To Smith College,
On Otelia Cromwell Day, Merrilyn Lewis, Associate Director of the Events Management Office, approached a student and began her “apology.” She recognized the individual from an earlier encounter before Roxane Gay’s talk when she told those sitting on the balcony, in support of affinity housing, to move downstairs. The two white staff members, one of whom was Merrilyn, gave contradicting reasons for the move: the balcony never fills, and a fire marshall hadn’t been hired for the event, both untrue. The other staff member, Steve Campbell, Assistant Director for Events Operations, quickly threatened to call Campus Police. Everyone moved downstairs and the balcony was immediately reopened, allowing attendees to return to their seats.
Merrilyn’s “apology” for the incident lasted only a brief instant. She provided a short explanation, then with traumatic casualness stated, “I thought you guys were probably going to be so mad, I thought you were going to lynch me or something.”
What Merrilyn chose to say was not an apology, nor was it an accident. Her passing statement, one she assumed would be unremembered after she walked away, was an assertion. The words she chose do not slip easily from the tongue. The analogy - to lynch - is a heavily racialized act attached to American violence against black people.
What Merrilyn chose to say, as a white woman to a white student on Otelia Cromwell Day, reminds us all that careless language is a crime that education and its institutions cannot reprieve. She gave the “apology” before a workshop on “Police and Social Control,” which explicitly discussed lynching as an act of violent intimidation, control and genocide. It is the tool of white supremacy.
This letter is not asking for another hollow apology. Rarely do they hold impact in these contexts. This letter is a statement. What Merrilyn chose to say is not an isolated incident; our campus knows what careless language looks like, feels like. While our groomed grass and pristine New England exterior presents an innocent, inculpable veneer, we commit the same insidious and racist slips of tongue. Know that when this happens, we will resist violent banalities, act against your silence and we will persevere.
- Movement for Affinity Housing
To Affinity Housing Committee,
You are correct; I never should have used the term “lynch.” Thank you for drawing this to my attention.
Further, I want to assure you that your concern about having students in the balcony was related solely to fire code regulations; it had nothing to do banners, or with the particular issue of affinity housing. I regret that this was not communicated clearly.
I know you’re not looking for an apology, but I offer one anyway. Thank you again for raising this issue.
Associate Director of Events Management Office