Mellon Mays seminar should serve as model for safe, academic spaces

By Matt Won

The mere existence of a commitment to multiculturalism, one of Macalester’s pillars, is not itself a fulfillment of this commitment.We must recognize the shortcomings of our academic spaces as a predominantly white institution. The spaces that a general normal/normative Macalester curricular environment provides should not exhaust the curricular offerings of the college.

It is disingenuous and imperceptive to deny that the predominantly white/heterosexual/fixed gender enrollment at the college shapes both class sessions themselves and the curricular outlook of the college to cater to the dominant groups mentioned above.

Rather than rolling back similar types of spaces, we should use the Mellon Mays seminar and its experience as a pilot for other similar academic programs. Other classes can learn from the fully realized work and experiences of marginalized groups in empowering environments. This will help to create a general academic environment that is receptive to, rather than repressive of, these groups.

Rather than seeing the general Macalester academic environment as the prime catalyst for crucial discussions of intersectionality (analyzing simultaneously the effects of social influences like race, class, and gender rather than privileging a single one, like class), we might instead also recognize the contributions of this exploration from marginal, non-mainstream locations, for example the perspectives of queer women of color. The Mellon Mays seminar, though it has critical race theory as its starting point, is also a generator for intersectional explorations.

The benefit of programs like the seminar does not lie solely in their makeup, in categorizations of its students by regressive labels, like race and sexual orientation. What the seminar uniquely provides is a space that has as its starting point a range of marginal experiences, not simply in content but also considering the in-class experience itself.

There is a cultural violence and an academic asphyxiation in the flattening of student experiences in academic environments at Macalester. It is a dangerous fiction to hold that assimilating all students of marginal race/sexuality/etc at all times into a general Macalester academic environment is not distorting or harmful.

Students who do not identify with the dominant culture, for example many students of color, must translate, water down, dumb down, or hold their tongue on speech in a dominant setting. They are fixed as representatives of their culture and resources for mainstream groups, such as majority whites. The lived experience of these students, especially regarding their oppression, is then often dismissed.

Counting for only two credits, seminars like the Mellon Mays will never replace a full academic workload on the part of either student or professor. They have always been seen as an addition to and not a substitute for the other academic offerings on campus.

To view the creation of more of these academic spaces as subtracting from, rather than enriching, the overall Macalester student experience or its academic quality is to rely on the flawed, outdated, oppressive, and refuted logic of reverse racism/white victimhood.

This logic inverts the material dominance, in money, power, and culture, by whites in America, claiming whites as victims simply for being forced to confront their privilege, built on racialized oppression. This logic claims that any consideration of race is “racist,” even when undoing centuries of racially-based oppression in America obviously requires action specifically on behalf of these racialized groups.

We should be moving restlessly to create spaces where this translation and silencing are minimized. In these spaces, academic achievement and cultural understanding reach new heights, working synergistically when these processes occur on the terms of the marginalized. The academic record of the program (and the graduate studies of its students) speaks for itself, and did at the regional Mellon Mays conference that Macalester hosted last weekend.