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Campus looks for catharsis after incidents racially motivated, and not

by Amy Kingsley

In 1998, the president of the Guilford College student senate turned up with racial epithets scrawled across her arms and injuries she said she had sustained during an attack.

The student, Molly Martin, was running for reelection and had chosen a black running mate. It was, she suspected, retaliation for her support of the creation of an Office of African-American Affairs.

Outrage tore through the campus. Administrators held forums where students discussed racism and other campus issues the attack had exposed.

Weeks later, Martin changed her story. The police deemed her case inactive for lack of evidence and she dropped out of school. Although Martin never recanted, many people suspected she staged the attack.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the aftermath of the incident allowed students and administrators to achieve a level of catharsis. Guilford College created a full-time staff position to oversee African-American affairs and the issues raised were put, momentarily, to bed.

The incident, however shameful, had stirred a campus with a committed but ponderous history with social justice into quick and decisive action.

The Martin episode was the most recent episode of Guilford College history examined at a teach-in on Feb. 18 held in response to a violent outburst on Jan. 20 some have described as racially motivated.

An administrative committee formed after the incident scheduled the teach-in as an opportunity to discuss issues raised by the fight. About 100 people attended the first half of the event; attendance dropped to about 60 for the second half.

Speakers Gwen Erickson and James Shields, like a dozen others scheduled to speak, dwelt less on the specifics of the beating, in which three Palestinians suffered concussions and other injuries, than in how it fits into the college’s social history.

“It exposed a lot of underlying issues,” Shields said. “Are we ignoring all these underlying issues until something like this happens?”                                

Topics included divisions between athletics and academics, stereotypes, Quaker testimony and the history of Guilford College. Shields and Erickson started with the antebellum era when Guilford was a hub of abolitionist activity and jumped to the Civil Rights Movement, when college administrators stalled efforts to integrate the campus.

The event opened with a keynote address by retired Guilford College President William Rogers.

After describing his own history of brawling (just once, he said, at Kalamazoo College when someone tried to sabotage a bonfire), Rogers delivered a short overview of diversity and athletics at Guilford College. The latter, as it turns out, started with a vigorous kite-flying program. The former developed in fits and starts, first with the inclusion of women on campus then, much later, with the admission of African Americans in the 1960s.

“Sometimes diversity strains a community,” Rogers said. “It is both a strength and a challenge.”

After Rogers, three scholars who specialize in the culture of sport in college spoke. Herb Appenzeller served as the athletic director for Guilford College for more than 30 years. The college’s sports programs were a key part of integration, he said.

“When I went to college,” he said, “diversity was having Yankee students and Southern students.”

Calvin Hunter, a professor at Catawba College and former Fighting Quakers quarterback, talked about his experience at Guilford. He said the culture of intercollegiate athletics is real, but that it is not different than a culture of college theater or math majors. The key, Hunter said, is communication between different student groups.

After Shields’ and Erickson’s lectures, three professors discussed xenophobia and stereotyping.

Eric Mortensen, a professor of religious studies, opened with a question.

“Do you know confidently the nationalities of those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center?”

He projected a map of the Middle East and asked the audience to identify countries, religions and the geographic boundaries of different ethnic groups.

“The folks who live in the part of the world I was just discussing are not homogenous,” he said.

Maria Amado, a sociology professor, warned against exoticizing those from other countries and urged the audience to contemplate complicated intersections of race, nationality and religion.

“Let’s get out of our comfort zone and start dismantling in our minds our ideas of other people,” she said.

Her colleague Kathryn Schmidt said stereotypes were a useful tool for making snap judgments, but stressed the importance of getting beyond such impressions.

“Whenever you hear someone’s story,” she said, “you begin to hear how much more complicated it is.”

The event lasted more than five hours and ended with a panel discussion on the roots of Quaker testimony. Guilford College is processing five of the students involved in the fight through a judicial process that officials estimated would finish by late February. The administrative committee that organized the Feb. 18 teach-in has scheduled another for March 11.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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