My friends and I all shared similar interests, but we also educated and challenged each other. My friends were diverse, not just in appearance, but in their beliefs and backgrounds. My roommate was a vegan and taught me about her values as an Ethical Humanist. Another close friend was from El Salvador and taught me about the hurdles of immigration. On temporary protective status (TPS), facing numerous obstacles, she never decreased her drive for academic success and improvement in social justice. Through others I developed a deeper understanding of race relations in America, the trials mixed-race children face and the disdain we encourage for both darker and lighter skinned people. I also had an entire group of friends who shared my religious background. With them I was able to share interpretations of our customs and text and for the first time I did not feel judged for my liberal interpretations. Within my social interactions at the college, I felt accepted.
But coupled with this acceptance there was xenophobia, Islamaphobia and an overwhelming feeling of rejection from the general Tribe community. I remember sitting in government classes listening to teachers categorically vilify my faith while continuously reciting, "Islam does not mean terrorism." I remember attending a "lecture" sponsored by our student assembly and hosted by a 3 member group called the Collegiate Conservatives in which Nonie Darwesh gave an hour long speech soaked in Islamaphobic rhetoric. I sat, with tears rolling down my face, as she bashed my religion and realized that if she had been speaking of any other creed she would have immediately been silenced.
For the first time in my life I saw how entrenched our nation's prejudice is in the racial dynamics at the college. I am not saying that I did not see color growing up, it's more that here I finally began to understand how color is perceived. I finally began to understand the complexity. The Center for Student Diversity, or the Multicultural Center, as it was called when I first entered the college, served as one source of that understanding. The people there, who I met through PLUS, were dedicated to dealing with diversity issues on campus. Inspired, I myself became a diversity facilitator and gave presentations on stereotypes to incoming freshman during orientation week. The center and its mission comforted me. Especially during times when I or my friends were struggling with our "otherness" on campus.
It was over a month ago when my Tribe pride took a beating. I saw an article on W&M's website (which subsequently circulated on social media) announcing that former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, would be serving as 2015's commencement speaker. Needless to say I was shocked.
My own 2012 graduation experience was far from heart-warming; listening to Robert Gates drone on about the need to "defend" America during these dark times is something I will never forget. I felt vilified at my own graduation. At a ceremony that should have cemented my place in the community, I was made a pariah.
And now I can only imagine how those who were directly affected by the 2015 speakers' actions must feel. It seems as Americans, we sometimes have short-term memory loss. Individuals who commit some of the most heinous crimes end up serving in our academic institutions teaching classes such as "International Law," "International Relations," and "human rights": making a mockery of academia. While I know the fight to hold these individuals accountable will take decades if not centuries, I do know that we can begin by not brushing-over their crimes.
A recent report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility indicates that the Iraq War, which Rice was a fierce proponent of, has to date claimed the lives of over 600,000 civilians. The neo-conservative geopolitical agenda of her administration dragged America into a war, illegal under international law. It damaged America's already fragile foreign credibility. I'm not here to give a history lesson nor am I here to explain the complexity of America's imperial endeavors. What I am here to do is to present my disappointment in an institution that presents itself as a community for all. You cannot be a community and still belittle certain members of it.
As a commencement speaker, the individual is supposed to share their experiences, values and provide advice. What message will Rice deliver? How to lie to your country and disregard the constitution in order to carry out your imperialist agenda? How to kill over 600,000 men, women, and children, destroy the social fabric of a country, and cause your state to fall into trillions in debt and get away with it? Rice played a critical role in selling lies to the American people that led to the war. War criminals should not be honored, they should be held accountable.
What message does this send to the students (and the families who will be attending) who have been directly affected by the xenophobic rhetoric and actions of this individual? I cannot imagine how I would feel sitting and listening to an individual who is responsible for so much destruction in the world. I am furious at my alma mater. I am so utterly disappointed. I feel personally attacked.
I am equally appalled at the Center for Student Diversity. This place that presents itself as an entity providing a voice for the minority populations has remained silent. Silence means you are complicit. Is the Center this desperate for some sort of "diversity"? I know it is wonderful to advertise a "successful black woman" serving as your commencement speaker, but there are plenty of other successful black woman out there who have not committed war crimes.
I am hurt. I am angry. I am embarrassed.
I sit here and look at the Tribe Griffin sticker on my wall that we all receive upon graduation. I cannot help but feel that although it says I've joined more than 88,000 alumni, that somehow I will never be truly accepted. I am waiting for a response. I am waiting for a statement. I am waiting to be recognized as a member who matters.