Dean Mary Spellman at Claremont McKenna stepped down after she sparked a campus protest and hunger strikes by two students this week over her email to a Latina student saying she would work to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”At the University of Missouri there were unambiguous acts of racism that led to students protesting and the president resigning.
But at this Claremont McKenna College (CMC), a very well regarded small private liberal arts college, the racism was less overt. It was subtle enough to many that they might not understand why it's a problem.
So what is wrong with the email that the president sent to the student?
Dean Spellman articulated what she was thinking: We have a mold here, an expectation for the kind of students that belong, and you don't fit the mold, meet the expectations. You are different. We don't know what to do with you. You really don't fit here, but we're indulging you. Some may even hear, 'because it doesn't look good if we don't have a few people like you, so we take a few for appearance sake.'
Years ago, I was aware of a form of this in Anchorage classes - where a teacher would talk about Alaska Natives. They would talk in terms of 'they' and 'we.' Even if the observations were 100% factually true (which they often weren't), the teachers were distinguishing between the outsiders ('them') and the insiders ('us') Any Native students in the classroom would understand clearly that they were not part of 'us.' That they were outsiders to the class, outsiders to the University of Alaska Anchorage.
There are lots of people who loudly declare that they are not racists, they don't have a racist bone in their body, but say things like this. It may be true they don't have a racist bone, but racism does reside in their gray matter. It's part of how they take in and then project the world they see.
Isn't this natural?
We all do that. We all categorize. It's part of how the brains work. We distinguish between things that are safe and things that are dangerous - whether we should be afraid or welcoming. We tend to respond differently to a toy poodle than to a snarling rottweiler. We distinguish between the smell of freshly barbecued salmon and a salmon that's been sitting dead in the sun for three days. And we distinguish between family members and strangers. (And as we are learning from child molestation studies, family isn't as safe as we think.)
It's normal to be more comfortable with people with whom we share lots of experiences. People whose parents had the same way of raising us, who went to the same schools at the same time, who are nostalgic about the same old songs, and have the same political beliefs. My parents' closest friends in Los Angeles were fellow refugees from Nazi Germany. They all shared similar stories of fleeing from their homeland and, in many cases, leaving their parents behind. They didn't have to explain themselves to each other. They all understood. They didn't agree on everything, but on the most fundamental issues of their identity, they did.
This is natural. And treating people who don't have that shared identity as 'others' is also natural. The less we actually know individuals from other groups, the more we know them as stereotypes, as representatives of the whole class they represent to us. It's not just race or religion or nationality. It could be based on disability or on profession or regional accent, or any number of things.
Stereotypes are reinforced by family stories and comments, by media, by school and by church. Many are economically convenient - thinking of the indigenous peoples of North America as savages, made it easy to justify killing them and taking their land. Thinking of Africans as a lower form of human being made it was easier to justify enslaving them.
The notion of insider and outsider is part of how humans are hard-wired. It's possible to expand the insider group as we expand our knowledge of other groups. That's why I think the chance I had to spend a year as a student in Germany, learning German well enough to take classes in German, was critical to my development. And the same is true for my time as a Peace Corps volunteer where I lived in a small town in Thailand and had to communicate to most everyone in their language.
So, if, as I claim, this insider-outsider distinction is normal, what was wrong with what the Claremont president emailed?
Personally, Mary Spellman's mind makes distinctions between her group and other groups. That's fine.
The problem is that she did that in her role as president of the college. The students in the college should all be considered insiders in this place they spend four years at college. They will all eventually be bonded together as Claremont graduates. Yes, students come in with differences and go to class and live in dorms with people who are, initially, outsiders to themselves. But the goal of a college, particularly a small, expensive, private liberal arts college, should be to help the students bridge those differences and overcome their stereotypes. No group of students, in the college should be considered 'our mold' and no group should be looked at as having to be still be molded to fit. At least not on ethnic or cultural grounds. If there is a mold a college is trying to fit students into, it would be a 'student' mold - curious about new ideas, with tools for thinking rationally and emotionally and an ability to overcome challenges including understanding people from different backgrounds..
So Spellman's mistake was taking her personal ideas of insider and outsider and making them the school's model of insider and outsider. As president, she should consider all the students who made it through the admissions process as insiders, as 'our mold.'