You missed the point, Colby

By Peg Schreiner

Note: Cosby’s honorary degree has since been rescinded.

When Tarana Burke came to speak on campus this Monday, she put a face to the movement that has not only rocked Hollywood and Wall Street, but also has opened many peoples’ eyes to sexual assault on the Hill.

Burke is a survivor of sexual assault and created the #MeToo movement in 2006. For many years, the movement provided support to marginalized survivors along the spectrum of sexual violence, but without much public recognition. Fast forward to October 2017, when the actress Alyssa Milano said a ‘Me Too’ hashtag would help our society understand the magnitude of the problem. Milano, who is white, was unaware that Burke, who is black, had already coined this phrase for a movement.

Milano was criticized for misappropriating the movement away from black women, but she stated that she was unaware of Burke’s previous work and put great effort into amplifying Burke’s cause and ensuring that the media portrayed its dedication to empowering underrepresented groups accurately.

Since the key here is not that white survivors cannot use the hashtag, but rather that the most disenfranchised sexual assault survivors must be “centered,” I was disturbed by the College’s press surrounding Burke’s visit. Colby’s official Instagram account posted photos of the speech, with part of the caption noting that Burke said, “Colby — I’ve got a good feeling about y’all.”

The College’s communications staff accurately quoted Burke, but did we really need to use this moment to be self-congratulatory? In recent years, and especially with the advent of the Dare Northward campaign, the College has placed a singular focus on declaring its greatness as loudly as possible. If this point seems vague, think back to the lighting of the Empire State Building.

So why am I upset? I’m upset because I think Colby is a great place. I’m upset because I chose to attend Colby since it once exuded an unassuming attitude, a quiet confidence that reduced competition but still inspired excellence. But I’m most upset because its current proclivity for elitism made the administration so blind as to consider one of the two most noteworthy quotes from Burke to be the only comment she made complimenting the College. To me, this exemplifies the focus shifting of the movement that some white women and men are guilty of on an institutional level.

Colby is a community with countless genuine, caring, and selflessly devoted faculty and staff who, on a daily basis, work to end the culture of sexual violence and misogyny that does exist on this campus. But, Colby is also an institution that has neither, at the time of writing this article, rescinded the honorary degree bestowed upon Bill Cosby, nor publicly condemned his actions. I can’t be sure of how Burke would react to hearing about the College’s timidity under these circumstances, but I would guess that her call for community healing would include that the leaders of this institution should say that, under no circumstances, will a public figure convicted of aggravated sexual assault be eternally associated the College.

To the seniors I admire for having fought against sexual violence on this campus for four years, I can imagine that the seal on their diplomas, which Cosby’s shares, will command less respect.

I genuinely believe that Burke was correct in her assumption that Colby wants to be “on the right side of history” in this movement, but time and time again I am shocked by the College’s apprehensiveness in making a statement. Yes, rescinding Cosby’s degree will likely result in news coverage that puts a stock photo of Miller uncomfortably close to narratives of sexual assault. But how else is the College supposed to make clear to its students — in this moment — that it stands vehemently against sexual assault? How is the next survivor on this campus supposed to believe that there are support systems in place when they see the administrators that chose to stay silent?

To quote the other half of the College’s Instagram post, I would like to remind the administration: “You all need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”