Change is hard, right? Trying something new can be frightening. We often choose to stick with favorite activities, words and behaviors that feel safe simply out of familiarity. We, individually or culturally, are accustomed to such safety. These metaphorical safety nets often get labeled as “traditional” in contrast to unfamiliar practices or ideologies that get marked as “modern.”
I had the honor of being an invited speaker at the recent annual HIGHER Ground Women’s Leadership Conference. During my session, an audience member asked a pointed question to our panel composed of local gender activists and scholars. This person said (paraphrasing), "How can a person speak up in situations that might seem hostile to them?"
One of my co-panelists took the lead and answered the question. She said people often remain silent because we want to remain “safe.” I added, maybe we worry that our job might be in jeopardy or we might lose a friend should we speak out; maybe if we talk back to someone our physical safety is at risk. These fears can metastasize into a silent tongue. We keep silent because we believe that silence equals protection. That if we just hold tight and keep quiet, the storm might pass over us and we will not be the ones uprooted. In truth, we are never safe.
With that in mind, I took the past week to reflect on events I witnessed during last weekend’s Ring Dance before breaking my silence with this essay. I find myself at a bit of a loss when it comes to comprehending not only the behavior on display that night, but also the narrative being constructed concerning it.
What was meant to be a celebration of young adults’ penultimate years in college turned into a show of middle-aged men verbally berating a predominantly female university staff presence and side-stepping security trying to do their jobs. One official relayed to me that a father threatened to physically injure a junior class woman should he not be permitted to escort his daughter down The Jefferson’s stairs.
Such threats and posturing, in a most innocuous analysis, take away from a moment meant to signify the only commonality among the Westhampton College student body: your academic standing at the university. In a more insidious interpretation, these threats endanger the celebration of academic access and freedom for all individuals regardless of gender and gender expression, race and socioeconomic status. To react with aggression when faced with the unknown is the hallmark of a fearful individual. No one at University of Richmond wishes to relinquish tradition because the true tradition of this community is our scholarship.
Do not confuse changes in dress code, alcohol and escort policies with changes in appreciation for tradition. To do so loses sight of the tradition being celebrated at Ring Dance: a young person’s education. It is not the dance, the class ring, the champagne and the support of peers and family — those are bonuses, additions we welcome and help signify Richmond’s unique character.
I expect some will read this essay and note my identity as a faculty member in the Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies program influences my perspective on Ring Dance. It does, but maybe not in the way you presume. As a witness to the debacle, my recounting of events will never be safe from criticism that, due to my status, I am biased in my thinking. To those folks: I know that my opinions and, by extension, my personal and professional identities are never going to be safe from your criticism. I am satisfied with that knowledge. In truth, you are a fraction of the whole of my intended audience. I also write these words for those who question. For those who want to speak up and speak out but don’t know how; for those who disagree with me but who are willing to engage in dialogue about our differing perspectives. For you, my office and classroom doors are always open. I will meet you there with an equally open mind.
To the students on social media celebrating their fathers for yelling at staff; to the parents claiming their civil rights were violated on par with police brutality exhibited in cities across the U.S. last year, I urge to you reconsider your thoughts and past actions. To all who claim that paying tuition gives an individual a free pass to threaten members of the academic community, I write this: You do not own education. I do not own education. Education cannot be bought. Education is a right for all. It is a right to exercise for continued individual and societal growth. True learning and the tradition representative of it — the application of critical thinking to situations outside oneself — are not found in institutional classrooms or in beautiful hotels, but inside the hearts and minds of those who accept the challenge to engage with, and learn from, the unfamiliar.
Students: claim this tradition. Embody your education. Understand that true learning cannot be bartered and it cannot be endowed like capital in a contract. Know that we are confident you will rise to this challenge if you are willing to engage in a process that might seem scary only because it might be unfamiliar. Education is never safe.
Contact Julianne Guillard at firstname.lastname@example.org