Mount Holyoke History department needs to take meaningful action to diversify academia

BY CHLOE JENSEN ’20

Since Feb. 11, the history department has attempted to address the protests in which students covered the boards of Skinner Hall with flyers demanding more faculty of color in the History Department. Like many responses to protests demanding more faculty of color, the history department claimed they were in support of the students’ demands, yet did not provide plans to implement change in the future. 

After each of these student protests, the history department seems to have the same response: they offer a meek apology, claim to support the students protests, use this opportunity to weakly argue about how this relates to their specialty, do nothing. This is followed by radio silence when it comes time to hire more faculty of color.  

Every day, I sit in history classes and listen to professors discuss how slavery, anti-immigration laws and segregation affects every proceeding aspect of history. These professors continually emphasize how important it is to remember that these policies do not exist in a vacuum of the past and that they have material ramifications today, and how important it is to keep challenging systemic racism. 

Yet somehow, when we discuss the ways that Mount Holyoke and other predominantly white institutions have contributed and continue to contribute to these problems, our professors seem apathetic to real change. They recognize how these institutions have been a problem in the past, they mention it throughout their lectures and assign scholarly readings with big words, tell their students to think critically and reflect on it and then continue on as though the very thing that they describe every day does not exist in its own unique form in their field.

Historians are all well aware of how challenging it is to promote real social change. There are many examples throughout history that demonstrate this, but one of the clearest is John F. Kennedy’s presidency. In his first years as president, Kennedy was very slow to support civil rights with meaningful change. Despite national Civil Rights protests, President  Kennedy’s initial lack of action showed his interest in maintaining the status quo. After nearly two years of beating around the bush, President Kennedy finally enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although this law clearly did not end racism, it demonstrated that racial equality was an issue that mattered to the Kennedy Administration, and that Kennedy had listened to Civil Rights protests. 

A lack of diversity is not a problem that exists exclusively within the history department or exclusively at Mount Holyoke. Academia is all too guilty of claiming to support diversity initiatives while making minimal efforts to do so. As the daughter of an academic, I have seen firsthand how many white professors are quick to claim allyship when it comes to making themselves look better in a group discussion or Facebook post. But the second they need to take responsibility for their or their colleagues’ actions, change their curriculum or make real, effective change on a search committee, they suddenly forget their previous claims, and continue supporting the same type of people and policies.

It is not enough to add one black author to your syllabus, or to ponder how racism could have affected policy change in the Civil Rights Era or to comment in passing about systemic racism within academia. What is enough is taking the power that you have been granted to make meaningful and effective change at Mount Holyoke in the retention of faculty of color. Historians, both within and outside of Mount Holyoke, should not be thinking “what can my discipline do for racial inequality,” but rather “what can I do for racial inequality within my disciple?”

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