Our private college is also public: Daydreams

Posted by Rick Chrisman

I was taken by surprise at the community meeting about race the week before last, although I shouldn't have been. The highly emotional outpouring by students of color about their mistreatment and resultant misery at Skidmore was sobering for me, who believed that things were much better than that.

But then I remembered where we are: America! Most of us are Americans, having grown up in a society that faces persistent racism (though there are some exceptions). We brought this racial tension to Skidmore with us from our hometowns and, in doing so, we perpetuate this sort of society. But there's hope.

At the meeting, the calls for action were heartfelt, and promises were made to come back with good proposals for action. Yes, some people were dismayed that they had heard this conversation before at Skidmore. A Skidmore News clipping from 1994 recently posted over a water fountain read "Race Relations at Skidmore One Year Later: is it getting any better?" Apparently not, but the upside is that the conversation has been renewed.

So, we ask, who's to blame? Who is responsible for the ongoing racial hostility here? Can't more be done to prevent this unnecessary pain? We are overdue to "pop the bubble," as Danny Pforte said in his article last week.

But the bubble that I blame for our distress is not one of whiteness, privilege, affluence or ignorance alone, although these factors aren't totally irrelevant. The real problem is one of self-control. Skidmore students seem to see themselves in a "domestic bubble" — in other words, to imagine their college campus as being their big comfy living room.

The reality, of course, is that they have left home and now occupy a larger public space where the rules of communication are much stricter. Students must remember that public discourse is far more limited than private. This rule applies to both to college life and the work world.

Apparently, many students haven't adjusted to this new reality. Back in their living rooms at home, where they are accepted by everybody under that roof no matter how they behave, they are accustomed to exhaling their opinions and fulminations. And that's what private space is for. In the larger community, however, the rules of etiquette change.

Here at Skidmore, we are suddenly met with relationships that differ greatly from those we had at home. They are public relationships, friendships between strangers. Everyone you meet is a candidate for friendship; everyone in the dorm, the dining hall, on the team and in class. In joining this liberal institution, we suddenly become equal-opportunity friends motivated collectively by curiosity, empathy, a passion for learning and what I would call a kind of communal love.

Danielle S. Allen says that such friendship "is not an emotion, but a practice, a set of hard-won, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty and differences of personality, experience and aspiration." She calls this "the citizenship of trust-building." If this mindset were to overtake the Skidmore campus, it would eliminate everything from anonymous racial slurs to more overt harassment. But that's a big "if."

The distinction between the private and public spheres is common sense, but to many students, the boundary of the public sphere is unclear. As far as they are concerned, the discourse appropriate within the private sphere carries over indefinitely, thus invading the invisible public one. And this is how the pain begins.

During the performance after the community meeting that Friday, James Baldwin looked out at the audience and lovingly exhorted them: "Take care of each other, protect each other." It was beautifully said, and it's not that hard to do.

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