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From the Desk of the Chief Diversity Officer

December 17, 2015

Dear Tufts Community:

I hope this note finds you entering a period of needed repose as you wrap up the courses you may be teaching or taking or the campus work you do. What follows are my own thoughts after having been at Tufts for my first full semester, particularly as we continue to work towards the goal of making Tufts a fully inclusive and socially just community.

Now in mid-December, I am taken by the notion that I feel as though I am walking in two oddly superimposed worlds. In one world, I am asked to feel festive, wish people “Happy Holidays,” and look forward to a period of repose after a long semester. The other world is juxtaposed against the first in the sense that the airwaves and social media fill our waking moments with anxiety producing reminders that we live in world that is far from perfect. Perhaps you feel as I do that the calls of caroling and “good cheer” feel, well… distant.

Recently, national events have prompted Muslim members of our community to reach out to me and other campus leaders. They have indicated a growing sense of unease or fear, both on and off campus. This, of course, comes on the heels of significant student activism, across race and other dimensions of difference, seeking to improve the lived experience of Black students on our campus.

In this moment when you are catching your breath, I would ask you to consider the lens through which you view this information. Some in our community see these calls for action informed by social justice as absolutely legitimate and connected to their Tufts experience, even if they are not Muslim or Black. Others disagree. I want you to know how I see these experiences and ask you to think about how my thoughts below compare to your perspective.

We currently are in the aftermath of two incidents of domestic terrorism that, like the responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, challenge us to consider who we are as a country and as a university community. These two incidents happened within a week of each other, a mere six days apart. The first was a shooting in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado and the second was a shooting in a San Bernardino, California community center. Yet our national attention is almost exclusively placed on the event in San Bernardino… It begs the obvious question: Why?

I suspect the answer is uncomfortable to hear, but I believe it is true nonetheless. Simply, members of dominant groups are not seen as a group, and hence, are not asked to bear collective responsibility for each other’s negative behavior. Marginalized people and communities do not have such a luxury.

Our two examples of domestic terrorism are just the latest example of this pattern. A White man shooting a clinic in Colorado Springs is seen as a singular aberration. But the Muslim shooters in San Bernardino are increasingly portrayed as representatives of all Muslims and the entire religion of Islam. Unfortunately, several campaigns for the Presidency of the United States have produced rhetoric that reinforces this pernicious and false notion. Similarly, during some of the Black Lives Matter protests, there were counter protests held by masked White men openly carrying weapons. Many unarmed Black protestors were physically harmed, yet these White counter protestors walked away from the experience relatively unscathed.

These dynamics that happen on a national scale are having a detrimental impact on the way members of our Tufts community feel in classes and in common spaces. I’m writing you to raise your awareness of this fact and to ask something of you as you go into your break and when you return for the spring semester.

If you are one of the many people on campus, across all dimensions of difference, that support our values of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, I want you to be overt about it. The necessity of speaking out is something we’ve heard before from our fellow traveller and sage, Audre Lorde. In her essay The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, she says: “That visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” This is true for all of us, even, perhaps especially, when we are speaking out in support of others.

As I move into the break, I will not work to resolve the paradox of these two worlds in which we find ourselves, one happy and one sad. Instead, I will seek places where my private celebratory moments with family and friends can also be infused with sobering conversation about the world as it is. I ask you to join me in transforming silence into language and action, because these holiday times necessarily ask us to engage in a radical critique of the status quo… and because the silence of holiday politeness prevents people from seeing they have vocal allies.

I wish all of you well during your break and look forward to seeing or meeting you upon your return. Enjoy your break.

Best wishes,
Mark Brimhall-Vargas, Ph.D.
Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Provost
Tufts University