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Saint Mary’s shadow

| Thursday, March 3, 2016

I love Saint Mary’s. I love the campus, the professors and the alumnae. I love the empowerment of a women’s education, of having a women’s space: I love going to Mass with female lectors and acolytes and ministers, prayer services presided over by women and classes full of women raising their hands to discuss. I love feeling safe as I walk across campus at night. I love the bond — the sisterhood — that connects the students here. It is a special place. A holy place.

And yet in the last several months, as I approach my graduation and impending alumna-hood, I’ve become aware of a side of Saint Mary’s that I’ve never encountered before. For all the light and joy I’ve seen at Saint Mary’s, I never noticed its shadow — until now.

I’m not referring to the small frustrations and daily irritations that happen everywhere: the ordinary conflicts between people that are quickly resolved and forgotten, the mistakes and misunderstandings of college-aged women. It’s not the paper-thin walls or the fact that we don’t get Labor Day off. It’s not even some of the more serious issues that have been raised lately: the imperfect sexual assault policy or the need for greater sustainability on campus. It doesn’t come from the administration or staff or faculty. It comes from the students.

When actor, writer and activist Anna Deavere Smith came to campus last week as part of the Margaret Hill Endowed Visiting Artists Series, she hosted a talk about diversity with students, faculty and staff members as well as a separate talk with members of the community downtown. I left with the grim realization that the warmth and positivity I’ve received at Saint Mary’s has not been offered to everyone. For some, it’s been the opposite.

In that discussion I heard a student recall a recent event in which a white classmate used the N-word to her face. I heard a student remember how she’d been told as a first-year, again by a white student, that she “didn’t belong” at Saint Mary’s. I heard my classmates mention what I had uneasily noticed as well: that in the dining hall, white students and students of color rarely sit together; that in classes, students don’t know that certain terms like “colored” and “Negro” are unacceptable terms for academic papers; that students are afraid to bring up topics like abortion — topics that demand respectful discussion — for fear of being stigmatized as radical or dismissed as anti-feminist; that still no one has come forward about the anonymous hate messages targeting an individual student and making the entire school suddenly unsure about who exactly their “sisters” really are.

So who are we, Saint Mary’s? Yes, we are a small school, predominantly white, predominantly Catholic, with a lot of wealth and privilege and opportunity making our education what it is. On paper, that’s what we are. But who are we? Aren’t we 1,600 women of all colors and creeds, beliefs and backgrounds coming together to empower one another in a world that wants to pit us against each other? Aren’t we Belles, sisters, companions, classmates, friends, supporters and allies?

But as long as even a few people write homophobic messages on our neighbors’ whiteboards; as long as even a few people casually use slurs against people of different races, abilities, genders, orientations and religions; so long as even a few people judge their peers by stereotypes they should be smart enough to dismiss; as long as even a few people refuse to acknowledge how their implicit biases and beliefs can harm and exclude others; as long as even a few people are comfortable making others feel unwelcome, we are bystanders. And if we are bystanders, if we are comfortable in a status quo that only protects the privileged and leaves an “other” to fend for herself, then we are not who I thought we were.

We know how great it is to be a Belle; we don’t need another article about that. It’s time to face our shadow: the exclusivity and superiority that allow discrimination, hatred and blatant disrespect in what otherwise is touted to be a supportive campus community. It is our responsibility — not our choice — to defend, protect and listen to each other. All of each other. Don’t wait for administrators, professors or security officers to teach you how to be decent to each other. Don’t wait for someone to agree with you or live like you or look like you to treat her with the basics of respect. Don’t wait for someone else to be the bigger person, to “welcome the stranger,” to spread the good news. Find the courage to be open to what you don’t know — ideas, opinions, and especially, people — and to defend it for others. That’s what college is about. That’s what this College is about.

Stand up. Speak up. Grow up.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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