A Tyranny of Silence

It is Spring Break! The Mount Holyoke campus is barren of most of its students. I am spending this week within the white walls of my room, still too afraid to play music on my speakers. (I have been reported for playing music just from my laptop when classes are on but campus police has even come to my room for a noise complaint during January break, so I’m not going to risk it.) All the doors in the dorms are shut, the corridors are flushed with fluorescent light and there is dead silence. Then I realize; this is almost exactly how it is when everyone is here. Except now there is the added benefit of not having to awkwardly dance around the other students as we go on our daily back and forth from classes and the bathroom. This school is a massive red-brick body that will stand in its stubborn solemnity with or without us. It is we who must deform ourselves to fit inside it.

Simone De Beauvior visited some of the other Sister Schools in 1947 and wrote: “I spend three days at Smith and Wellesley sleeping in the white guest rooms that remind me of clinics or monasteries.” Later on she describes Smith’s atmosphere as intimate and cheerful. The schools De Beauvoir visited are very similar to Mount Holyoke, but my own visits to the Smith houses have shown a sense of community that Mount Holyoke is devoid of. Here the girl who lives on the other side of the wall is not expected to come to your room to say “could you keep it down please, I’m trying to sleep.” Rather the norm is to call campus police. Here, in the white-walled cubicles where we spend our glory years, the tyranny of silence reigns over sound, over expression, over interaction.

For some time my friends and I used to gather in a sunroom in one of the residential buildings. We turned it into the only room I have seen serving its function as a social space in our dorms. On two occasions at the completion of a new poem I went to that sunroom to share it with whoever was in there. My friends used to draw and colour in flowers and trees and sunsets and put them up on the walls. We had an impressive mural when the office of residential life gave instructions to the cleaning lady to take down the drawings and paintings and throw them away, rendering the walls hospital white again. Why this hostility to colour and life?

If you live in a hospital you will begin to believe that you are sick. So I leave campus on most weekends to keep my soul alive at the nearby Hampshire College where students play instruments with their doors open and other students come in and jam with them. Where new art is made in the spaces outside of class. And where this is encouraged rather than seen as a problem. In its short life, Hampshire College has produced more notable alums, especially in the arts, than Mount Holyoke has done as the oldest women’s institution in the world. These include Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of Men in Black and Lupita Nyong’o who recently won an Oscar. Mount Holyoke still harps on about Emily Dickinson who was here for a year, a hundred years ago, and left probably feeling too suffocated to stay.

Earlier today I visited the greenhouse to look at the flowers. It amazes me how meticulously the plants in there are cared for. Each in a room that has just the right amount of light for that plant species, each plant in its separate little pot getting just the right amount of water. And it occurred to me that we live in a greenhouse.

All of us in our separate little temperature controlled incubators being fed superficial fertilizers. When a student’s existence causes a slight disturbance in what De Beauvoir saw as the “superficial Eden”, that student must be cut down. We are not expected to be tolerant or flexible. That which upholds this muted tyranny does not adjust, our peers must adjust to this sterile obsession. There are quiet floors in two dorms which cater to those whose ears do not want to be burdened with sound waves. There are also quiet hours agreed on in every dorm. And yet even outside of those floors and those hours there is something called “24 hour courtesy” which means that you can be silenced at any time. This courtesy does not extend towards those who want to play loud music or have loud conversations with friends. It is not even democratic. Six people could be having a get-together. Twenty people on their floor might not mind. But if one person decides they don’t like it, that is who this courtesy will be applied to.

The most common rebuttal I have heard is “but this is a college.” My response is; exactly! Where else are we supposed to exchange ideas with our peers? In our beautiful common rooms you won’t find lively discussions, you find one or two people studying across the room from each other in perfect silence. This college does not foster the sharing of ideas outside of class. We don’t learn tolerance or social skills. We are separated clinically from each other by rules that make it difficult to use common spaces, by so-called courtesy to absolute silence and by an institution that enforces those things.

And yet Mount Holyoke, the overbearing gardener, claims to produce women who are fearless, who never fear change and who will go where no one else will go. I wonder, where will these stunted seedlings go from here? Where are these women going to find their artificial incubators outside of this school? In which cities will the police rush over because your neighbour is playing music from her laptop? And say they move to a place where the police are in dire need of wasted time, will they be able to quieten the noise of traffic or the sounds of the café below? Maybe they will all live in the suburbs of small towns, each at a safe distance from one another, avoiding each others eyes when they take out their trash.

Maya Wegerif


Mount Holyoke, A College For White Men?

I am a black student at Mount Holyoke College, the first of the seven sister schools, which was started because no other American colleges accepted women. Mount Holyoke women are taught to be bold, to never fear change, and to speak up against injustice… unless you’re a student of colour. 177 years later white male privilege still reigns supreme here. And it is actively reinforced by campus police.

I spent the early hours of Saturday morning at the South Hadley Police Department having been arrested at Mount Holyoke for “breach of peace.” This is how the story begins.

My boyfriend Sam came to visit me on a whim so I took my blankets and my things to an unoccupied room in the dorm where my friends and I often hang out. I have a roommate who I couldn’t kick out on such short notice so I set up the other room for Sam and I to hangout. On Friday night Sam and I were drinking in that room with some of our friends when suddenly two officers from campus police showed up.

A few of my friends simply disappeared. Sam was in the bathroom and so they only found me and one of my friends in the room. Without telling us what we had done wrong the officer demanded our student IDs which we gave to him and he told us that he was writing us a dean’s referral. I asked him what we were being referred for. He said that he had received a noise complaint, and from what he could see we were drinking and smoking weed. Firstly, there is a lot to be said about the Mount Holyoke “community” when students do not try to talk to their neighbours about noise but immediately resort to calling campus police. Campus police should not come and intervene if there hasn’t been any attempt by the students to come to a solution. Secondly, at the age of 21 drinking is perfectly within the law. As for the weed, the room did not smell like weed at all. I do not smoke weed and my friend and I were asking not be sent to the dean for something we had not done. My friend left soon after seeing that there was no use in talking to the officers, it seemed that their minds were already made up from the moment they walked in. I would have left too except that all my belongings were in the room.

When Sam came back from the bathroom the situation was still calm. One officer asked if we knew each other which I said we did. The officer shook Sam’s hand, introduced himself and apologized that they had to meet in these circumstances. When the officer realized that the room was not assigned to me he asked me to leave. I began to take my pillows and he told me to put them down. Everything was to stay there because he couldn’t confirm that I wasn’t stealing the property. I resigned then to just taking my phone and my laptop. But the officer would not let me take my laptop because he assumed that I was stealing it, they would have to take the laptop with them, he said.

There were very easy ways to check if the laptop was mine. I showed him the user name on the laptop and it obviously matched the name on my student ID, still this was not sufficient. And yet as a white man, although not even a student, Sam was allowed to take his bag and laptop out of the room without having to prove anything to anyone. When he takes stuff he is just taking his things, when I do, I am stealing.

He could have walked out with any number of things and never have been seen or heard of again. He could have even walked out with my laptop and that would have been fine. I am assumed guilty and not given a chance to prove myself innocent. Sam is assumed innocent and has no need to prove anything. The only only thing he needed, to prove that he wasn’t stealing, was to be white. Whereas they know that I am a Mount Holyoke student, they had my ID, they saw the username was mine and they know where I live.

They began to converse with him politely, discussing my situation with him like I wasn’t in the room, like Sam was the student here, like I was not the one being (wrongly) accused, or like Sam was my father and they were discussing with him the actions of his dependent. Or they were just fellow white men discussing the audacity of a black person to not accept racist treatment.

Officer: “She just needs to calm down.”
Sam: “I hear you.”

Then Sam proceeded to come to me to tell me I needed to more cooperative. Cooperative to being accused of smoking weed and stealing? Cooperative to having my things confiscated while he keeps his? He again told me to relax and in a slightly higher voice I explained that he needed to stop telling me that. The officer called the dean on duty.

I was happy to have a dean come to the room. I knew that she would see how ridiculous the situation was. Besides, having a woman in the room would be helpful (it was becoming unclear whether it was my race or my gender that warranted this treatment.) I waited calmly, but Sam kept coming to me, telling me to calm down. I told him to leave me alone about six times in the presence of the officers. They said nothing.

When the dean got there she was the first person who tried to listen to my side of the story. I explained that I was not smoking weed and asked her if she could even smell any weed. “I am not trained to,” she said, because there wasn’t even the faintest trace of weed smell in that room. But if the story got to the dean of students she would say it was my word against campus police’s and she would shrug and say she has to go with campus police’s word. Maybe it would be useful if the deans on duty were equipped to verify the accusations they allow to be passed on us.

The officer interjected on my conversation with the dean to add that I was refusing to leave. I asked him in front of the dean, “Was I or was I not trying to leave when you told me to?” Three times he refused to answer my question. And I pleaded with the dean, to the point where I was in tears, to see how unjust the situation was. I was not refusing to leave I was refusing to leave without my things. I was getting very frustrated that nobody was hearing me.

Sam came up to me yet again, in front of the two officers and the dean, telling to calm down. They all saw me ask him for the seventh time to leave me alone. Even though they could see that it was upsetting me, they did not ask him to respect my wishes and my personal space. At some point I was saying, “Please, please leave me alone” in tears. They watched him continuously come into my face. And then I finally said: “You do not go here, you do not face the same consequences that I am facing right now.”

The whole time I was saying this both Sam and the cops were repeatedly speaking over me saying “Maya, Maya.” And “You need to calm down right now.” I said to Sam, “You can’t be serious. He can introduce himself to you, shake your hand. He had no such courtesy with me.” Again the whole time as I am speaking to him the officers and the dean are in the background repeatedly saying “Maya, Maya.” Sam said “No, you don’t understand.”

Me: “I can’t believe this. I actually cannot believe this.”
Sam: “Let it be done right now!” he says raising his voice. Nobody tells him to calm down.
Me: “Wow, I cannot believe this, I actually cannot believe this.”
All four of them” Maya, Maya”
Officer: “If you don’t calm down, I’m placing you under arrest do you understand that?”

I told him that it would not be the first time white people refused to see their own privilege. Then Sam came and put his hand on me.

I shouted, “Sam if you don’t leave me alone I swear!!”
Sam, in a soft condescending voice: “Maya, Maya you need to listen to me.”
Me: “Sam-“ He tries to grab my arm, I move it away. “Sam-” He grabs my arm. Shouting, “Sam you are aggravating me to a point that I don’t want to get to!”
Officer: “Turn around!” He turns me toward the wall. “Place your hands behind your back.”

I did not fight them off or resist at all.

Officer: “You’re under arrest, ok? Breach of peace…You know I really wish it did not come to this but we have no choice, Maya.”
While I was in handcuffs crying quietly the officer had a conversation with Sam and the dean.
Officer: “We are transporting her down to South Hadley PD. If she has $45 she can probably make bail.”
Sam: “I’ll see her out.”
Officer: “But right now she’s…she’s…she needs to calm down.”
Dean: “I agree.”

I have been quietly crying in the corner.

Officer: “If she doesn’t calm down we can’t bring her back.”

I was transported to the station in handcuffs, I was searched, had mug shots taken, and slept in a cell till the bail clerk arrived. I had refused to pay bail and was ready to spend the weekend in jail. But when the bail clerk heard their accusations he could not see the seriousness of my offense. He told them to drive me back to school and to bring me to court on Monday. Not once were my rights read to me.

I made a voice recording of everything that took place leading up to my arrest, which is how I can quote everyone verbatim. At some point while Sam was conversing with the officers, my laptop started playing “say something I’m giving up on you.” A hilarious moment fit for the big screen. But he did not say something. He failed to act. As loving and kind as Sam is, and as much as he considers himself an ally to people of colour, on that day he stood firmly on the side of white oppression. His whiteness alone guaranteed him their attention, he could have asked them to afford me the same courtesy. On the recording it is clear that every single time I spoke, the dean, the officers and Sam were interrupting, interjecting and talking over me. The best thing he could have done would have been to point out to campus police that they were wrongly accusing me and that they were treating him, a complete stranger, better than they were treating a student. And when Sam saw that I was being arresting for finally reacting to his insistent provocation he needed to tell them that “She did tell me to leave her alone and I kept approaching her.” Because I did repeatedly ask him and at one point begged him to leave me alone, but they watched him and allowed him to ignore my wishes.

A black man in the same context would have never been allowed to keep harassing me. And if he grabbed me, that would have constituted as assault and aggression. And certainly a black man would have never been allowed to leave that room with a laptop without having to prove that it was his. I understand that Sam was not aware of the dynamics at play. But that is what makes white privilege so lethal. So-called allies of people of colour, acknowledging your white privilege means realizing that you are not being treated respectfully because you are a better person, you are being treated differently because you are white.

Mount Holyoke campus police, your job is to protect Mount Holyoke students, even if they are black. You not only wrongly accused me of smoking weed, you accused me of theft and then allowed a man to continuously harass me in front of you. Mount Holyoke campus police and the dean on duty watched a man put his hands on me, and then arrested me for shouting about it. It seems as a black person your only option is to allow yourself to be mistreated. To be wrongly accused and harassed. A white man can go as far as grabbing your body. It is your crime to not allow him to.

– Maya Wegerif

*The names in the story have been changed.