Letter to the Editor: Diversity in the History Department

As reported in these pages last week, a group of students recently initiated a campaign to call attention to the need for a more diverse faculty here at Mount Holyoke, including in the history department. As chair of that department, I was pleased to see their posters in Skinner Hall on Feb. 12. There is no question in my mind as to the importance of advancing proactive, sustained and successful efforts to bring to campus, nurture and retain far more faculty of color than we now have among us. We can commit ourselves to making Mount Holyoke a place that will be attractive to faculty of color in all fields. This must be a priority, and we must develop and implement strategic plans to make it a reality, in history and in all departments. 

The students’ call for a diverse faculty represents more, however, than a desire to see themselves reflected in the faces of their teachers. It is also a call for proactive, sustained and successful efforts to address racism on campus, including in our classrooms. We may wish this were not necessary, but it is. We are in and of this world, and we must contend with the racism that pervades it, which works through us, even against our wishes. The awareness we need must be cultivated and nourished, and when it falters, we must take responsibility and choose to do better.

In that spirit, I wish to address directly some confusion and pain that arose in a class of mine. The phrase “the n-word” is, for good reason, generally reserved for a single term (ending in -er) that bears indelibly its history as a vehicle of hatred and harm. Under no circumstances would I condone utterance of the n-word in my class, or for that matter, in any history class. If someone uttered the n-word, or any racial slur, I would address it immediately. This is a fundamental commitment. 

Some students have raised an objection with me to the use of the word “Negro,” referring to it as equivalent to the n-word. Two things are true here. The students report that in their experience the word is painful. At the same time, the word is an integral and indispensable part of African American history. What I had neglected was the need, early in the semester, for a discussion of the range of racial language students would encounter in our course, and the ways various terms should and should not be used. What I then missed was a signal from a student who was trying to tell me about her experience. I regret both mistakes.

My colleagues and I are deeply committed to teaching with integrity, and we know that listening is essential to that process. We thank those students who have spoken up so far. As we work toward the diversity we seek, we also look forward to engaging with more students in the project of eliminating racism from our campus.

— Mary Renda, Chair of the History Department