Will the Real Wendell Phillips Please Stand Up?
This piece has been edited from the way it appears in print. There was a misquotation regarding the winning speech in the printed version of this article; it has since been edited and re-published as it appears here. An additional open letter to the CSL can be found here.
Each year, in honor of Wendell Phillips, a White Harvard-educated lawyer and abolitionist of the 1800s, Tufts University awards the Wendell Phillips Award to a graduating senior. The award consists of two prizes, one given at Tufts and one at Harvard. This year’s award at Tufts comes with a $900 prize and the opportunity to deliver a student speech at the senior Baccalaureate service. With the help of the Chaplaincy, which organizes senior Baccalaureate service, the Committee on Student Life (CSL) administers the award and selects the final speaker after finalists audition at an open forum. The Chaplaincy website describes the speech as a “social justice message of our time,” honoring Phillips’ legacy as an activist. However, in recent years the CSL has repeatedly chosen speeches that present sugarcoated messages and gaslight people of marginalized identities. This contradicts what Phillips supported as an activist: making people uncomfortable in their privileged lives and forcing them to think deeper about the ways in which they reinforce systems of oppression.
We—Made Baccus, Ana Manriquez, and Ania Ruiz—as Wendell Phillips finalists and a CSL member, write this response as students who were disrespected by this decision-making process. We are not critiquing the awarded speakers or seeking to change the decision made, but want to reflect on the content of the chosen speech and its implications. As the CSL student co-chair, I (Ania) was initially very excited to partake in this award process. As the only senior, woman of color on the committee, I could not wait to hear the speeches given by the five finalists, who are all students of color. However, I became deeply disappointed in the events that followed. We chose the speech that elicits the least amount of critical thinking, the one that makes most of us feel most comfortable. Doing that is a direct disservice to the award, to the finalists, and to the Baccalaureate service. What occurred with this year’s award has not only happened before, but it is a microcosm that exemplifies the ways in which Tufts prioritizes some narratives over others.
This year, finalists were asked to reflect on our time at Tufts and offer advice for navigating the political climate we will enter upon graduating. For us, this means celebrating ourselves and our communities, acknowledging that even at Tufts, students of marginalized identities continue to be othered and targeted. But we continue to thrive in spite of pressure to be silent and complacent. We discussed the ways in which we have all had to fight at this institution—from rallies to the reclaiming of spaces on campus—actions which require us to loudly denounce the normalization of oppression on this campus.
The winning speech focused on kindness and compassion as effective responses to xenophobia. After publicly sharing our own personal stories, this message of smiling through the pain is disrespectful to us. It severely ignores those who have been unable to survive Tufts, those who have been pushed out of here, and those who this school has refused to allow back. To them, this message says that the pain they experience is inevitable, and that they ought to resist with compassion. Compassion and kindness do not stop racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and trans-antagonism on this campus. Compassion does not hold the university accountable to the students and staff it fails to support.
I, Bacchus, remember having a visceral reaction to the narrative the winning speaker presented. The story reminded me of my own family’s migration story, one which is filled with immense amounts of violence and abuse. It’s a story which remains untold, existing in fragmented pieces at best, as the silences in my family surrounding the trauma of migration combined with the silent fear that rests over the many undocumented members of my family work together to hold them all under a heavy weight. Not all immigrants thrive in this country by just smiling and being nice to everyone, and the attempt to make such a claim in her speech is incredibly insulting. Immigrants thrive when they’re treated with respect and dignity, two things this country’s current and past administrations have made very clear they’re not willing to uphold.
This sentiment of frustration with the winning speech also held true for a student who wishes to remain anonymous and was present for the audition: “As an immigrant, it was frustrating to hear a speech based on an ‘American Dream’ story. For some of us, striving for the ‘Dream’ has broken us, broken families, broken hope.” The “American Dream” narrative is one immigrant communities have struggled to push back against both at this school and in this country. Its usage in this speech establishes it as the universal immigrant experience on this campus, silencing those who have been and continue to be harmed by this school.
Similar feelings were evoked in me, Manriquez. In my speech, I talked about my experience as an immigrant in this country and on this campus. Failing to recognize the blood, sweat, and tears that immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, have shed not even to survive, but just to have their humanity recognized, is disrespectful. It is a disservice to everyone on this campus and to those who will be at Baccalaureate because it ignores the challenges that undocumented students at Tufts face every day. We are a campus that prides itself on the student activism that pushed for the 2015 policy change regarding undocumented students but fail to notice when the experience of many of those same students is being disrespected. Tufts uses me, and many students like me, as a statistic to promote diversity, but then silences our narratives when our story is perceived as too negative—too real—for the occasion.
Reflecting on the outcome, another anonymous student shared sentiments on the incompatibility of a palatable social justice speech, questioning how a “classic, feel-good, graduation speech that donors love,” could still be advertised as a social justice oriented speech. Messages of social justice are ones which place the audience in an uncomfortable position by forcing them to recognize the injustices happening around them, as Phillips did in his time.
Finalists were told, “The Wendell Phillips Address is not intended to be simply a graduation speech, but to offer a social justice message in the spirit of Wendell Phillips.” To Phillips, social justice meant acknowledging the privileges he held as a white, straight male, and using them to work against the system to hold the law and state accountable. The speeches chosen this year and in past years fail to uphold this framework of social justice by failing to hold schools accountable for the ways in which they perpetuate systems of oppression. They applaud people and an institution that remains impervious to self-criticism. They do not bring a call to action or support a message of social justice, but rather dismiss the variety of lived experiences of students.
If the CSL cannot fully commit to upholding true social justice, then the award does not stand for Wendell Phillips. Should the process continue this pattern, it will only continue to hinder social justice on this campus. The exploitation and tokenization of minority narratives must stop with this year’s finalists whose trauma was put on a platter for consumption by the crowd.
We demand that the CSL outline their expectations precisely for future applicants and follow through with those requests.
We demand more representative voting members for this selection process.
We demand that the Committee on Student Life make a commitment to choose a speech that embodies social justice as Wendell Phillips did or change the name and theme of the award.
Finally, we call on the Tufts community as a whole to think about this situation in a greater context. Why, for a school which boasts a diverse campus community and inclusion for all students, is there a mass exodus of faculty of color this year? Why hasn’t Tufts agreed to the dining workers’ demands? The reality fails to reflect the vision of diversity put forth by this institution. It hides the lack of support for students of marginalized identities and the aggressive silence forced upon them should they attempt to demand basic equality and respect.