KABELO MOTSOENENG ’20
I have been meaning to write this letter for the longest time. I have been trying to find the right words while carefully considering what exactly I wanted to say. I write this letter publicly because issues addressed in this letter have been -are- public, unsettling and worthy of addressing. I am disgruntled because I am a Black person in an American institution that does not see us. I am disgruntled because many of us have been trying to bring this conversation to light and push for solutions; it troubles me that we are still not heard.
Perhaps I should start with the Fall of 2016. Let’s revisit the sit-ins, open dialogues and messages initiated by the Action Coalition of Trinity (ACT), a group of activists who shook the whole institution with plausible demands yet they were silenced with various forms of college bureaucracy, pacification and performative empathy.
ACT’s demands called Trinity to account, they called Trinity to act towards inclusion and justice. When those demands were brought to you in an open forum, at the Cave, that fall, we felt reduced to unimportance—as an angry mob with unsound claims. But it is the manner at which you addressed us, in the way you escaped the room and never followed back but sent a representative to pacify us. ACT wanted to know what were the tangible means taken by the College to enable an inclusive and just campus. When you continued to center yourself in that conversation—on issues about students’ experiences— reiterating that we “should check your resume,” we felt attacked. We felt attacked because that conversation was not meant to question your competency because we know you’re not a fraud, you have earned your place to lead an institution like this. We were disappointed because you did what Black leaders do when they are called to account by their constituencies: you silenced us with a list of your achievements and did not consider that even with those achievements, we know that you’re a Black woman in the world and perhaps you could offer an empathetic ear.
I was a first-year student that Fall and your silence made me question if this is what we—students of color—should aspire to, that we should pursue positions of powers and center ourselves, evade responsibility instead when we’re called to account.
The past two summers, friends— students of color who came here believing that a person who looks like them leads this place, they will belong here— left Trinity disgruntled. The past two summers, your silence and neutrality left me perturbed. When Trinity crisis managed (to benefit the College’s financial gain and brand positioning) attacks on an accomplished Sociology professor, when this institution whom you a direct face of chose a position of neutrality, I questioned if Trinity will ever stand for justice. I questioned if the removal of the Confederate flag in the Chapel represented a new path Trinity was said to be championing, that Trinity had stopped kneeling at the altar of white supremacy.
In response to the controversy of that summer, you wrote an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed citing some lessons you learned in crisis managing this, as a leader of this institution. Still, I questioned if the claims matched with our realities on this campus. You noted Trinity’s commitment to have “civilized discourse about issues that divide us.” It has been a year and a couple of months since this happened, it has been seven months since that article was written—where are these conversations happening and what results are they yielding? Maybe if there was institutional backing for cultural houses and organizations, if student leaders of color did not have to juggle roles of being de facto administrators and students, laboring freely to make those conversations happen, maybe there could have some truth to your assertion.
While I admire dialogic approaches, our campus culture belies the claim that “civilized discourse on issues that divide us” take place outside spaces enabled by students of color.
The College should commit to concrete, justifiable steps to enable justice and correct the dislocation of marginalized communities at the College. Perhaps the reproduction of racist symbols drawn by some students, the jovial use of the n-word by non-Black individuals, xenophobia towards non-American symbols should be corrected with fewer and proven to ineffective campaigns but by a retributive, accountability system. This is the work that should not come from student efforts but from your leadership, President Berger-Sweeney. Marginalized communities should not be tasked with laboring freely at the cost of their wellbeing. Students of color are asking for your empathetic and solution-oriented approach, President Berger-Sweeney.
With this letter, I recognize that I might be complicit to a dangerous, biased culture that expects women of color in leadership positions to be nurturers because the world has conditioned us to expect that. Maybe I am taking part in this misogyny without acknowledging that a shadow of injustice enabled by whiteness casts over your work, that we’re expecting you to fix almost two centuries long works and evils of patriarchy and institutional racism imbued within our institutional culture. With a growing Black and Brown Trinity community, these expectations will deepen. With this growing community, perhaps your legacy should be that of pioneering justice in this institution. This work of justice begins with centering students when they present student related issues. This work demands zero pacification and patronization, perhaps more uncomfortable, rigorous and public debates. Perhaps this work of justice requires less glossy marketing and thorough focus on measures of accountability pertaining race-racism and other forms of injustices at Trinity College.