Facing the Truth

By Virginia Cumberbatch ’10

Justice and equity require “good trouble.”

The goal set forth in the Williams mission statement is, in part, “elevating the sights and standards of every member of the community, encouraging them to keep faith with the challenge inscribed on the college’s gates: ‘climb high, climb far.’”

Today, as we witness the continued brutalization and oppression of Black and Brown bodies and the denial of rights and humanity, we must decide if that call is one of reconciliation and reckoning—a reframing of our obligations as students and alumni. Perhaps it is a call to move beyond aspirations of racial diversity to truly dismantle oppressive systems, inequitable spaces and the whitewashed stories we’ve nurtured. As public academic Rachel Cargle writes, “Unless racism is addressed and eradicated in the places you are seeking to make ‘diverse,’ you are simply bringing people of color into violent and unsafe spaces.” What spaces within our beloved Williams community, within our hometowns, within our American context, need to be interrogated, disrupted and rebuilt to offer equity and justice?

I often meditate on Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “An individual has not started living fully until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity. Every person must decide at some point, whether they will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

I cannot confirm the emotional state of or social reverberations after Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words, but I can deduce—given the similarities of our social context and political climate—that this was not a pep talk but an admonishment. A warning that the journey to equity, the road to justice, would require much more than good intentions, liberal idealism, woke tweets, fancy titles at elite colleges and universities or performative days and dialogues (slight shade to “Claiming Williams”).

King’s words were a critique of America and, by extension, of the Williams community—a revered, elite liberal arts college in America, a self-proclaimed bastion of liberalism in the Northeast. Reverend King was speaking to all of us grappling with the curious yet inevitable state of our country. The pursuit and promise of racial justice, equity and access for all requires much more than desire and tepid social media support. It requires deliberate, selfless investment to loudly agitate our institutional practices and challenge the problematic policies that drive them. And, for some, it will require us to check our own personal paradigms, assumptions and motivations.

To shift our problematic policies, to examine our political practices, warrants more than platitudes or statements birthed out of fear of public shaming, student critique or loss of alumni donations. It requires intentional, radical cogitation and disruption. It mandates facing the truth of our distorted historical, collective memory of how we have arrived at this point as an institution and as a country. The unchecked attitudes, assumptions and authority of whiteness have long positioned themselves as the status quo at Williams, leading to the informal and life-costing politicking, policing and too-often pain of Black and Brown bodies. How many of us have equipped ourselves with the stories of Williams’ first students of color, of the history of Black and Brown bodies navigating the Berkshires? How have we acknowledged and contended that the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t just warranted but that our identities as Ephs are tied to this pursuit of justice and freedom for Black, Brown and Indigenous communities?

Our longing to see justice and equity transpire at Williams, in our individual communities and in America will require us to get into what the late Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” This means we must be ready to sacrifice convenience, disrupt comfort and shake ourselves from complacency or complicity in our individual lives and collective commitment. Lewis said, “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”

Even in the midst of a pandemic, the cry for racial justice is loud. For those of you who have just arrived to the conversation and are exploring your personal and collective responses, it can feel overwhelming. But that does not mean you can or should opt out. Instead, you must ask yourself how to find your role as a “co-agitator,” a term that centers action and challenges comfort, complicity and convenience to demand ongoing disruption in the spaces you are called to.

As the nation continues to grapple with fractured understandings of community, I’d ask what values you plan to champion. Will you leverage your privilege to empower and affirm others? Or will you allow privilege, such as the privilege of being a purple cow, accolades and status, financial prosperity and family heritage, or a political party, to shield you from pain, suffering and injustice? The responsibility to reconcile injustice rests in the hands of community leaders, politicians, police officers and advocates, for sure. But it also rests in the hands of all of us who consider ourselves a part of the beloved Williams community.

Let’s ask ourselves how we will allow our history to shape our future. How will our present disrupt the stains of injustice written in our own history as Ephs? The call to be brokers of peace, disrupters of injustice and ambassadors of good trouble is not a moral plea—it is a declaration of necessity that was extended to us all when we accepted the challenge to “climb high, climb far.”

Portrait of Virginia Cumberbatch

Virginia Cumberbatch ’10 is a racial justice educator and an editor of As We Saw It: The Story of Integration at the University of Texas (UT Press, 2018). Before cofounding Rosa Rebellion, she directed the Center for Community Engagement at UT Austin.

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