Science and Race

I am struck by a word that Craig Steven Wilder uses in the prologue to describe Henry Watson Jr. in Ebony & Ivy: “embodies” (Wilder 8). Wilder states that Watson’s career “embodies themes in the history of American colleges” (Wilder 8). Given our examination of archives and their focus on personal narrative, this presents an important framework. I wonder about the research process and deciding on one story that fits the themes covered in the book. Wilder begins his presentation of the relationships between American universities and race and slavery with a personal narrative of one man. I think this is a typical tactic for books of a similar nature to try to get the reader interested in a topic that is not in their academic field. To integrate detailed human experience into a survey of this topic is effective in allowing readers to connect with a specific person rather than trying to make them take on the whole topic, which a book geared towards fellow academics might do in its introduction.

I enjoyed the chapter about the colonial roots of racial science. As Wilder states, “Race did not come from science and theology; it came to science and theology” (Wilder 182). Racial ideas are instead an integral part of empire building and are incorporated into scientific and theological ideas to give them legitimacy. Reading this chapter, I was reminded of a time of scientific research, which I had forgotten: a time when science had to adhere to religious understanding. In this case, race and complexion needed to be explained given the existence of Adam and Eve (Wilder 187). Though the Enlightenment and the expansion of reason were at play, there was still a strong religious center in society. At the time when scientific theories of racial superiority were developing, they too had to fit within the religious mythology of the time. I have been fascinated by tales of racial origins which often are part-science, part-mythology. I am especially interested in how they take root and when they become “fact” for a society. As Wilder explains, American colleges cemented the validity of these “truths” about human difference (Wilder 193).

Bryn Mawr and the Seven Sisters differ from many of the institutions that Wilder discusses because the former were established after the abolition of slavery in the U.S. However, many of the same ideas about race, intelligence and education are present in both histories. As Wilder points out, “people of color came to campus only as servants and objects” (Wilder 3). Like Bryn Mawr in its earlier history, students did not see people of color as anything other than servants and objects and so scientific reasons for racial difference that were taught could paint people of color as incapable of intelligence.

Organizing vs Feel Good Activism at Bryn Mawr

Although I have been a fan of Dean Spade for a while now, and saw him when he spoke at Bryn Mawr a couple years ago, I was touched and emboldened by his insight on the problem’s of women’s colleges. I see a lot of similarities between Bryn Mawr and Barnard, and the way they handle their pasts and present. As Spade touched on all the various institutional changes women’s colleges must make to promote a true gender justice framework, which prioritizes the poor, disabled, and people of color, I thought about my last two years at Bryn Mawr, my failed organizing attempts, and what parts of this message we take in and what we silence.

Although Bryn Mawr history certainly contains legacies of real organizing, in my experience our efforts are more directed towards what feels good than what actually does things. We try to change culture but not structure. When students work on divestment campaigns, as I and others did in the Environmental Justice League until it broke up and others did in Students for Justice in Palestine, there really isn’t that much interest by other students, and there is huge push back by the administration. I think one of the main reasons is that even though we like to promote a progressive image, the powers behind the scenes on the board are much more conservative, so most of the actions we take do not change a lot at the financial level, where a lot of power is held. On the other hand, Bryn Mawr students love “activism” that involves making ourselves feel good, probably partially because of white middle class guilt, like having teach ins, panels, and discussions about issues which seem like they are going to bring about change but in reality do not.  I think the most stark example of this tendency was the huge march on campus against the Confederate flag and racism last year, which included the administration and the least aggressive chants I have ever heard, like “we are one”. I participated, but as an anarchist to be honest I kind of rolled my eyes. Another example was the recent community day of learning on class, which certainly raised up marginalized voices, but I doubt will lead to important institutional changes like the ones Spade advocates. Will we actually make a better effort to distribute college resources to the most needy? Will we raise the wages of students and staff? Will we change the wage system on campus so dining hall workers don’t get paid less than workers in more typically middle class jobs like the library? Will we divest!?!? Organizing is not usually fun when it becomes effective. I think we could organize around these issues, but fewer people would actually be interested. In my experience liberals like to feel like they are “doing something” but as the keynote speaker said, it requires more than that, connection through communities, and most importantly struggle. A day of learning is not struggle. Maybe these actions raise consciousness, but struggle involves conflict and means that not everyone in the administration is our friend and should be included in the march.

If you want to read about this “feel good” trend in the wider left, this article talks about how “the international Left promotes its own image rather than engaging in the bitter reality of resistance against neoliberalism.” Its striking how a global trend can be mirrored in small institutions like Bryn Mawr.

The Troubled Past/Present/Future of America’s Universities

I think that a lot of students take the history of their institution as something that happened in the past, having no pertinence to their lives today. The history should remain in the past, right? I would disagree. I think time, and the horrors of the past, are given a pass over because people are able to separate themselves from the system in which they were created from. If something happened a hundred years ago, I had nothing to do with it, so it’s easy to blame someone else for the bad things that have come out of it. Craig Steven Wilder’s entire book rests upon the fact that institutions of higher education not only were dependent on slavery for economic and social stability, but they became houses where racist ideology were mass produced and distributed. It is so easy to simply say, “But that was then, and this is now!”- but I think that would be a great mistake on several ideological levels. Without acknowledging the structure of an institution, you are not able to fully grasp the pathos of the establishment.

Two instances in the reading really fascinated me (aka creeped me out). In the epigraph of chapter three, Wilder includes a stanza from a poem to George Berkeley, reading, “If you made me your wife, Sir, in time you may fill a Whole town with our children, and likewise your villa. I, famous for breeding, you, famous for knowledge, I’ll found the whole nation, you’ll found a whole college.” This makes my skin crawl. Not only is it equating a women’s worth on her ability to have children, but the idea that two people will be procreating only in order to pass on their ideological beliefs unsettles me. I think that a large portion of education rests on being exposed to different mindsets, even ones you vehemently disagree with. By saying that Berkley will ‘found a whole college’ from this creepy procreative process makes me think that he would only be passing on his thoughts and beliefs, which would only further racism and systematic oppression.

Another instance that made me uncomfortable was on page 94, where Reverend Smith talked about ‘educating the Native children.’ Wilder writes, “In these Schools, some of the most Ingenious and Docile of the young Indians might be instructed in our Faith and Morals, and Language, and in our Method of Life and Industry, and in some of those Arts which are most useful…To civilize our Friends and Neighbors; – to strengthen our Allies and our Alliance; – to adorn and dignify Human Nature; – to save Souls from Death; to promote the Christian Faith, and the Divine Glory, are the Motives.” He’s literally saving that they are going to kidnap Native American children, teach them to believe the things that the colonizers believe, and then return them to their families, in hopes that the children will uproot their families, and either indoctrinate them to what the English believe, or use another kind of force to change the ‘sympathies of these nations towards the English.” Someone kidnapping children in order to change their beliefs in order to return them years later, only to try to uproot a system? In an attempt to save their souls? These are children! I know that time has given us a shield for these horrors, but can we try to image it, and recognize how horrible these things were??


Filling the Silence

While watching Dean Spade’s talk at Barnard I was constantly reminded of Silencing the Past and the readings we did the week we visited the William Way Archives and the Library Company.  I think that he underscored the importance of institutional memory and in archiving activist movements in a similar way to how we have been discussing these issues in class.  I think that this is where public history is especially important because without it how are we to remember and learn from past movements?

I think that Ebony and Ivy in many ways (thus far in my reading) is doing what Silencing the Past did with the Haitian Slave Revolution for higher education and slavery/colonialism. This is also similar to what Dean Spade did by discussing the history of the indigenous peoples native to the actual land that Barnard sits on which challenges the traditional way of telling the stories of higher education in the U.S.  Namely, Wilder is reexamining the role of colonialism and slavery to the formation of and continuation of institutions of higher education in the United States. Like the Haitian Slave Revolution, I think that this history has also been silenced.  In many ways I think that how colleges and universities have defined themselves and their histories is reminiscent of how Trouillot discusses the silencing of the Haitian Revolution,”the silencing of the Haitian Revolution also fit the relegation to a historical back burner of the three themes to which it was linked: racism, slavery, and colonialism. In spite of their importance in the formation of what we now call the West…none of these themes has ever become a central concern of the historiographical tradition in a Western country” (Trouillot 98).  These same three themes have also been put on the back burner where race and higher education are concerned. I look forward to seeing how Wilder handles these topics considering the tradition of silence around them.

The Bubble is Political

Dean Spade in the beginning of his talk listed questions that I think are essential when reflecting on your privileged place in an institution of higher education.

  • Who gets to be here?
  • What do you learn when you are here?
  • What are they training you to do?
  • Who does the institution choose to serve?

He follows by stating that those are all deeply political questions. It is one of the great myths that education is and should be apolitical. I appreciated that he directly addressed this point. Education is part of the political system. Established places of higher learning are looked to for examples of how the world outside should operate. When women’s colleges choose to exclude trans people, it sets an example for the same kind of discrimination to exist and becomes standard outside. The metaphor that is common especially in liberal arts colleges is that of the “bubble.” This term becomes problematic not only because it implies that the experience inside is comfortable for all, but also because it implies that the decisions of the “bubble” do not influence the world outside.

The stated purpose of most learning institutions is to prepare students to “succeed” in the world as it is today. Usually this is paired with holding up the often unjust norms of the government and the society. Bryn Mawr’s website lists the mission of the college to be “to provide a rigorous education and to encourage the pursuit of knowledge as preparation for life and work.” This addresses the question that Dean Spade posed about what they are training us to do. The mission statement closes with a particularly political message: “The academic and co-curricular experiences fostered by Bryn Mawr…encourage students to be responsible citizens who provide service to and leadership for an increasingly interdependent world.” What is a responsible citizen? Does the Board of Trustees from December 1998 who approved this mission have complete authority on what makes a responsible citizen? What does training to be a responsible citizen look like in the eyes of the trustees—the group that has the most power in the college to work for or against change? The greatest problem in regards to trans inclusion in the mission statement is the following sentence:

“Bryn Mawr teaches and values critical, creative and independent habits of thought and expression in an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum for women and in coeducational graduate programs in arts and sciences and social work and social research.”

Though recently we as students changed the Self-Government Association Constitution to use gender inclusive language, the outward facing mission of the college still uses language to enforce that the undergraduate curriculum is for women. I would guess that the mission statement page of the Bryn Mawr website probably receives more traffic from non-Bryn Mawr community members than the SGA Blog. Therefore, though the internal Bryn Mawr community is moving toward gender inclusivity, the image of the college is not and as Dean Spade points out, the image that we present to the world outside matters.

Even though there are many people working hard toward more trans inclusion for Bryn Mawr, the image presented to the public is very much still geared towards women. When looking at the Bryn Mawr Admissions page for statements on requirements for application regarding gender, these are the first words on the page:

“Who will you become?  Bryn Mawr women go on to successful careers and fulfilling lives along their unique journeys of growth and exploration.”

The marketed image of Bryn Mawr is very much one of empowered women who were assigned female at birth. A history of successful women is what attracts many applicants to Bryn Mawr and so parts of the community have difficulty adjusting that image to be more inclusive.

Websites Referenced

SGA Constitution:

Bryn Mawr Mission Statement:

Bryn Mawr Admissions:

Really I Got Just What I Was Asking For (Thanks!)

I’m typing this after watching one minute of Dean Spade’s speech, because I am floored by the introduction. What great context! I feel like this is a great way to frame the conversation and hold the space. I’m intrigued and grounded, which can only be a good thing!

Three minutes in, I also like the the framing of colleges and universities as political projects.  I think there is a great deal of talk about ‘neutrality’ at Bryn Mawr. I think people don’t realize that it is impossible to be neutral, and especially in this environment everything is inherently political, so we  might as well take the time to steer our actions in a direction that we like (aka supports marginalized groups).

And just before the ten minute mark I love how he put context to his context, by talking about how important it is to have everyone be on the same page, and for everyone to know what type of language is being used in the situation, and what that means. Not only is it effective, it also acknowledges that everyone is coming from a different place and different education, so while one person might think it’s obvious and a waste of time, another person gets to engage with the conversation more fully!

After sixteen minutes I need Dean Spade to come to Bryn Mawr. How clever and funny! But I’m also being reminded of a conversation that I’ve had about the new Dean of the College. Thinking of who we want to hire, I had a conversation with a staff member who made the distinction between someone who will make diversity and social justice (because I think diversity without social justice is useless) not a priority, but inherent in everything that they do. This echoes thoughts that I heard at the diversity conversation between the Board of Trustees members and students. Which was that we should not make diversity a goal but a value, so it cannot be put aside for something else. Also that just makes it more effective! We already have so many systems in place. We should be change them instead of adding peripheral distractions. I think that can also be related to archival work. Why have a “diversity box?” Ww can be so much moe effective and so much more progressive if we are ALWAYS thinking about these things when we are archiving instead of just doing a “general” meaning white history and then only getting people of marginalized groups later, as if they aren’t meant to be there.




Sins of the Past

At what point can a society or organization recover from its past mistakes and cease needing to dwell on and apologize for them, specifically within historical projects?

Historical projects, whether they be academic writings or public exhibits, can easily become bogged down in the “mandatory” treatment of topics that border or directly pertain to race, religion, gender, or sexuality, to name just a few. Nearly any Western European/American (including North, Central, and South, here) historical topic set in the 18th and 19th centuries must have the obligatory chapter discussing the horrors perpetrated against slaves and indigenous peoples, lest they be called out for ignoring or denying that such issues existed. Yes, it happened. It was the 1700s and 1800s. No, it wasn’t right. Now, what were you saying about missionaries again? Can we get back to the topic at hand?

Let me emphasize here: I do not condone silencing minority histories. I do not condone the actions taken that are now considered reprehensible. I simply am challenging at what point such issues become common knowledge and understanding, that we, as historians, can move past the mistakes of a society and organization and focus on the topic we wish to discuss.

This specifically came to me as I began Ebony and Ivy. I was immediately accosted with pages full of the demonization of white American culture during the early 1800s. I often had to step back and remind myself that the book actually intended to discuss how elite higher education was/is connected to racism and slavery. At the same time, for a different class, I am reading a book discussing the role of missionaries within a slave rebellion in Demarara (now Guyana) during 1823. The same social and cultural issues were discussed and acknowledged, but in a far less aggressive way and in one that pertained to the topic at hand.

Regarding public historical works, the line is far more gray. It is more difficult to discern what would be considered common knowledge among the public at large. However, the same issue can be even more pressing, what with limited space, funding, and attention spans: At what point can the sins of the past be understood as part of the cultural picture (albeit an ugly part) that makes up the world within which the topic inhabits? Being obligated to focus on well-known social issues that border, or even are ancillary to, the historical topic mandates extra space, cost, and time within the exhibit. The loss of any or all of these may do a disservice to the efficacy of the exhibit.

On a separate note, I am beginning to intimately understand the public historian’s struggle regarding communicating with the wider community: It is intensely difficult and stressful to express one’s own take on a situation, let alone a highly-charged historical issue, to a community in a way that will be understood and not taken as an affront. In fact, if one tries too hard to avoid raising the ire of the community, nothing ever gets said or done. If one does not, and the community is angered, very little also gets done, as the flow turns against the historian in question.

Inclusion and Tradition

Whenever I think about Bryn Mawr’s institutional memory, especially as it relates to trans inclusion, I’m reminded of a series of conversations I had with an alum who I shadowed as part of an externship during winter break my sophomore year. She graduated in 1997, 20 years before I will graduate, and it was fascinating to hear about her experiences and try to communicate about our similar but also incredibly different visions of Bryn Mawr.

My externship was before Bryn Mawr changed its admissions policy about accepting trans students, but trans inclusion was a major topic of conversation for current students and alums. Although the alum I talked to was supportive of Bryn Mawr accepting trans women, she was much more confused about trans men and non-binary students and their place at Bryn Mawr. I struggled trying to explain my hope of Bryn Mawr embracing greater inclusivity across the board to someone with a more narrow idea of what a women’s college should be. Although that kind of resistance exists within the current student body as well, I got the feeling that my Class of ’17 conception of what Bryn Mawr is and what it should be was vastly different from her Class of ’97 one. We shared so many of the same memories of Bryn Mawr, from our identical red lanterns to our favorite Art History professors, but we had different basic definitions of who should have access to Bryn Mawr.

On an unrelated note, I’ve been thinking a lot about May Day gifts and passing down Bryn Mawr’s heritage. What does it mean for documenting Bryn Mawr history that many of us personally have pieces of Bryn Mawr life that have been handed down for years? I have a few items that were originally from the 90s and early 00s, which I never thought of as very valuable. I only recently remembered them because I have some hell schedules from 10-15 years ago that are interesting to consider at as the school reevaluates the tradition. Since there are no records of May Day gifts, we have no idea of what artifacts are being passed down. I’m sure they would form a very different story about Bryn Mawr history than the one found in the official college archives.

Bryn Mawr and Oral History

In light of this week’s tradition, I found myself considering the differences between written and oral histories. Without making judgements either way on the name change, I must admit that I have never heard the name “Welcome the First Years Week/WTF Week” pronounced aloud. Whenever, in my experience, students have spoken of this week’s tradition, they have continued to call it “Hell Week” and use any and all associated terms. This has included many first-years themselves, whom I have witnessed asking upperclassmen to “hell” them in a way hardly different from students in past years.

It is interesting to observe the strength of Bryn Mawr’s collective memory regarding its traditions, as this terminology has been disseminated among first-year students who have no personal memory of it. This also made me wonder how researchers of Bryn Mawr’s history and traditions might view this period years from now. If one were only to examine the official writings of the college, one might conclude that the entire student body adopted the same changes in speech without question. Unless evidence to the contrary had somehow been archived, there would be no record of the terminology much of the student body was employing on a daily basis. This seems to speak to the broader problems of preserving oral histories, which, although just as valid as written histories, can be so easily lost or corrupted. Without oral histories, only select points of view may survive for future historians to study, creating an incomplete picture of what actually occurred in the past.

Bryn Mawr’s Branding Problem

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way Bryn Mawr presents itself lately, as I’ve watched and participated in the conversations going on surrounding departmental funding, Welcome-the-First-Years Week, and the future of Bryn Mawr. Back home, where almost no one in my community has heard of Bryn Mawr (one person once asked me if that meant I attended school at this train station:, I used to often summarize the College by billing it as a pioneering women’s institution that offered women opportunities at a time when few other places would. This is the standard narrative the College gives out (well, one of them) and it conveniently ignores the fact that the women Bryn Mawr was created to serve were white, cis, able, wealthy, and generally privileged in every way except their gender. I led with it for two reasons: one, because no matter what my personal feelings are about this school, leading with a list of Bryn Mawr’s problems felt like the wrong way to introduce the College; two, because I am in most ways the sort of woman Bryn Mawr would have serviced in 1885, I have the privilege of attending an institution that was (mostly) made for people like me, and that gave me the option not to mention the issues Bryn Mawr struggles with and to avoid any social awkwardness that might follow.

I have stopped leading with this, however, in the last year. What first made me reconsider it was actually when I heard it used as a reason that Bryn Mawr should admit trans women: that because we had been founded to help a marginalized group, we should carry on that practice. While I am 100% behind the admittance of trans women to this campus– and trans men as well, despite the College’s decision not to at this time–I found that particular argument troubling, because I didn’t feel it was really true. Can we really say that the women who first graduated from this college were marginalized? Certainly they were at a disadvantage when compared to their male peers, but they were elite and privileged in every other way. To say that the College was in fact founded to aid a “marginalized” group and has carried on in that tradition is to ignore the fact that for decades Bryn Mawr actively avoided admitting African American women, Jews, and more recently trans women. Those are not the actions of a pioneering institution.

All campuses are political. Academia is inherently political. We cannot say that we have stood apart from the greater movements of history, and I do not think condemning this institution for lacking the trans-historical vision of hindsight is constructive. But to say we have always been on the right side of history, always ahead of the curve, because we have serviced one– and only one– disadvantaged group is, in my opinion, a lie. Better to acknowledge that we started with good intentions for some, and we intend to– that we willbecome a pioneering institution, one that leads the fight for change and promotes not only gender equality, but racial, religious, and many other kinds of equality besides. Not only is that a more honest portrayal of our history and our vision for the future, but I think in the end it’s a more honorable approach all around.

So, these days, when someone asks me about my school, I try to do what I’ve always intended to do: tell the truth. It’s a work in progress, to be sure, but at least it’s a start.