An Open Letter

To Karen Warren Coleman, Vice President for Campus Life and Human Services (In Response to Her Recent Email)

Dear Ms. Coleman,

Last week, the student body received an email from you affirming your commitment to “diversity and inclusion,” and outlining steps your office will take to address the recent bout of hate speech on campus. While your message may have provided some small amount of solace to those students feeling persecuted, isolated, and silenced, I want to state clearly and for the record that it represents an unethical and insufficient response to a monumentally important problem. The problem is not simply a lack of diversity, although this university certainly suffers from that lack. The problem is that this institution is chronically, violently racist, and we seem to have given up trying to do anything about it.I understand that this problem is not new. When I first heard about the “Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions” facebook page circulating hate speech across campus, it sounded exactly like one of the dozens of similar incidents I experienced when I was an undergraduate at Harvard. So of course I’m not terribly surprised that your response is familiar as well. I would like to hope that as you copied and pasted text for your message to us from one of hundreds of similar messages sent out over the years, you stopped to really think about the ways in which your failure to act effectively is in itself a violence. But, just in case you didn’t really put much thought into it at all, allow me to explain:

I am nearing the end of my fourth year as a PhD student on this campus, and I am really starting to feel the effects. I love my job and I can’t imagine doing anything else, but doing it here at the University of Chicago has been one of the most emotionally and physically damaging experiences of my life. I return every day to rooms in which I’ve been hurt to learn from people who look nothing like me and to teach people who look nothing like me about whole theoretical worlds in which I do not exist. I sit, shoulders tensed, in classrooms as each racist, sexist, and homophobic word from the mouths of my colleagues hits me like a blow to the chest. Some of them, I imagine, actually leave the classroom feeling full of life and intellectual energy. The structural violence of this institution makes it unlikely I will ever know how that feels. I don’t know how much stronger and braver I might feel if the professor were black, or latino, or gay. I don’t know how much more capable I would feel if I could see a world I recognized in the texts we read. And as I walk home every evening past countless University of Chicago police officers and my shoulders knot even tighter, I wonder if you realize that they don’t make everyone feel more safe.

Sexism, racism, and homophobia thrive on this campus and it is not a problem of dialogue, it is a problem of institutional violence. You offer “tangible next steps,” but the plans outlined in your message to us feel intangible and insulting. I don’t need you to implement programming to “raise awareness” about my very existence, and I don’t have the strength left to lend my energies to the project of documenting my worth. And as much as I would love to serve on an Advisory Council on Diversity with several highly paid staffers, most of the work I do here is already unpaid and I quite literally can’t afford to give you more time. And your new diversity website is not going to make me feel less alone. And attending a keynote address by that one white guy who talks about racism is not going to make me feel less silenced.

So you will excuse me if I sound like I’m upset. But your failure to acknowledge the violence of this institution is killing me. I know the problem is large, but here’s a place to start: stop throwing money into advisory committees, dialogues, and awareness campaigns, and invest in structural change. 1) Hire more women and people of color in tenure-track positions 2) Admit more students of color 3) Improve your sexual assault policy 4) Invest in making the University of Chicago an accessible campus for students with disabilities. 5) Provide student parents with a means to obtain affordable childcare. 6) Finally and most immediately, provide better health and mental health care for your students. The health and mental health resources on this campus are woefully inadequate, and for those students trying to manage the physical and emotional stresses of being a minority on this campus, they can be cripplingly so.

It will still be a long time before the University of Chicago is an easy place to be black, or gay, or female, and I’m sure things like this will happen many more times, but its high time we started working to actually fix this problem.

Kaya Williams
Member, Graduate Students United