We are concerned about the racial environment on the Hobart and William Smith campus. It has come to our attention that Kiara Ocasio, a William Smith senior, has been reprimanded for an incident that occurred March 3, 2013 and has been removed from campus. We request that Kiara be allowed to fully participate in the graduation ceremony on May 19, 2013. Kiara has met the academic requirements necessary for participation in the graduation ceremony. In addition, allowing her participation is essential in helping Kiara to learn and progress from this incident, to move from a place of anger and hurt to a place of positive and proactive solutions. Allowing Kiara to participate in the graduation ceremony will also signal to the larger community that the administration is fully invested in the wellbeing and futures of HWS students. More importantly, denying her the right to participate in the graduation ceremony gives the appearance that the administration is overlooking the racial harassment that was a significant part of the incident on March 3, 2013. In this particular case, everyone involved has some degree of culpability. However, the students that made the hateful comments have not been removed from campus nor have they been denied the right to participate in the graduation ceremony on May 19, 2013. This seemingly differential punishment not only seems to contradict the vision of social equality and fairness that is central to Hobart and William Smith’s identity, but also has the danger of signaling to the community that the administration is blind to the inequalities of race, gender, and sexual orientation that are being experienced by its students, faculty, and staff.
To the larger community, it seems that Kiara’s situation has been handled with punitive action that does not take into account the larger context of the problems on this campus. The incident on March 3, 2013 is only one of many incidents that have occurred recently that have exemplified racism, misogyny, and homophobia on our small campus. Although violence is never an appropriate response to hate speech, we understand how someone could have such a reaction to violent and hurtful words. It is hard for many, especially those in positions who have not been the subjected to racial oppression and marginalization to truly understand the impact being called “nigger” (among other things) has on someone of color. We must not only proactively work to keep such incidents from happening but we must also consider how we can effectively help students, faculty, and staff cope with the raw emotion that results from being a victim of such provocation and react appropriately.
We are writing this letter because we are all responsible for our community. It takes a community response to combat injustice. We are very proud of the milestones that have been made on our campus that have reestablished lines of trust between administration, faculty members, and students. Last semester, the Race and Racism Coalition was successful in exposing the fact that racism on our campus is an unfortunate reality, but we still have a long way to go. Kiara’s situation presents the administration with the opportunity to build on this work. Kiara’s experience is one of many that demonstrate that acts of hate speech and bigotry are not simply isolated incidents, but rather part of structural inequalities we must address with an open dialogue. This will allow the administration to send a clear message that these acts, both overt and subtle, will not be tolerated.
A valuable liberal arts education does not only happen inside of classrooms and lecture halls. It also happens in the daily, lived experiences of individuals. We can work towards the ultimate goal of having a safer, more tolerant HWS community that is genuinely welcoming of diversity. In order for this to occur, the administration should partner with the other members of the community towards positive growth. We, including Kiara, are well invested in the opportunities provided by the Colleges with faith that it would adhere to and abide by the standards it advertises. Let’s make sure we can move on from this moment, together.
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