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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

What are the Roots of the Bias- Motivated Incidents on Campus? An Invitation to Discussion

Last Wednesday I attended the rally the student group #OneGrinnell organized in response to the recent bias-motivated incidents that have happened on campus and in town. I went to this rally as a member of the Grinnell community who cares deeply about diversity, equality and social justice. I also attended the rally because I, too, had witnessed such an attack: running down 16th Avenue last spring, my partner was called a racial slur. Despite the nervous laughter that surrounded that utterance, a sign that underscored that the teenagers driving the car knew that what they had said was wrong, we felt disoriented, hurt and angry. This was not the first time that it had happened to us in Grinnell.

The rally, like the experience I shared with you above, relied on affect. Students came out to tell their stories, to share with their friends, their professors, administrators, staff members and strangers that they had been hurt and that they felt unsafe. Sharing these stories should create strong affective bonds in the community, strengthen understanding and sympathy and raise awareness about the fact that our community is less perfect than we would like it to be. We were there to show that we are ready for change.

It is not my intention to propose a plan of action here. I only want to keep us thinking about the root of the problems we are addressing if we really care about social justice and change. The root of these issues goes well beyond Grinnell. For that reason, we need to move beyond expressions of sympathy alone. The politics of affect, although successful in stirring discussion and in producing short-term healing, often obscure what produces these forms of oppression to begin with. Change in our community requires critical distance.

The stories the students shared relied on a set of binaries that are, even if well intended, problematic. One the one hand, they tended to portray these incidents as a consequence of the “us versus them,” or the “town versus gown,” that seems to permeate our understanding of and our interactions in this community, dichotomies that are usually immersed in deep class prejudice. They tend to go like this: Grinnell College is a diverse community; Grinnell, the small Iowa town, is not. Grinnell College students are not intolerant; Grinnell residents are probably so. Luckily, several students pointed out that this is not the case; that these attacks happen among students, too, albeit under different, perhaps more subtle guises. The dichotomy seemed to be less stable than it first appeared to be.

Another binary shaped the conversation, that of a majority versus a “minority.” At some point the city’s mayor, Gordon Canfield, and Chief of Police, Dennis Reilly, spoke to the audience. They assured us that this was a “minority” issue. The city’s residents are surely respectful and tolerant. These incidents are just about a few, “ignorant” subjects who have nothing better to do than to harass people around town. Sadly, the reliance on a shadow “minority” exonerated the majority from any type of complicity with the racism, sexism, homophobia and other types of oppression that happen in our community. If one could just put these few people away, the problem would be solved.

The incidents soon turned into an issue of campus safety. Any type of critical consideration of systemic forms of oppression was not discussed at the rally. A student shared how she and her friends had been harassed by a group of young men. This story, which hinted at how women’s bodies have historically been violated by men, quickly turned into one of empowerment. The second time these young men drove by she was able to write down the license plate number. She called the police. She felt strong. This sense of empowerment, however, felt rather bittersweet. Calling the police was supposed to help our community; it was supposed to help us fight back against this “minority” that afflicts “us.” As the Chief of Police stated, the Grinnell Police Department is committed to fighting such crimes. Reilly encouraged us to report similar incidents. To make us feel safer, the police will increase its presence on campus. But who’s being safe here? Is this the same police that disproportionately arrest and incarcerate people of color in the state of Iowa? Is this the same police that enforce laws designed to oppress the unprivileged? How is this really supposed to make us feel safer? I am not accusing the Grinnell Police Department of doing this, but this is unfortunately the way our system is designed to work.

As a community, we need to expand our conversation to include a discussion of the root of the problems that cause and perpetuate such incidents. We need to keep interrogating what allows this to happen in the first place. If we don’t pay attention to the systemic and institutional forms in which different forms of oppression take place, if we choose to ignore their interconnectedness, we will fall short to bring about any real social change. Our community, just like our society, has to fight against something much more complex and insidious than just a small group of men driving a car whom we’d like to wish away.


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