a moment of profound realization is often referred to as a fall from grace, or loss of innocence. But I prefer to think of that moment as a loss of ignorance. In that split-second, the blinkers were removed from the eyes that I’d been taught to consider colorblind, to downplay society’s complex pallet. The rose-tinted lens with which I viewed this campus and my college experiences was cast aside, and I began to see what was around me, what I was complicit in, from a perspective other than my own. It was that moment when I realized that despite the diversity talks, the in-class discussions of race, the day of dialogue, and other such empty, symbolic gestures, it simply wasn’t enough. I was part of the problem.

Whitewashing

How was it that I was able to remain so ignorant, and so unconscious of my ignorance for so long? It only makes sense that it started early. Attending a small Jewish parochial school from a young age, my only two classmates of color for quite awhile were a girl who had been adopted from Guatemala, and a boy whose mother was Peruvian. But I’m hesitant to say that my other classmates and I even thought of them as Latinx (or if we were even aware of that classification). Her skin tone was not much darker than some of the tanner members of our class, his blended in seamlessly with the alabaster backdrop. And of course, no one ever spoke about it, or mentioned the word “race” at all, because that would have been inconsiderate. In the fourth grade, we gained a black classmate. And though the difference was now much more apparent, it was still never discussed beyond the platitudes of “skin color doesn’t matter” and “everyone should be treated equally.”

I remember that because of a stretch of Jewish holidays early in the calendar year, we’d miss about a collective month of school between September and November. To compensate, we’d have school on most of the national holidays, including Martin Luther King Day. Our teachers and administrators would always deliver the following rationale: “Martin Luther King was a proponent of education, and equal learning opportunities for all.” This held the implication that having school on Martin Luther King Day would honor the leader in a way that taking the day off would not. So we’d sit in our school auditorium for the special assembly, listening to a former-skinhead-turned-ADL-activist repent his misdeeds, or watching the Martin Luther King laser lights show with I Have a Dream ringing in the backgrounds, and pat ourselves on the back for being so inclusive and progressive. Around the auditorium, one hundred Caucasian faces beamed; we’d feel darn accomplished for educating ourselves about diversity, and helping to make racism obsolete in our little northeastern bubble (because obviously, racism was alive and well foreign, uncivilized in places like the South, but that wasn’t our problem).

After eleven years at Solomon Schechter, I graduated and attended public high school. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by more than three students with whom I did not share a skin tone.  But even that was relative: according to our latest census information, West Hartford, Connecticut is “79.6% white, 6.3% African American, 0.2% Native American, 7.4 % Asian, 9.8% Hispanic/Latino, 0.3% Pacific Islander, and 3.8 % ‘other races.’” Even amongst the students of color, there existed a divide between the “normal” minority students, and the so-called “ghetto kids.” Barring freshman year world civ, I only ever had classes with the former category. Looking back, it’s incredible that we all failed to notice the undercurrent of inequality around us. Nothing was overt- there were no ethnic slurs shouted in the hallway, no offensive graffiti scrawled over bathroom stalls. But subtler indications- like the demographic of tables in the cafeteria, the lack of interracial dating, the stark contrast between the makeups of AP vs. standard classes, or the fact that there was a single black girl on my high school basketball team, and she quit after a year- should have indicated that we were not as progressive as our yearly cultural fusion assembly might lead us to believe.

Realization

There’s a childhood memory of mine that I’ve upon which I’ve been unable to stop fixating since that first afternoon of Amherst Uprising. I’m seven years old, standing with my mother in the locker room of my local Jewish Community Center. In front of us, a young black girl who looks to be around ten or eleven stands fixing her hair in front of the mirror, intricately twisting together locks and securing them with colorful baubles. I’m enthralled; partially by the bright hues, partially because I’ve never seen an African-American person’s hair up close before.  Mommy,” I say, tugging at my mother’s sleeve. “Mommy, her hair looks like sheep’s wool.” My mother is horrified. Grabbing my hand, she casts an apologetic glance towards the girl and hustles me into the hallway. We never, ever say things like that,” she explains. “It’s horribly disrespectful.”

Until recently, I’d only ever reflected upon this moment in passing, cringing at my childhood obliviousness. Now, I mull it over every day, dissecting from all possible angles.  Like any of my peers who claim to have a conscience or some sense of morality, I was truly shocked and horrified by the experiences that were shared on the first day of Amherst uprising, angry to think that anyone could be so cruel to another human being. But I realize now that this “anyone” was I.  It was I because I was not aware of its existence, because through an elevated opinion of my own cultural sensitivity I’d considered myself absolved of responsibility. Through my silence and my ignorance, I’d allowed discrimination to perpetuate. Maybe seven-year-old me had caused that young girl to waver in her self-love, to doubt her beauty and her worth, to exit that locker room embarrassed about her identity. Maybe my high school self’s hesitancy in reaching out to my one teammate of color was the reason that she stopped playing a sport that she loved. And maybe, just maybe, the girl who sits here writing these words plays a role in others feeling unwelcome and isolated at Amherst, because she cannot see past her own immediate struggles.

Forward

I hope that I don’t come off as yet another white, cisgender, heterosexual woman looking to apply a cursory moral salve to this latest site of irritation. I want my reflections to mean something, to ignite something, in myself or anyone who looks like me. It’s not enough to simply recognize my own ignorance; the whole process becomes meaningless if I don’t take action to combat my current stasis.

What exactly to do? That’s a far, far more difficult question. I don’t claim to have all of the answers with regards to fighting systemic racism and discrimination, and how to make our campus (or the world around us) a safer, more inclusive, and more equitable place. Hell, I don’t claim to have any of the answers. But I’m trying to learn, to educate myself so that concepts like “cultural sensitivity” and “diversity” are not hollow terms, but catalysts towards discourse and action. I’m reading books, newspapers, essays, and blogs: anything that can give me some modicum of insight. I want to have those difficult, uncomfortable conversations about identity. And I’m opening my eyes, checking myself for microagressions, scanning what’s around me with a more aware, more focused, more critical lens.

Of course it’s not enough. Of course achieving productive change will take far more than my reading The New Jim Crow. Bur it’s at least where I’m going to start, and I hope that others will follow suit. All I ask is that if you consider yourself ethnically aware, culturally sensitive, and untouched by racism, that you take a good, hard look inside yourself, and at the world around you. You might be surprised by what you find. So go do something about it.

sschulwolf17@amherst.edu

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