Opinion: Reed College Is a Colonial Institution and We are the Useless National Bourgeoisie
My first semester at Reed was the first semester of the Hum 110 protests, where I was confronted by ideas about deeply ingrained settler colonialism that I had never considered. I did not understand how the ideologies of colonialism that the world currently experiences could be definitively linked back to Aristotle or the inherent problems in making the only required class almost entirely based in Western tradition. Through witnessing the protests, reading further about colonialism in my classes, and many long discussions with friends and professors, I have become convinced that Reed College is a colonial institution. From my two years of experience at this school, I have also learned that the student body is not much better.
At Reed, we are trapped in a culture where public demonstration to perpetuate identity politics, in the form of protest or Facebook callouts, carries more weight than personal action. We are not committed to creating the change we demand; we are committed to the appearance that this is what we want. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon argues that upon the overthrow of the colonial state, the middle class of the formerly colonized who have now become the bourgeoisie will take power with the intent of promoting their own culture and ignoring the real problems of the nation. He begins his discussion by stating, “This traditional weakness [the inability of the bourgeoisie to unite the people against a colonial consciousness] is not solely the result of the mutilation of the colonized people by the colonial regime. It is also the result of the intellectual laziness of the national middle class, of its spiritual penury, and of the profoundly cosmopolitan mold that its mind is set in.” Fanon goes on to state that this class is useless in decolonizing the nation, as “we find … fierce demands for social justice which paradoxically are allied with often primitive tribalism.” Indeed, the intent of this class is to advance their already established ideology while ostracizing all dissenters. In addition to promoting the culture that our bubble of a liberal arts college supports, we must learn outside perspectives and represent the action we want the college to take.
While during my time at Reed I have witnessed countless examples, I would like here to share only a few that have stood out. I am aware that this is mostly anecdotal evidence, but I believe it still provides value in demonstrating the culture of our school and why I found it necessary to write this op-ed.
Students are quick to blame the college for only providing a white perspective, but do not capitalize on the other when offered, despite how limited it may be. For example, I have noticed that classes providing non-Western perspectives are not generally more popular, giving the college little incentive to create more of these classes. This semester “Anglo-Saxon” literature is the most popular 300-level English class, followed by “James Joyce,” according to Solar. In contrast, the smallest class I have taken at Reed was “Critical American Indian Studies.” Furthermore, students are often unenthusiastic when what has been deemed a non-white perspective is taught, while meanwhile blaming the professor for not including more of these texts. I remember people in my Hum 110 conference that earlier in the year had complained that “The Tale of Sinuhe” was one of the most boring texts of the syllabus later arguing that we need to read more Egyptian texts. Maybe if the classroom enthusiasm matched the rhetoric there would have been more real discussions about this. Lastly, there are opportunities in this college to travel to non-white countries, yet they are rarely taken advantage of. Despite multiple programs offered throughout Africa and East Asia, the most popular study abroad programs in order are Paris, Budapest, Prague, and Seville. Out of the 37 students studying abroad in Fall 2018, there are only 3 students studying in non-white countries.
The most surprising part of my experience at Reed has been the lack of sustainability. I mean this on the student’s end as much as the college’s. This has especially shocked me because of our campus’ constant rhetoric of social justice, which is inseparable from the effects of climate change. Reducing one’s carbon footprint is one of the easiest and most tangible things one can do to combat inequality, not to mention our destruction as a species. While in this case the offenders and the activists are likely different, I think we must all do better. We advocate for years for Reed to put recycling bins in classrooms, but don’t even use the one’s provided. As opposed to most students bringing their own mug, they complain that the college does not provide them. We have multiple parties a year based around wearing the maximum amount of glitter. We complain about the corrupt oil companies and our college’s involvement in them, but still have a staggeringly high car population. Surely the college should provide more recycling bins and divest from oil companies as this is much more impactful than what any individual can do, but until then, we should set the example of what we want the college to be.
Not only do I want to discuss the protests for divestment from Wells Fargo, but I would also like to fully acknowledge my own faults. I have fell into the trap of making excuses about work load or my job to justify not protesting, despite my belief in the cause. This is something I intend to improve upon. I do think, however, that the protest culture at Reed can be highly performative. Reed should divest from Wells Fargo, but we as students should also withdraw our own money from all major banks not committed to ethical investment. Friends involved in the protest have told me of fellow protesters who occupied Kroger’s office for months yet had their own money in Wells Fargo. This hypocrisy represents the absurdity of much of our culture and dialogue.
I conclude with this because I believe it most clearly illustrates the harmfulness of our culture in masking real, global human rights issues. As Black Lives Matter dominated our national discourse in the 2016–2017 academic year, we were quick to criticize any offenses in this realm while ignoring horrific atrocities around the world. I remember vividly the day Pepsi released a commercial in which Kendall Jenner resolved a protest by handing a police officer a soda. This commercial was blatantly insensitive and reductionist of the entire struggle against police brutality. At the same time, it was just an insensitive commercial. This same day a chemical attack occurred in Syria which killed 74 people and injured 557. This was a true tragedy which demanded discussion. That day I had three classes: the first one began with a long discussion of the commercial, the second one did not discuss either event, and the third one again discussed the commercial. None of the classes mentioned the massacre.
I do not mean this to discourage any activism, backlash against the college, or discussions of ingrained racism in popular culture. I hope, however, that this article will draw attention to the hypocritical, colonial notions many of us, myself included, operate under when trying to do good, and will inspire some of us to try to unlearn these behaviors. To do this, I believe that we need to escape our bubble of performative liberalism to engage with the real world and make a real difference. As Fanon states “We … must have very clear ideas on the situation of our people. But this clarity of ideas must be profoundly dialectical.” This dialectic must be between us and the world and between us and the college. We must be informed on what is happening globally and locally to learn about the problems and consider what we can do as individuals to resist them. Resistance can not only be in words, however, but must also be in action.
We can show the college that we want more non-Western perspectives by filling the classes that provide those. We can show that we care about the environment by bringing our plastic to the recycling bins in order to fill them and not using the disposable coffee cups provided. If we are to call out Reed as the neocolonial institution it can often be, we must prove that we do not intend to simply replace it with our own performative, homogenous culture, but that we will be the ones to elevate other cultures and at the same time embody the changes we would like to see globally.