By Hope Anderson ’22, News Editor; Emma Brentjens ’21, News Editor; Julia Knoerr ’21, Editor-in-Chief
On Wednesday, June 3rd, Davidson College President Carol Quillen and the Hon. Anthony Foxx ‘93, Chair of the Comission on Race and Slavery, spoke to members of the Davidson community on a live Zoom webinar. Originally, they planned to address “how Davidson is preparing for the fall semester” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hon. Foxx explained.
However, the Minneapolis Police’s murder of George Floyd on May 25th and consequent Black Lives Matter protests across the country changed the plan. The first half of the conversation instead focused on “Davidson’s mission to educate leaders who create change, and our responsibility to amplify the national conversation on social injustice and systemic racism during this time of grief, anguish, and anger,” according to the Davidson College website.
Even before the conversation began, some students took issue with its advertising and set-up, arguing that the college did not broadcast the webinar widely and should have enabled the ability to submit questions during the livestream. Students of color in particular expressed concerns about the conversation’s effectiveness.
“One of the biggest issues I had with this ‘conversation’ was that there was no email sent to the student body. I only found out about it through Davidson’s Twitter and Instagram,” stated Ashley Ip ’22. “To me, this whole conversation was just another way for Davidson to protect its image.”
Niara Webb ‘20 emphasized the significance of closing this conversation to community voices: “I didn’t feel it was productive, at least for me, as a recent grad who is a Black woman on campus and feels like there’s more that could be done to support Black students and other students of color. I was just disappointed that there wasn’t room for community feedback, because the institution exists in large part to serve the student community.”
Overall, Roy Toston ‘20 felt that the talk incorporated “a lot of surface-level language, […] a lot of reiteration of how far we’ve come. And that’s great. I love that we don’t have slavery at Davidson anymore, that’s fantastic. But what about what we’re actually going to do moving forward? And tangibly –– especially given that we’ve done so much in the process of it, but none of that has materialized in the ways that it needs to.”
Phoebe Son Oh ‘22, an Africana Studies major, reiterated, “It’s really frustrating to see when the school says stuff like, ‘We’re here for you, we support all of our students […], but it still doesn’t feel like there’s any tangible actions that are being taken to actually bring complete racial justice to our campus.”
Dr. Hillary Green, a professor of Gender and Race Studies and American Studies at the University of Alabama, will work closely with Davidson’s Commission on Race and Slavery in her role as the Vann Professor of Ethics this year, President Quillen shared.
Webb underscored the value of discussing Davidon’s history and its role in slavery and the subjugation of Black individuals. “You cannot address racism and slavery within the Davidson context and not also discuss the fact that the school is still profiting off of the enslavement of people, all these years later,” she said. “We need to be talking more about the fact that while you’re at F [Armfield], you are where enslaved people were working for the people who founded our institution.” Webb called on the college to more publicly teach about its long history of profiting off the labor of enslaved people and hiring poor Black people from the area to serve students.
However, she questioned the current effectiveness of the Commission and its accomplishments since its founding in 2017. “[The Hon. Foxx and President Quillen] mentioned the Commission on Race and Slavery in that it exists. And then they mentioned choosing new summer reading books for the incoming first-year and transfer students […] I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates as my summer reading, which was about the Black experience, and that wasn’t dictated by the Commission on Race and Slavery,” said Webb. “I think we would all benefit from there being a lot more transparency in what other discussions the Commission must have had in the past two years.”
Son Oh shared a similar critique, expressing concern that not all Davidson students incorporate the Commission’s work and the work of similar groups into their lives. “I don’t see any of that actually being implemented into our school as a whole, unless you yourself are seeking out that information, which is pretty frustrating,” said Son Oh.
Toston called for the community’s need to transition from primarily prioritizing speakers and books to action and recognition of the work that Black students and specific organizations are doing. He shared, “I think some of the work that the NPHCs [National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations] are doing is not being highlighted enough, and along with other students, other minority students who aren’t affiliated with those things.”
For example, Toston mentioned the work of organizations like FIRST (Fostering Inclusion and Respect in Science Together), which aims to build Davidson’s capacity to inclusively engage and remove barriers for all students in science, and the Davidson Microaggressions Project, an initiative that “raises awareness about the campus climate as experienced by diverse members of the College community” and demonstrates how microaggressions manifest through narratives, according to the Davidson Microaggressions website. However, Toston, a member of FIRST Action Team, stated, “We have a separate website from the school. Why is our work not being shown [on Davidson’s website]? Why are we not putting our history more in the forefront and allowing people to really engage with that? It almost feels like we’re hiding it all the time.”
The college also has not equally supported all student organizations in Toston’s experience. Toston, who served as the president of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated, noted the disproportionate allocation of space to the NPHCs on Patterson Court, as well as how frequently staff and students walk on and disrespect the NPHC plots.
This disconnect particularly manifests through the “Davidson Bubble,” the notion of a sheltered, campus-centric space that allows certain students to avoid engaging with many real-world realities. Toston noted, “It’s a bubble that I feel like sometimes I could dip into if I really wanted to, but I never really felt comfortable being able to do that because, I mean I was a Bonner [Scholar], I was in the community, I was seeing the things that were happening.”
Webb felt a normalized sense of exclusion within the predominantly white Town of Davidson. “Davidson really values its relationship to the town and the community, but I think that’s something that should be interrogated and investigated a little bit further […] the town is not for us,” she stated.
Expanding student interactions not only applies to communities outside the Davidson Bubble, but also to on-campus spaces. Toston observed that many white students have heard the names of leaders like Bry Reed ‘20, Makayla Binter ‘20, and himself. “But you don’t really know us […] you don’t have interactions with us in the same ways that you have [with] your other white peers, and just acknowledging that and seeing that we have been on the periphery for so long, that you don’t even realize.”
During the livestream, President Quillen raised the question of “how we can live up to the claims we make about ourselves” as a Davidson community. She emphasized the importance of the college’s mission and values, but Toston questioned the institution’s tendency to prioritize certain values over others. He observed, “if you don’t want to follow the Honor Code, you will not end up having a place at Davidson,” yet there are members of the Davidson community who do not want to see change that actually enacts greater equity. “Is this someone we should be allowing to stay in our community if we are saying those are values that we want? […] Are those people that we should be considering for tenure?”
Recent national conversations have also centered around the role of police, with calls to defund and abolish police departments. After the Hon. Foxx shared one of his experiences as a Davidson student in the 1990s, when a Campus Police officer racially profiled him by singling him out and asking for his student ID, President Quillen addressed the current role of Davidson’s Campus Police. She stated, “Our police officers take the time to get to know our students, which is an important part of policing […] students can feel like our police officers can be [their] allies.”
Several students pushed back against this sentiment, including Webb: “We need to seriously interrogate and disrupt the way that we are policing our own communities because clearly it’s not effective. Policing developed after the abolition of slavery, and it was essentially designed to continue the subjugation of Black people and use us for labor. And so, the system technically is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing, which is upholding white supremacy.”
Webb highlighted the opportunity to change that now; however, President Quillen’s remarks did not address the systemic racism at the core of policing. Webb shared that she “really was disappointed by the fact that [President Quillen] kind of doubled down on the value of Campus Police at Davidson.”
Half way through the livestream, President Quillen and the Hon. Foxx moved into a discussion of plans to adapt fall semester plans to the context of COVID-19. While an abrupt transition, Toston indicated the link to COVID-19’s disparate impacts on Black students, students of color, and low-income students. “These issues are related, being that Black people and the majority of students of color marginalized, we were the ones stuck on campus,” Toston said.
As the college proceeds in planning for the upcoming academic year, many students will be looking to see whether tangible actions for change follow. Ip reiterated, “Davidson needs to be more transparent. Transparent about any meetings, conversations, or decisions. Release the budget. Hire more faculty of color and [be] transparent about what goes on in these decisions.”