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To HWS: an Open Letter of Resignation

For my own sanity and overall well-being, I will not be returning to Hobart and William Smith Colleges this fall as an enrolled student. I have not absolved myself from accountability. By providing context for my actions, I seek to expand the scope of what needs to be accounted for. 

It had only taken me half of my first semester to learn that racism at HWS was silent and coded most of the time and grotesquely blatant at other times. During that semester, I was confronted by peers with similar critiques of the institution who wanted to speak out against the inequities they themselves had experienced but requested assistance with language. I suggested the name We, The Unheard for our demonstration, wanting to convey the urgency of being made to feel nearly voiceless and to make an attempt to establish (what would be hundreds of) demonstrators as a diverse community of repressed people. As I stood in front of Scandling center, locking arms with my peers, I felt a gaze over me which was, in part, quite literal from the various members of administration who watched. Sadly, my anxiety and depression, which this institution has heightened, eventually impeded against my involvement in organizing efforts with that cause. However, from that day on, there have been staff at this institution who seemed to have already met me before I knew them. From some administration, I seemed to have earned respect, but there were others as well. 

There resides at Hobart and William Smith Colleges many kind people. There are numerous people here who care about the local and global communities in which they exist. Although it sometime seems to me as if caring people are the minority here, I worry that the methods and procedures used to demonstrate care and provide security tend to be some of the most detrimental. There is a culture of kind impoliteness, which is not exclusive to HWS as an institution, but exists here nonetheless. The culture I speak of was most likely born out of the suburbs of places like New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, where the colleges seem to accept most of their applicants. As a consequence of Geneva’s (and thus the colleges’) own segregation, which I had the opportunity to study through a fellowship granted to me here, awareness of that culture’s presence seems to only be carried by a minority of the Colleges’ population. 

That said, there have been several (documented) incidents in which a member of the institution felt offended or even threatened by me. I have given a great deal of consideration lately to the ways in which I actually am a threat: For one, I have been socialized as a man with principles and racialized gender expectations of a white patriarchy. That fact alone grants me the understanding that I have a capacity to harm without being completely being aware of the existence or extent of that harm. Another contributing factor to my being a threat is that I do not come from this culture of middle-class passive aggression like many of my peers who are non-white, hyper-tokenized, athletes/ prep-school alumni. Consequently, I am a threat culturally to this institution. At HWS, racism, and particularly anti-Blackness, is not rigid and biological, it is cultural and embedded within an ideology of multiculturalism, which demands that populants adhere to a dominant cultural order as a “common ground”. For me, a double-major in English and International Relations, from the Bronx, of African and, more immediately, Jamaican ancestry, who seeks liberation from the stifling grips of the present-day crime of colonialism, adhering to that common ground at HWS means that I should not be as inquisitive in the classroom and that I should be neutral when that crime manifests within the ideology of my institutional superiors. There has not been a semester in which my very questioning of an idea, within a space that prides itself on academic integrity, hasn’t been scolded by professors. 

Despite all of the uncompensated labor of informally leading classroom discussions when professors and students lack the cultural understanding not to disrespect my ancestors or my people, such as those in my first-year seminar, which was all white except for me and a William Smith student, Zahra. In fact, most of my classes at HWS have been mostly white with a few racially tokenized exceptions. Due in part to the uncompensated labor described above, performed by many students here, my education has been impeded against. I, a student from a Jamaican household, failed a Jamaican dance class, one of those classes I performed much of that labor in due to the professor’s cultural misunderstanding, after I pointed out to that professor that her cultural misunderstanding had started to become cultural disrespect. I told her that her class no longer made me feel safe after a series of compounding displays of cultural ignorance. I then failed the class for a lack of attendance. I relay these anecdotes as representation of a larger series of conflicts of interest within the classroom. I also hope to convey the daily realities of mine at HWS which have dramatically increased my levels of anxiety and depression. One International Relations professor told me outright that I should stop asking as much questions (even though everyone was asking questions, just not my questions). Another professor suggested to me that I use less “jargon” in my classroom discussions such that my peers (who probably had a collective net worth in the millions) could better understand me, a kid educated by New York City public schools. These are but a few of the ways in which the common ground I spoke of earlier has been policed. 

I have developed many fruitful relationships within the actual community of Geneva that HWS has segregated itself from, except for paternalistic service based foundationally on an approach that recognizes the community as a deficit and not the holders of the cultural capital necessary for HWS to ever seek true accountability. Last summer, I invited my friend from town to my campus residence at 408 Pultney St. The friend I invited, who has lived in Geneva all her life and even used to live in the Garden apartments down the street, revealed to me that she had never stepped foot on Verplank street, which was adjacent to 408 Pultney, before I invited her. This goes to show that segregation in Geneva and at HWS is so calculated, that the suburb of Verplank street had almost no contact with people just down the road. I shared this anecdote to reiterate that there is, in addition to a dominant culture of kind impoliteness and cultural 

anti-Blackness, a conscious effort by this institution to separate itself from communities like the ones in the Garden apartments, which remind me most of the community I come from. This fact alone is enough to explain how people from various areas of this institution seem to be so at odds with a person holding my identity. 

Despite me never being given the opportunity to defend myself before the student body, not one report against me will express me not wanting to have dialogue about the conflict at hand. It is my opposers in administration, who do not want dialogue, but rather gossip behind closed doors. While I believe that we all have a responsibility to analyze and critique all of the systems we lend ourselves to, HWS has helped to teach me that people both are and are not the groups they are a part of. There is staff here, from Buildings and Grounds teams to the office of Advancement who have made this experience bearable, and from whom the larger institution can learn from. These are people such as Tricia, Larry, Danielle, Karen, Jared, Cathy, Mary Kelly, Christen, Alejandra, Kathryn, Shirley, David, Tina (from the English dept), Tommy Cook, Luis, Jason Rodriguez, Kaylyn O’brien, Amy Forbes, Katie and Tremayne, Steve, Paul, Kevin, Natalia, Morgan, Andrew, Lou, and James McCorkle. Individuals like Dean Hussain and President McGuire, despite not being raised in my city, The Bronx, have spent time and thought there and, with my confidence, are more than able to draw parallels between the city of Geneva and the city of The Bronx. I grew up on the Other side of Fordham University’s gates, just as many like me have grown up outside the gates of HWS for decades. How this institution has treated me is a reflection of how it has treated the larger communities around it. 

Respectfully, 

Danzlear Johnson 

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