MCSG responds to the use of “COVID-1619” in a mailer for prospective students

MCSG responds to the use of “COVID-1619” in a mailer for prospective students

Dear Macalester College,

On Nov. 23, 2020, American studies professor Duchess Harris retweeted the official Macalester College flipsnack link to a prospective student mailer titled “COVID-1619.” In the tweet, Professor Harris warmly stated, “this mailing is going to thousands of high school students.” This prospective student mailer made waves among Macalester students on Twitter, or  as some have termed it, “Mac Twitter.” It received significant backlash from members of the student body, particularly from Black students, due to previously voiced opposition to the use of this type of advertising and language in regards to the 2020 International Roundtable theme of “Facing Pandemics of Disease and Race: Radically Reimaging for Liberatory Futures.”

There are three main grievances that contextualize the backlash this prospective student mailer received which should be acknowledged. The first and most obvious is the institutional disregard for student voices and perspectives regarding this language. The second, related, grievance is the lack of inter-office communication that led to this explicitly stated student concern being ignored. The last and most important grievance is the use of incidents of racism and conversations about systemic racism as college admissions promotional material enticing high school students to attend Macalester College, while Macalester College at the same time refuses to reckon with the ways in which it perpetuates systemic racism, fails to support marginalized student voices and needs and disregards student initiatives to fight systemic racism.

Explicitly stated student concerns regarding language that compares the novel coronavirus disease with systemic racism focus on the potential conflation of COVID-19’s novelty with the historic white supremacist ideology ingrained in our everyday culture and society. This mailer attempted to mitigate this concern by quoting Professor Harris’s statements from a June 2020 alumni webinar about systemic racism, as well as providing a brief timeline of America’s racist history. Additionally, in a Mac Weekly article published on Dec. 3, 2020, Assistant Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid Brian Lindeman ’89 stated “the idea behind the mailer was to educate and inform high schools seniors about the social issues taking hold in this country.” We argue, however, that this mailer failed to do exactly that. Rather than “‘highlighting the important work of a Macalester faculty member,’” this mailer instead pasted a few quotes and decided that was enough explanation for high school students who may be coming in contact with the concept of social justice for the first time.

To be clear, we as members of the Macalester College Student Government body do not endorse any department’s use of racism and the struggles of BIPOC communities as a capitalist promotional scheme to attract attention and revenue for this institution. That said, if Macalester College and the Admissions Office wished to convey to prospective students the extent to which the college and its students are involved in anti-racist intiatives and programs, there are steps to do so without harming BIPOC communities on- and off-campus. 

The first step Macalester College should take is accountability about the ways in which it, as an institution produced by white supremacist ideology and an exploitative capitalist labor system, contributes to and perpetuates racial harm. Such efforts could take the form of acknowledging the racist origins of the college, addressing the names of racists mounted on campus buildings and increasing initiatives to recruit domestic Black students, to name a few examples. 

The second step Macalester College should take is to inform and include student voices, particularly BIPOC student voices, in the creation and dissemination of informational and promotional materials sent to potential students, especially regarding anti-racist activist work being done on campus and in the community. Additionally, transparency and dialogue surrounding student perspectives regarding the pandemic language being used, which relies on cross-campus communication when grievances within the student body arise, would have been valuable in mitigating the backlash this mailer received. 

Lastly, rather than identifying vague ways to get involved in the struggle for social justice, likening social justice and anti-racist work to fun side projects and posting a link to the civic engagement website, the people involved in the creation of this mailer could have utilized that space to instead highlight specific student and campus initiatives such as BLMatMac, the launch of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) collaborative anti-racism initiative, and the student mutual aid fundraising that took place during the protests this summer that aim to address the pervasive ideology of white supremacy we encounter every day.

In short, do better Macalester. Listen to your students. Act with integrity and transparency. Be honest about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And finally, decide if these actions are still necessary and well-informed especially when discussing such sensitive and complex material.

On behalf of Macalester College Student Government (MCSG),

Ayana Smith-Kooiman ’22

Finn Odum ’21 

Shreya Nagdev ’22

Briah Cooley ’21

Rebecca Gentry ’23