Mitchell Chapman: MCLA needs to do better

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PITTSFIELD — On May 25, a black man named George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer on video, inciting nationwide protests and a national conversation on race. On June 4, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts tried to address this and fell flat on its face, leading to the creation of a MoveOn petition that has amassed over 600 signatures calling for the college to do better for its Black community members.

The source of the outrage comes from a statement written by MCLA President James Birge titled "A Letter for My White Colleagues and Students at MCLA," that addressed white students and faculty members, but was sent to the entire campus hours after his joint statement with the college's Chief Diversity Officer Christopher MacDonald-Dennis that largely addressed the Black community. Reading it over, it's not hard to imagine why.

"In my early career I worked with Catholic communities focused on serving the poor," a passage from the statement reads. "All of this work for social justice was grounded in the Church Doctrine of exercising a 'Preferential Option for the Poor.' No one questioned what that meant. No one disagreed with the idea that 'poor lives mattered.' Why is it so difficult for us today to agree and say that Black Lives Matter? They DO!!!!! And the sooner we can understand and embrace at MCLA that 'Doctrine of Black Lives Matter,' the sooner the lives of our Black and Brown friends, family members, colleagues, and students will improve."

It's important to note that the passage above was preceded by an appeal to the All Lives Matter movement, as well as this bizarre passage: "I hope we now all realize with the murder of Mr. Floyd that the Black and Brown communities have been telling us what to do for years with the spilling of their blood and the taking of their last breath by the White community."

Birge's statement comes off as tone deaf, insensitive, and at its worst, offensive. And students and alumni alike did get offended, which led to the creation of the aforementioned MoveOn petition, which also criticized the college for sending out two different emails for Black and White members of the MCLA community.

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"We would like to see MCLA do better for their Black students, staff, and community," the petition reads. "Not as two, but as one ... We want them to do better, not the bare minimum."

In the college's defense, MacDonald-Dennis did note that a colorblind approach to addressing systemic racism would not work, as Black and White members of the community have two very different roles to play. But the college's message could have been delivered better, and it serves as a textbook example of how not to handle public relations, as this issue was entirely self-created as a result of poor communication.

The tragedy of this fiasco is that it distracts from an important conversation on race that needs to happen at MCLA, and it's far from the first time this has happened. The first major story my staff covered when I was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper was a protest over a survey whose results grouped anyone who wasn't white into the "other" category a month after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president ("Surveys are not enough," MCLA Beacon, Feb. 6, 2017). And while the college does have many diversity initiatives and resources for students of color, there is still much work needed to be done to make the campus inclusive and safe in the era of Trump.

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When I was a student reporter, I covered how a swastika had to be removed from the college's library. The same day Birge's email addressing White people came out, a fellow alumnus posted on Facebook how, on his first week on campus, three different White people called him the n-word. In his own words: "Imagine how the rest of my four years was." My girlfriend is a wonderful Latina woman who is finishing up her degree at the college, and she's encountered two white students that think it's OK for them to say that word, because they have Black friends. I was a part of a fraternity at the college that was majority Latino, and racism was part of their reality at MCLA.

I write this as an outraged White ally, and I know how easy it is to entirely miss the point of the Floyd protests, and be blind to systemic and cultural racism in Berkshire County, especially if you don't personally know any people of color. The U.S. Census estimated that on July 1, 2019, that 92 percent of the population of Berkshire County was White, and that's a big part of the problem. Truth be told, it is only when I got to college, and met people with different backgrounds than my own that I truly started to grasp these issues, and still I will never be able to do them justice.

But we must do better, and that includes MCLA. Racism has long existed on and around its campus, and it's about time the college addresses it beyond its usual prepared statements and supportive platitudes, by enacting bold reforms that will change the culture of the college for the better.

Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and freelance writer. He is a member of the MCLA Class of 2018, and is a former student trustee of the college and is the former editor-in-chief of its school newspaper, The Beacon.


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