Ignorance is Bliss. Or is it?

An incident of racism at Paul Smiths sparks a discussion on diversity


Halloween traditionally meant an evening of dressed up, pre-pubescent children in vibrant colors carrying round, orange, plastic pumpkins with wacky faces. Halloween was candy, candy, and more candy that seemed to last all the way to Christmas. It was parties in school. It was the sticky fake spider web that never seemed to go away. It was the feeling of smeared, cheap costume makeup on cheeks and noses. It was innocent youth.

But for a couple of students at Paul Smiths College, Halloween developed a whole new meaning. It was an excuse to not do homework. It was an off-campus party. It was the choice of Ku Klux Klan costumes.  "I think, sadly enough, they were trying to be amusing and failed," Kenneth Aaron, Director of Communications for Paul Smiths, says of the event.

"People need an introduction to these issues. They need people to show them different sexualities, classes, genders, religions, abilities."

Administrators weren't alerted about the event until the end of November when it was brought to their attention by a student who saw the pictures from the Halloween party on Facebook, a popular college student networking site. "I don’t think they [the pictures] were posted right away," Harrington says of the delay in finding out about the situation.

While, the students in question cannot be disclosed, the impact they have made on their campus and the local community will be something that will forever be remembered. According to Michael Harrington, the Chief Officer of Student Affairs, this event was only the beginning of a larger issue. "As discussions began amongst the community, we quickly realized that there was a large feeling of intolerance across campus towards certain minority groups," he says.

JW Wiley
JW Wiley is a Professor at SUNY Plattsburgh. He co-teaches a class called Examining Diversity Through Film.
Photo by Christine Thompson

And as this acknowledgement of intolerance boiled to the surface, the issues begin to simmer even more. That's when Paul Smiths called JW Wiley. Wiley is the Director of the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Pluralism at SUNY Plattsburgh and has become a familiar face in the North Country for his engaging conversations on social justice.

"When we were made aware of the true scale of this issue, we felt there was no better way to address it than by bringing our community together, and with the help of JW Wiley we were able to tackle some pretty extreme topics," Harrington says.

Paul Smiths College is located in Paul Smiths, N.Y. near Saranac Lake and consists of a student body of about 850 students. As of recent years, the demographic makeup has begun to change a little with the addition of international students from Ireland, Bosnia, Italy, Tibet, Japan, and Kenya, according to their website. But even with this small mix of different cultures, the intolerance still brews.

"Communities with all these realities [sexual orientation, race, religion, ability, class, gender] are ideal," Wiley says. However, he adds, some communities that are racially diverse have more respect for racial issues, but not necessarily for any other mix of the different social justice concerns.

"People need an introduction to these issues. They need people to show them different sexualities, classes, genders, religions, abilities," Wiley continues, and in the case of the Paul Smiths incident, an introduction to different races.

But even still, it isn't only about race.  "It’s a broader conversation," Aaron says.

If these broader conversations, as Aaron phrases it, aren't happening in schools, and aren't happening in communities, then a breakdown begins to occur. However, it's a combined effort. "If it's not taking place in your school, then what you have happening is a counter action to what it is you are doing in your community," Wiley notes.  "The educational process happens in both places. No matter how vibrant and rich and diverse your community is, when kids are in this educational moment with other kids, if it's not happening in their community, they are bringing a potential threat to what the community is trying to teach and undermine it." The inverse is also true for schools.

Paul Smiths town meeting
With the help of Diversity Consultant, J.W. Wiley, Paul Smiths administrators facilated a town discussion about social justice.
Photo contributed by Michael Harrington

"Their [the students] actions were a result of ignorance more than malice. But ignorance is its own sin, and we will continue to work on ways to make sure that our entire campus does better in being sensitive and thoughtful to others."

With the Paul Smiths Halloween incident, this broader conversation happened in January among the student body and facilitated by Wiley, Harrington, Susan Sweeney, the head of Human Resources, and President John Mills.

"It was like no other conversation I've ever had," Wiley says. "I have never walked into a room where I've had the expectation of 100 people and have there be 500+." According to Harrington, it's unfortunate that an incident like this is what brought the community and the college together to engage in a dynamic conversation, but if that's what it took to open everyone's eyes, then "I’m okay with that," he says.

And while some people walked away from the conversation feeling positive, others feel the meeting has only opened a wound for the campus community. "The idea that it's easier to live in ignorance than know the issues and work on those issues is a sad place to be in," Harrington adds.

According to Harrington, there is very little awareness on the Paul Smiths campus. The two students in question were very receptive to a conversation with Harrington and apologized to the whole student body. "It's not that people don't know, it's just their minds don't always go there," Harrington adds, there being the place where people think that their actions may offend others. These students further reinforced the need for social justice education on the Paul Smiths campus.

But this broader conversation about these injustices is about US, Wiley comments. How can WE (society) change the behaviors and problematic thinking of individuals so that there isn't an issue about THEM (the people outside our realm of acceptance). It's a question of how can we as educators, or parents or students step into these conversations and challenge ourselves as well as other people. It's not a conversation about how can THEY do something different to better affect MY reality.

"The town meeting showed our students that we can come together as a group and address issues as a campus community. We took these issues that may have been bubbling under the surface and talked about them," Harrington says. "We may not have walked away with an answer to every question, but they at least know where the college stands on it and gave people a voice."

"Their [the students] actions were a result of ignorance more than malice. But ignorance is its own sin, and we will continue to work on ways to make sure that our entire campus does better in being sensitive and thoughtful to others," Aaron says.

Harrington finishes with the statement: "Paul Smiths College is committed to graduating students who are engaged in civility, well versed in their area of study, and who have an understanding of the importance of inclusion and diversity; and so we will continue to provide them with opportunities to explore and learn about these areas."

How do you see yourself being affected by ignorance?

 

 

The Next Step:

In early March, Paul Smiths signed a three-year contract with JW Wiley to use his consulting services.

In the next few months, Wiley will be visiting the campus and observing the way in which the students, faculty and staff interact. From there, he will make recommendations on what would be the best and most pratical implementations for social justice education on the Paul Smiths campus.

The mission of the the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Pluralism (CDPI) is as stated:

"To assist Plattsburgh State University in its efforts to further
create an academic environment that will attract, recruit, retain, and prepare a diverse group of students to assume leadership roles in the world wide community; to assist in developing an environment whereby
both the faculty, staff, administration and curriculum combine to enrich these students; to assist in ensuring that academic and administrative processes are constantly being evaluated for their implementation and
adherence to diversity principles; and to expand the intellectual and social horizons of every individual the Center has access too who endeavors to embrace the universe and all of its inhabitants."

Michael Harrington, the Chief Officer of Student Affairs at Paul Smiths is optimistic about the future, saying that at the end of the day the responsiblity of administrators is to provide the tools necessary for the personal and academic growth of each student and if isolated events still occur, as long as you can say we've done everything we can, you can't go wrong.

Ken Aaron, the Director of Communications closed by stating: "These kinds of things happen everywhere."

 

 

 

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