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Paper #5

Kismet's picture

The phenomenon of slipping is present in all aspects of our society, on a micro and macro scale.  We do it without noticing sometimes, unaware of how our behavior may affect those around us.  When we slip as individuals, we unknowingly present others with the opportunity to correct our ignorance by explaining to us why what we did is wrong.  This can be a hard conversation to start, but one that is very important and can change the way we view the world.  When an institution slips, the situation is far more complicated.  Because institutions have more power than individuals, their slippage is much more damaging to society.  Consequently, this damage is much harder to repair - a simple conversation cannot remediate the issue.  Both types of slips harm the individuals they refer to.  Regardless of this, slipping is necessary for us to grow as individuals and a society.

Slipping involves saying or doing something that reveals one’s prejudices without directly articulating them.  These prejudices, which are very often racial, have grown out of the invisible system of racism that has been around for ages.  Bryn Mawr College has been an institution for over a century.  The College’s history is often highlighted on tours around the campus, especially because it was some of the few college to accept women at the time of its foundation.  However, the College rarely acknowledges its history of racism, which is an enormous slip.

Grace Pusey and Emma Kioko were a two of the many students frustrated by the college’s slippage.  The pair recently decided to develop a tour explaining the historical racism that occurred at Bryn Mawr College, in hope of to remediating some of the pain this slip caused the community.  Under the guidance of Dr. Monica Mercado and Dr. Sharon Ullman, the two completed their history project and named the tour “Black at Bryn Mawr” (Pusey & Kioko).

The tour guides students through nine sites on campus that are heavily tied to the school’s past engagement in racism.  The history of each site is thoughtfully explained, focusing on the racial injustices that occurred, which were generally glossed over by the College’s administration.  One site that is particularly well-known among the student body is the Rockefeller Hall servant’s corridors, often mischievously referred to as “The Chamber of Secrets”, where many students flock to sign their names on the shadowy walls.  Although this unofficial tradition is very common at Bryn Mawr, the history of the servant’s corridors often goes unspoken.  The corridors were built as a way for the black servants to move throughout Rockefeller Hall and do their jobs without ever being seen or heard.  “Black at Bryn Mawr” explains how the architectural design technique originated in the dwellings of the European elite in order to further the distinction between the classes - the servants, who were considered unworthy of the elite’s presence, would not be seen by the upper class.  The Rockefeller Hall servant’s corridors acted as a way for the college to utilize black labor without acknowledging the workers.  If more students knew of Bryn Mawr’s racially charged history, it would surely alter the mystical portrayal of the corridors, which in itself is a slip.

The way the college presents itself is full of hypocritical slippage.  It is generally considered to be a highly progressive school that emphasizes social justice and equality.  While this is true to some extent, it blatantly ignores the history of the school which the tour explains.  Although it was progressive for an early institution of higher education for women, it was (and many believe it still is) wrought with privilege.  The women who were admitted to Bryn Mawr were historically white and upper-class individuals, many of whom had their own maid.  “Black at Bryn Mawr” also discusses this, noting that the maids lived in tiny rooms connected to their mistress’ rooms.  Although the administration has turned a blind eye to the injustices of the college’s past, they are preserved in the architecture of the buildings, one of the main attractions of the school.

The “Black at Bryn Mawr” tour serves an enormously important purpose:  it acknowledges the College’s slips and brings them to the public’s attention.  However, rather than leaving the situation at that, Pusey and Kioko worked to remediate the slips.  They created this tour to educate the students, staff, and faculty of Bryn Mawr College.  In supporting the development of this tour, the administration is allowing its past slippage to be brought to light, examined, and hopefully remediated.  Naturally this institution has undergone many changes since its founded in 1885 -perhaps the most important being that the people who committed the school’s past injustices are no longer administrators.  While the current administrators could have easily chosen to ignore their predecessors’ actions, which they had no control over, they instead chose to take  responsibility for the institution’s past slips and allows its mistakes to be explored through avenues such as the “Black at Bryn Mawr” tour.

This is the most powerful way to respond to the slippage of others.  To acknowledge the slip is important, but to educate others about its meaning is vital to change.  If we do not explain why a slip is a slip, then the person who made it will never understand and will continue to make the mistake over and over again.  If institutions do not take responsibility for their slips, they are actively oppressing the people whom their slips harm.  Therefore it is our duty as individuals to challenge institutions to take responsibility for their slips.  We must protest against institutional slippage in order to learn from it as a society, just as we must correct the slips of individuals around us.  Slippage is an educational opportunity for those who encounter it.  And if the opportunity is taken, society itself can change.  

“Black at Bryn Mawr” is helping the community learn from our and the institution’s slippage - past, present, and future.  By acknowledging our past slips, we lessen our chances of repeating them.  This tour is helping to eradicate our ignorance and giving us the opportunity to change.  We all slip sometimes, and we will continue to do so until others show us how to get back up.  Only then can we stand on our own feet.