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William and Mary's Legacy of Racism Still Stands Strong

By Brittney Harrington

A photo of the campus of the College of William and Mary.

I am a descendent of slaves attending a school that was founded with my explicit exclusion in mind. I walk through halls built by my shackled ancestors and I wonder what it means for my body to exist here, for me to be working toward a degree from an institution that sits on stolen land and was built with stolen labor.

William and Mary has a dirty legacy. Its early financial aid was facilitated by the 1718 purchase of seventeen slaves whose tobacco labor funded scholarships for the next ninety years. Early eighteenth-century students brought their slaves with them to campus, and when the school got into a financial bind, it started renting slaves on a need-by-need basis. The current office of the president sits in a building created for the purpose of Anglicizing Native children. The most well-known statue on campus is of a slave-owning rapist, or as most people know him, Thomas Jefferson. One of the most reprinted and circulated pro-slavery arguments in the years leading up to the Civil War was written by a William and Mary president. And let’s not forget that the College shut down for five years so students could fight for the Confederacy.

William and Mary does not stand alone in this dirty legacy. Harvard, Emory, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, Williams, the University of North Carolina, and many more all have legacies entwined with slavery and colonialism. However, this heritage, coupled with the Board of Visitors' refusal to express any regret over the school’s complicity in human degradation, makes a recent comment posted on Overheard at William and Mary, an online student forum, especially troubling. The post, shared at 11 PM on March 19, was deleted shortly after it was posted. It read:

“Sorry, this isn’t an overheard, but I think I lost my car. It’s a black Escape that answers to the name of Harriet Tubman. Let me know if anyone sees it! Last spotted along Landrum Drive.”

This person made the post not in search of his car, but in search of validation for his racist wit and humor. Based on some of the comments written in response to this post before it was deleted, and other racist, sexist, and homophobic comments that permeate Overheard, the author likely would have gotten the validation he wanted.

To compare a Black woman’s body to an object is unacceptable. For a white person to put themselves in a position of ownership over said objectified body is deplorable. This comment eerily parallels William and Mary’s early treatment toward Black women: objectified bodies to be owned.

William and Mary has a standardized response to anything that shines an unflattering light on the school. It has a tendency to distance itself from the poor choices of individuals to absolve itself of the responsibility it holds in creating and maintaining the culture that exists on campus. It blames any instance of bad behavior on some abstract “lapse in community,” refusing to acknowledge that these lapses in community keep happening because the College isn’t willing to make unpopular decisions to fix the root causes. This formulated response pattern was seen most recently in William and Mary president Taylor Reveley’s five-sentence response to a violently misogynistic e-mail that was leaked from the Sigma Chi fraternity Listserv. The Sigma Chi email, students referring to themselves as ‘the Tribe’ (the nickname the William and Mary community has given itself), and this Overheard post are interconnected and are not isolated incidents of oppression.

No official statement was released regarding this Overheard post but it is no stretch to guess that any statement would have blamed a tumble in community values. There would be no naming of this as symptomatic of a violently racist legacy. There would be no mention of the College’s facilitation of this comment via its continued failure to educate students on the racial history of this school. The direct connection between historical ignorance, cultural insensitivity, and present day racism would not be drawn.

But here’s the thing: this Overheard post does not represent a lapse in community. It represents precisely the kind of community that results from an institutional refusal to have uncomfortable conversations and take accountability for the unethical actions that made our current rankings possible. It represents the kind of community that thinks “differences in race, gender, and socio-economic status do not exemplify diversity”.

I read the above post, ‘The True Meaning of Diversity’, while sitting in the basement of a building that was built by slaves. The feeling it triggered in me is something that I and other Black students on this campus do not deserve to feel. The power dynamics and solo status that exist as a result of a history that William and Mary is so hesitant to even apologize for creates a space that feels unwelcoming for many* students of color on this campus. On the rare occasion that race is discussed in a setting that isn’t race or diversity-focused, it gets framed as a non-issue that is at most an undertone.

Race permeates every brick on this campus and seeps through in past chancellors who supported Apartheid and grandiose celebrations of a charter that expressly includes as a purpose of William and Mary “the Christian faith… be[ing] propagated amongst the Western Indians”.

This isn’t about looking for something to be offended about. This is about each of us deserving to learn in an institution that respects our histories and acknowledges the role it plays in our continued oppression.

William and Mary’s history cannot be undone, but there are steps the College can take to ensure students understand this heritage and know how to respectfully interact with it. Creating a General Education Requirement for a course on the College’s history that includes the things tour guides are instructed not to talk about would be a concrete starting point. Pressuring the Board of Visitors to release an official apology for the College’s complicity in human subjugation and suffering (and demanding a reason why, if they won’t) would take us a step closer to standing on the side of justice.

To exist in a space that was built on the subjugation of my ancestors creates a complex relationship to William and Mary that the author of ‘The True Meaning of Diversity’ will never understand.

I am not a member of this tribe. I was never intended to be.

*I am by no means speaking for all students of color.

To further educate yourself on the College’s ties with slavery, colonialism, and racial violence, check out The Lemon Project and Swem Special Collections.

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Brittney Harrington

Brittney is a junior and public policy major at the College of William and Mary. She likes black coffee, cats, and smashing the white supremacist patriarchy.

Catch up with me @musingsofzami.

higher education




April 09, 2014

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