Class struggle: how identity politics divided a campus
Meet the Reed student driven out of college for questioning a protest.
The photograph on the college website shows a confident, happy, young African-American woman using a bullhorn to address more than a hundred overwhelmingly white students holding protest signs. It was taken at a Black Lives Matter protest at Reed College, my alma mater, in September 2016. It was a beautiful day in Portland, Oregon, and the students were parading through campus, accompanied by drums and anything else that could make a sound. One of the cardboard signs in the crowd behind her said: ‘Brown People for Black Power.’ Another said: ‘1 out of 2 black students at Reed do not graduate.’
The demonstration marked the beginning of a year-long series of confrontations that turned the historically leftist college inside out. The young woman in the photo was responsible for organising most of them. I’ll call her Amanda, not her real name, because I don’t want her to be hounded by right-wing trolls. At most schools, demonstrations tend to flare up once or twice a year during a visit from a controversial right-wing speaker. At Reed, Amanda managed to create protests that occurred three days a week for most of the academic year.
Before Amanda, the Black Lives Matter movement hadn’t gained much traction at Reed. Although its students have been ranked as the most liberal in the Princeton Review’s survey of the top 382 liberal-arts colleges, only about three per cent of the student population is black. The school has had a hard time attracting them, in spite of a ‘fly-in’ programme that distributes free airline tickets to prospective black students. But in September 2016, on the heels of a national debate on race, the school got behind the movement, letting demonstrators set up an afternoon rally in the quad and allowing sympathetic professors to cancel classes, hold extra sessions and adjust assignment deadlines.
At the end of the day, Amanda and 40 other students crowded into the office of President John Kroger and presented him with 25 demands. President Kroger praised them for their ‘tireless work on the critically important issues they have raised’, and sat down on the floor with them, a cup of coffee at hand, as he took notes on a legal pad. The following day, he led a five-hour meeting with students, faculty and administrators to discuss the demands and later detailed his progress in two monthly updates: The college would make efforts to hire more diverse faculty, health counsellors, tutors and mentors, and he announced a new summer internship programme for marginalised students. The college would move up the decennial review of its humanities programme, Hum 110, which protesters claimed was Eurocentric and racist. Henceforth, Amanda and other students who had been placed on academic probation would be allowed to hold elective student office. (The school apologised for being unable to find an appropriate synonym for ‘probation’, which some students found pejorative.) The college even published a blog post with a photograph of Amanda and her bullhorn, entitled ‘Protest Amplifies Discussion of Race on Campus’.
A few months later, I received a letter from two Reed students of colour that was being distributed among alumni like a piece of samizdat. The students didn’t reveal their names for fear of being ostracised, but they described a campus that had been overtaken by militants who routinely shamed as racists anyone who didn’t agree with them. One of those singled out had been a freshman named Hunter Dillman who had been branded a racist after asking the organiser of a Latina student group an innocent question. He was ultimately hounded off campus.
The students said the Facebook shaming became even more virulent as the year went on. When another white student apologised to Amanda for being unable to attend a particular protest because he was behind on his schoolwork, Amanda accused him of being the kind of white guy who would ‘laugh at a lynching’. The students felt Amanda’s charge was so outrageous that they decided to take a big step: they would all ‘like’ the student’s apology on Facebook, even though they might be called racists as well. ‘As students of colour we felt that we had to do it’, one of them later told me. ‘It would have been 100 times worse if somebody white liked it.’
I wrote an article about the confrontations at Reed for The Economist that described the three-day-a-week protests against the humanities curriculum, and the shaming of Lucia Martinez Valdivia, a mixed-race Reed English professor, and Kimberly Peirce, the gender-fluid director of the film Boys Don’t Cry, whose talk was protested on campus. In the course of my reporting, I got to know two students: Amanda, the organiser of the protests, and Dillman, a chemistry major from rural Oregon.
In our first phone interview, Amanda told me she came from an economically mobile black family that was able to move to Santa Clarita, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. She described the place as very conservative. At one point in her junior year, her friend’s boyfriend threw a noose on her lawn as a sick joke. Her high school’s website displayed photos of an expansive upscale suburban campus with lacrosse fields and cheerleaders but very few black faces.
She told me that her career as a social-justice leader started early in her sophomore year at Reed, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. ‘In one week in September, three black men and one black boy were killed by police and nobody else was thinking about it’, she said. ‘That was surreal to me.’ She felt Reed didn’t do enough to address the grief it had caused and needed to declare a day off.
Reed was ‘a toxic environment where black people were underrepresented, undervalued and under-protected’, she said. The school accepted students of colour but failed to support them and didn’t show them that their minds were respected. Minority students who came to Reed for a progressive environment were offered a Eurocentric education that did not ‘reflect the lived experiences of people of colour’. Even worse, they were required to take Hum 110, which ‘participates in the narrative of white supremacy’.
The entire curriculum needed to ‘trust and centre my low-SES [low-socioeconomic status], darker-skinned and trans friends’. Her chemistry professor, for example, taught to a traditional textbook, but only discussed research published by people of colour, women or those who ‘have maximum intersectional privilege’. A year of organising had left her feeling burnt out and eager to take a year off. She was making plans to set up a reading group at a nearby prison and help those coming out get accepted by educational institutions.
At the end of our conversation, I wondered if Amanda had simply landed at the wrong school. She told me that when her parents took her to tour campuses in the Northwest, she fell in love with Lewis and Clark. It was her first choice but she wasn’t accepted. She didn’t even visit Reed, although it was only a few minutes away. In the Princeton Review rankings, Reed students came in second in those who go on to get PhDs, and they are often academic to a fault. Lewis and Clark has a more outdoorsy and athletic vibe. Amanda would have been able to create her own major or minor in gender or ethnic studies. She would have been able to satisfy her first semester humanities requirement by reading Frederick Douglass, Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf. Her second semester, she could have taken courses in anything from the Big Bang theory to vampires.
I arrived in Portland on a hot Sunday afternoon on the day before classes started. I walked across one of the pedestrian bridges that spans the school’s 28-acre canyon and sat down at a picnic table in the quad. Students sat eating lunch on tables nearby, chatting excitedly about the new school year, a few of them barefoot. A stream of corgis and their owners strolled by on their way to the annual corgi parade. In the old student union, a dozen students were folk dancing to the same scratchy recordings I’d heard decades ago. I began to doubt what I’d heard about Reed. This couldn’t possibly be the nasty place described in the alumni letter.
Hunter Dillman agreed to meet me on campus before we went to lunch in a barbeque joint a few blocks away. He was 6’2″, drove a beat-up black pickup and had pale blue eyes and blond hair parted in the centre. He was eager to talk to somebody who wanted to hear his story in detail, somebody who didn’t believe he had simply fucked up his freshman year. He told me his father was a construction worker who owned a farm and raised cows and chickens on the side. Hunter had taken four advanced placement (AP) science courses his senior year, getting all fives, and planned to get a degree in chemistry.
At the beginning of the first semester, as he was going to dinner with a friend, he read a Facebook post from the leader of a Latina group who wrote that her group planned to ‘Stop Trump’ and asked fellow students for support in a school funding survey. He was curious and considered getting involved. After he asked her a couple of times to be more specific about how the group planned to stop Trump, she accused him of being a racist for challenging a Latina student support group. He responded that if her group called people racist just for asking questions, he had no intention of voting to fund it.
A few minutes later, when the Latina activist happened to meet him waiting in line at the dining hall, she continued her accusations and called him a ‘little white boy’. Shaken, he took his food back to his room and tried to eat as he watched in horror as comment after comment about him appeared on Facebook, denouncing him as a bigot.
The next day, as he was walking across campus, a student screamed ‘Racist!’ at him. The accusers never came up to talk to him, but the online abuse kept coming. Many of the people he thought were friends dropped him. And although a few said they sympathised, no one was willing to stand up for him. The fact that he was 25 per cent Native American only made things worse. ‘How dare you use your Native American identity to justify your racism?’, his Native American peer counsellor asked him.
When Bruce Smith, the dean of students, called him into his office to get his side of the story, Dillman assumed the Latina student had filed a formal complaint against him under the school’s Honor Principle. Later, when the head of the peer-mentoring programme suggested he face his accusers in a meeting of fellow minority students, he declined. ‘It would have been me versus everybody else in the same room. Hell no!’
While Dillman managed to do well the first semester, the second semester, he said, he went into ‘a dark place’. He slept all day. His grades slipped. He wanted students to see him as a human being, a student just like them, but ‘People wouldn’t let me. I knew what happened to me wasn’t justified. I thought, “How shameful”.’ But in the end the shame was too great.
After he filled out the forms to drop out mid-semester, the dean of students met with him again. At the end of the hour-long meeting, when the dean failed to mention the outcome of the Honor Principle case, Dillman finally inquired about the outcome. Only then did the dean tell him that nothing had come of it. (Reed College officials declined to be interviewed.)
Hunter went back home to Oregon City and moved into a trailer on the edge of his parents’ farm. Gradually, he got back on his feet. Today he’s making $20 an hour as a carpenter, framing houses. ‘I was the first person in my family to go to college’, he said. ‘My father told me that when I got accepted to Reed, it was the proudest moment in his life. That was my best shot. I could have been someone who got an awesome education. Now I’m a construction worker.’
Looking back, he was still trying to make sense of what happened to him. His accusers, he said, ‘seem to be angry at the world and each other and wanted to focus on that. They have a lot of misplaced indignation and they need some source to take it out on.’
Dillman had moved into his own apartment and planned to take some community college classes while working full-time. He told me he’s trying to stay upbeat but he’s no longer interested in pursuing a career in science. ‘I’ve changed’, he said. ‘I’m more into randomness.’
A brick wall
A little while later, I talked with a group of white students. They told me that they didn’t feel completely free to discuss issues of race and identity in class. Sometimes seminars were taken up with predictable discussions about whether a particular author was racist or not rather than focusing on the key issues in the text. But they made it clear to me that they supported the protesters’ positions on police brutality and economic inequality, and most of them felt the school should change the humanities curriculum to reflect the experiences of people of colour.
I asked them if they’d heard about Hunter Dillman. Had he simply said the wrong thing because he wasn’t familiar with the way he was supposed to speak on campus? ‘If you had two parents who were professors from Berkeley, you’d know what to say, but it doesn’t take long to pick it up’, one of them said.
But didn’t they feel guilty about the way the student body had ostracised him for what appeared to be a minor misunderstanding? ‘Why are you focusing on the discomfort of one white student?’, one of them asked me. ‘What about the black students who dropped out? When we’re called racists as white students, we can’t handle it for a second. But black people have to deal with racism all their lives.’
I strolled over to the gallery where Amanda had mounted an exhibit that documented the events of the previous year. It was an archivist’s dream. Dozens of cardboard signs covered the walls and printouts of emails, social-media posts and college newspaper clippings were assembled neatly on display tables. She showed up a few minutes later, proud of the exhibit and what she had accomplished. She told me taking the humanities programme was painful to her and she wanted to help other black and brown people avoid that pain. The entire curriculum was too white – there weren’t enough representations of non-white people in English classes, in history, in art history.
She described a conversation she had with a professor about whether the humanities programme perpetuated racism. When the professor disagreed, she told her: ‘It doesn’t matter what you say. An entire body of students of colour believe that it perpetuates racism. I don’t think white faculty have the jurisdiction to decide whether Hum 110 is racist.’ She claimed a small victory when the professor said she didn’t want to deny Amanda’s experience. ‘I have changed minds on this’, she insisted.
‘But that’s the problem’, I responded. ‘You’re telling her that she can’t challenge you because of your experiential authority. She has no right to her opinions. That’s a brick wall that will always prevent people from connecting with you.’
‘I don’t think it’s a brick wall’, she responded. ‘I think it’s a door that certain people don’t want to go through.’
‘Don’t other people have the right to their opinions?’, I asked.
‘Yes, I’m willing to have a conversation. I’m willing to open the door. But they’re not willing to come through. They shut themselves off. They don’t understand that their opinions can lead to death. Do you understand that?’
She was growing quite passionate, almost on the verge of tears. ‘You’d be hard pressed to make that argument in a convincing way’, I said quietly.
‘It’s opinions like those that lead people to not being tried for the murder of black people. Those opinions are informed by the educational environment that people consume and the little grains of knowledge they consume lead directly to black people being assaulted. When I tell people that I feel pain and it’s coming from what they say, people don’t want to be accountable for that pain. They say, “I’m not the villain”.’
‘And you tell them yes, they are the villain, because they’re refusing to acknowledge their racism’, I said.
‘I never called anyone a villain. I tell them that by not engaging with us, you’re participating in the pain against these bodies of colour. But if you engage with us and open yourself up, then we can unify and people of colour will not be disproportionately subject to this pain. If you pay attention to people of colour, you’ll be able to understand them. And you’ll thank them for offering you their knowledge because you’ll acknowledge that even talking to you is labour in itself.’
‘I think your jargon gets in the way of getting what you want’, I said. ‘Instead of talking about pain and low-SES and cis-gendered and all that, why don’t you say: “Look, black students make up only three per cent of the Reed population and that indicates there’s a problem. We think the things we’ve fought for – the additional support for students of colour – can help solve that problem.” Don’t you want to go with arguments that will give you the greatest success? The arguments that will make people stop and think?’
‘You think my goal should be to get through to you or to white people or racist people?’
‘Yes’, I said. ‘If you want to change the world.’
‘Why doesn’t our lived experience count as much as statistics? The biggest thing I’ve faced as a black woman is silencing. I’ve been told over and over and over that my opinions, my intellectual experience, my body, don’t matter and don’t need to be represented. So my commitment has to be to myself to develop the love that I deserve. Because I can’t rely on my society to do that for me. And if that ends up with me being excluded from campus, I don’t care, because when I’m dying, I do not want to think that I’ve failed. You say: Why not talk in statistics, why not talk in the way that people want to consume? I can’t because that ignores my pain and the importance of things I believe in and participates in the things that have silenced me.’
‘And what about the pain of a fellow student like Hunter Dillman, who was ostracised and whose college career was ruined by a simple misunderstanding?’, I asked.
‘People who feel they’ve been ostracised for their political beliefs should look at their beliefs and ask themselves why a lot of Reed’s student population feels that way’, she said.
No end in sight
The article in The Economist explains what happened the next day at the year’s first Hum 110 lecture: how the faculty cancelled the lecture after Amanda and two fellow students insisted on introducing themselves, and how their actions led to a shouting match at the next lecture with some freshman students who wanted them to leave. The protesters believed they owned the hall before the lecture began at 9am; when somebody challenged them, they were speechless. At one point, a young woman sitting near the front of the lecture hall said politely and distinctly, ‘We would like the opportunity to attend class before we’re told what’s in it’. The crowd burst into seven seconds of raucous applause. A video captures the stunned faces of the demonstrators as they left the auditorium.
Amanda didn’t appear to anticipate that the incoming freshmen and the school would respond in a different way to her protests in the new academic year. She thought the faculty wouldn’t mind if she gave a short 10-minute talk at the opening lecture, and didn’t expect them to cancel it when she did. When they warned her not to appear again at the Hum 110 lecture, she thought they wouldn’t mind her presence if she left by the time the lecture began. In both cases, she was wrong and has been banned from campus during her year away.
After the first week, the protesters gave up demonstrating with signs inside the lecture hall, and have taken to passing leaflets outside urging students to challenge their professors in class about the humanities curriculum. One of the demonstrators has enlisted her mother’s help in attempting to file a lawsuit against the college for racial discrimination. Meanwhile, a freshman has started a petition drive against the protesters. And the students who were afraid to sign their names to a document last year have organised a weekly gathering where students can express their opinions freely. It’s called ‘The Thinkery’.
Hunter Dillman plans to take a class in welding this fall to boost his pay.
Joe Kolman is a journalist and video producer based in New York.