Letter of Response: The Necessity of Bridge is Not a Question

Photos by Asrie Karma '16 | Smith’s Bridge Program, a multicultural orientation program for first-year students, recently celebrated its 45th anniversary since its inception in 1970 to welcome black students to campus.

Photos by Asrie Karma ’16 | Smith’s Bridge Program, a multicultural orientation program for first-year students, recently celebrated its 45th anniversary since its inception in 1970 to welcome black students to campus.

 

To whom it may concern*,

Last Thursday, Dec. 10, The Sophian published an opinion piece which accused the Bridge Program of being non-inclusive and a misrepresentation of a culturally diverse Smith community because the program “excludes” White people. The opinion piece uses pictures of students of color without their consent and misused quotes taken from ​The Office of Multicultural Affairs​. The op-ed called for the re-examination of the values and purpose of the Bridge program and the resources it provides for incoming students. ​The op-ed disrupted the celebration for the 45th anniversary of the Bridge program by trying to delegitimize Bridge due to its emphasis on supporting students of color​. The allegations made against this program incensed many students who participated in the program, as well as those of many races who did not. We are among the students who are taking time away from finals to address the issues with Cao’s opinion piece as well as other related critiques surrounding campus diversity initiatives.

This op-ed is a misrepresentation of Bridge and undermines the importance of efforts to improve visibility and celebrate cultures and identities that diverge from the norm. Smith students are not homogenous, and it is imperative to acknowledge differences within the student body and the struggles that come with these differences, especially with students who are underrepresented not just at Smith College, but the world. Including “White Culture” into programs like Bridge defeats the purpose of the program and the office it originates from. ​In addition, to so presumptuously suggest the integration of White students into this program, there was no further explanation of what White Culture is.​ Isn’t it the standard in western societies to have people of color assimilate into White Culture? As people of color, we are conditioned to uphold standards associated with Whiteness. In addition to mentioning the lack of White people, the op-edmentions that “​Students also in need of a Bridge program are those who come from families of low socioeconomic status and students with disabilities” with complete disregard to the intersecting identities of students of color. The op-ed reduces people of color to just their race without considering that those students may also be of low-income families, among other identities.

Intersectionality is, at the very basic level, as the “overlapping and intersecting [of] social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination,” according to scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. It is the acknowledgment that no single identity, such as gender, race, class and ability, exists separate of each other; an individual’s identities intersect and are influenced by each other. The author of the aforementioned op-ed chose to completely disregard intersectionality and attempted to portray race as if it exists separate from all other identities.

Oftentimes, in attempts to start dialogue surrounding the experiences of specific marginalized groups, people outside of that identity try to use their own opinion to derail and undermine the conversation. Their privilege allows them to ignore the intricacies of identity and to co-opt the conversation and shift it, frequently by using other marginalized groups without their consent. This is a disturbing and often tokenizing act that almost never has the approval of the people who are being used as scapegoats. To bring up low-income students and disabled students without attempting to provide solutions for the lack of space Smith provides for these identities, without including the voices of low-income and/or disabled students, and without acknowledging that there are low-income, disabled people of color, completely disregards intersectionality, appropriates the narratives of marginalized people and bolsters dangerous and oppressive systems. Conversations around disability in communities of color are often dismissed, and disability amongst these groups is often ignored by White people. By completely disregarding the fact the disabled people of color exist and have attended Bridge, this article further perpetuates the erasure of disabled people of color.

Often, challenges to Bridge include an implicit invitation for current and former members to justify the need for the program using anecdotal evidence from their experiencesand a comprehensive lesson on the history of discrimination on campus and in the United States that would require a program like Bridge. The opinion piece was a modern manifestation of the lineage of resistance to the program and other race-conscious efforts to make predominantly White colleges and the country they are housed in more navigable for marginalized people. This request for information about Bridge and other programs creates a dynamic where students have to prove why they are marginalized “enough” to need a separate space. It was evident that this piece in The Sophian was an invocation for engagement from these students, because she contorted the public (and purposefully vague) information provided on the Smith College website to serve her unconcentrated argument. A simple hypothesis: ​if it was deemed important for people who were not part of the program to know about the details of the activities and have insight into Bridge,then​ members of the greater Smith College community, alumnae, faculty, students, parents and staff that did not meet the qualifications for participation in the program would have been provided with comprehensive reports of the experiences of disenfranchisement that preceded Bridgees’ enrollment at Smith and justified their involvement at Bridge and quantifiable evidence that the program served to make these marginalized students have an equal chance of graduating as their other peers, but no significant advantage over their poor or rich White classmates. The reality is, there is no evidence one could provide to make people from the out-group stop mustering up the gall to question Bridge, and it is ​more important for people of color to have the space and time code for privacy to build a supportive community. This letter will not justify the program by explaining to you and the general public everything that Bridge does.

What will be explained though, is the scholarly evidence that programs like these are essential for the retention and graduation of Black students specifically. Smith College was cited in a report amongst predominantly White institutions that touted the highest Black student retention and graduation rates. The report in the Journal for Blacks in Higher Education discussed the essential things all of these schools did to earn a spot on the list. The most significant example are pre-orientation programs which “​help black students adapt to the culture of predominantly white campuses.”Although the report specifically talks about Black students, there is evidence that other non-Black students who experience racism and other intersecting forms of discrimination have benefited academically and emotionally from Bridge’s programming. The aforementioned scholarship is proof that there is no need to explicate the details of what a group of people from intersectional identities do in the miniscule amount of space they are afforded to prepare students mentally, socially and emotionally to overcome the adversity that they know is inevitable.

In conclusion, we would like to respond to a statement in the last paragraph of the article: “We cannot prioritize students of color above everyone else”. When students of color, international students and other marginalized identities combined still equal less than 50 percent of Smith College students, there is no question regarding who is being prioritized. Carving out a space for students of color on Smith campus is a step towards equity, not division. Our existence on campus is always overshadowed by the fact that we are outnumbered on a daily basis. The necessity of Bridge is not a question.

Sincerely,

Ariel Martinez ’19

Julia Reier ’17

Gabrielle L. Peterson ’16

Abeer Khatana ’16J

*The letter is an open letter, directly referencing the opinion piece by Dominica Cao ’19, but it is a broader response to those who question the value of the Bridge Program at Smith College and other predominantly White institutions. We did not want to address her solely because we didn’t want to silence her opinion, thoughts or views. This is an open and important discussion. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity for learning.

 

2 Comments

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with both responses to the “opinion piece.” Ironically, it is sentiments such as those expressed in the opinion piece that are the reason Bridge needs to exist.

  2. We continue to labor over race and diversity. We put it on the shelf and dust it off every now and then. The Bridge program supports the ‘Smith Experience” and community.

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