In 2015, racist posts were made targeting black students on several campuses, including ours, on the anonymous app Yik-Yak. The Huffington Post wrote an article shortly after asking 3 Presidents of private liberal arts colleges to speak about what they’ve learned from recent student activism around race. President John Williams was one of those three Presidents.
President Williams represents the Muhlenberg campus in everything he does, something that inherently comes with the title of “President.” This power and representation may be the only things many may see about Muhlenberg, therefore, the small statements he may make here and there come with lots of implications to the public and to the Muhlenberg community. In the article, he speaks about the town hall his administration hosted, saying the school “does not tolerate offensive speech against blacks any more than it tolerates slurs against, say Jewish people.” Can we truly compare the experiences of students and color and Jewish people at the Muhlenberg campus though? I am not denying that anti-semetism does not exist within the Muhlen-bubble and certainly not outside of it, but at the end of the day, the Jewish population at Muhlenberg is an overrepresentation of Jewish people in America.
Only 2% of people in the United States are Jewish, but at Muhlenberg, nearly 30% of students are Jewish. The implications of being Jewish at Muhlenberg are significantly different than the experiences of Jewish people outside of Muhlenberg. There are two Kosher dining options in one dining hall, matzah ball soup every day to remind students of their culture, Hillel, Chabad, 25 Jewish studies classes, and so much more allows Jewish students at Muhlenberg to feel safe in their identity. This is not the case for students of color at Muhlenberg. Students of color at Muhlenberg are underrepresented and – compared to Jewish students – do not have as many safe places for their identity, cultural events, academic options, and most of all don’t have the number of peers around them that they can relate to. While the school may provide some safe places like the Multicultural Center, some academic classes, and occasional events surrounding certain cultures, it is not to the extent Jewish students have on campus. In addition, most Jewish students (whether or not they utilize safe places on campus associated with the Jewish community) have the benefits of being white and can assimilate to their racial identity to create other safe places in addition to those offered for their Jewish identity.
President Williams could have chosen any another targeted group to compare slurs against students of color with but is it a coincidence he chose Jews? Using the thriving and protected Jewish community here as a comparison invalidates the experiences of students of color at Muhlenberg and denies the reality of the campus culture at Muhlenberg. He implies to the public and all the readers of the Huffington Post article that Muhlenberg, a predominantly white institution, is just as safe for students of color as it is for Jewish students. To be honest, without the knowledge of what actually happens at this campus, it’s a convincing argument and falsely portrays our campus as a safe environment for students of color based on the experiences of another oppressed group. I wonder if President Williams or other students understand the implications of having an oppressed group be overrepresented on such a small campus and how that affects students of color who are very much underrepresented on our campus.
This is a special post in a series authored by students in Professor Wolfe’s Spring 2019 Research Lab. We are studying the experiences of students of color at PWIs.