Not so easy to get out of the mold

by John Pixley

Someone said that the woman was making them uncomfortable. It was an uncomfortable moment. To say the least, it was an awkward situation.

Andrea Ritchie gave a trigger warning before her talk last month at Garrison Theater, saying that her presentation, “Policing Gender, Policing Sex, Policing Race,” would be graphic and disturbing and that she would understand if people felt they had to leave.

Indeed, what the lawyer and activist and author of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States was talking about—how black women and gay and transgender people are frequently victims of police brutality that we do not hear about (in contrast to the instances involving black men that we have been hearing much about)—was quite disturbing. It was upsetting and even enraging.

But it appeared no one was prepared for the first question that was asked when Ms. Ritchie was finished speaking. The woman said that she was “appalled” at what Ms. Ritchie had said and shown. But she wasn’t appalled at the injustices that Ms. Ritchie laid out; she was upset that the police were shown in a bad light and, noting that the police keep us safe unlike in such countries as Iraq and Syria, asked how Ms. Ritchie could “brainwash” the many students that were there.

It immediately became apparent that this first question asked was the last question expected. More than that, it was clear that the woman was the last person expected at this talk. In the tension-filled silence that ensued, the comment about being made uncomfortable was made, most likely by a student.

Ms. Ritchie was certainly aware of the awkwardness. After all, she had been put on the spot with the question that no one was expecting. When she answered, she did so in a calm, reasoned, empathetic manner. She explained that she doesn’t really like giving this talk, and that she wrestles with whether she should give it at all, but that she was simply citing examples of the incidents that happen. She said that there were hours worth, even days worth, of examples, “stacks of files,” that she could talk about.

Later, in answering other questions on how to talk about this injustice and how to work together to take action against it, Ms. Ritchie had to say, “If the woman was still here, I would say to her…” That’s because the woman wasn’t there, and Ms. Ritchie couldn’t say anymore to her. Unfortunately, the woman left during Ms. Ritchie’s response to her comment and question.

It may not have been unfortunate to most of the audience, which was made up mostly of students. When the woman left, handing out literature along the way, there was lots of giggling and whispering. The tension was gone and you could hear what felt like a general sigh of relief.

It was clear that the woman’s comments and question didn’t fit the mold. It was easier, less uncomfortable, with her not there, not disturbing the mold.

But did the students really mean that they didn’t want to deal with someone who didn’t fit the mold? After all, even as Ms. Ritchie was speaking, Claremont McKenna College was thrust into the national spotlight over a comment about students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” The demonstration at CMC joined the University of Missouri, Yale University, Occidental and others, with headlines and live TV reports on student protesting the lack diversity of on campus. The “mold” comment was made by the Dean of Students Mary Spellman, and it not only was a poor choice of words, it cost her her job. She resigned within hours of the protests. She wrote it in an email, saying she would work to assist students who “don’t fit our CMC mold,” in response to an article in the student newspaper. The article had been written by a Latina student describing times when she didn’t feel comfortable or welcome at campus activities.

This was more or less the last straw. Yes, the dean said she wanted to help but said it in a condescending, patronizing way, implying that there are students who are different but are allowed and tolerated on campus.

In the days before, there were flyers posted on campus, outlining different instances in which black, female, gay or other minority students were made to feel like they didn’t belong in a class or a party. All said “This is not an isolated incident” and that there had been no changes to remedy the situation despite promises from school officials. It was feared that Ms.  Spellman’s offer was, in addition to its noblesse-oblige tone, yet another empty promise.

One could be cynical and say that the students were getting on the college protest bandwagon, complete with a hunger strike (albeit one lasting barely a day). Although there may have been rumblings on the other campuses here, it isn’t insignificant that this most pointed protest took place at CMC which, after all, was once Claremont Men’s College and is still widely considered the most conservative of the Claremont Colleges. More than just a cool statement, the protesting students are out to change the school’s culture—or perceived culture.  This is more heavy lifting than at, say, Scripps or (especially) Pitzer.

Yes, the CMC Athenaeum has a remarkable number of feminist, gay and other minority speakers—some quite provocative—in its line-up. The protesting students are demanding more than interesting speakers coming to campus for a few hours to give a sample of their different lives and views. They want these different lives and views to exist on campus, to be part of the campus, just as the protest, and not just an interesting, provocative statement like other statements being made.

But the lifting is definitely heavier, perhaps more so than the students, and not just at CMC. It is understandable (more than that, it’s commendable) that the students want more than interesting statements on campus. Yet, as seen at the talk on police brutality and gender and sexuality, following and living a statement is considerably harder than simply making a statement. Saying everyone is welcome is much easier than everyone being welcome.  

It is a shame that the woman attending the talk left before her comment and questions were fully responded to. But in a situation resulting in no chance of dialogue and mutual understanding, it is also a shame that she was made to feel like she didn’t belong there, like her question was the last one expected. 


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