Soyoung Park ’09 and Robert Smith III ’09: Why TWTP is still necessary in 2008

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Monday, September 8, 2008

In December 1968, a group of students from the Afro-American Society at Brown walked out of Pembroke campus and marched to Congdon Street Baptist Church where they stayed for three days. Their demands during the walkout included an increase in black enrollment to 11 percent, an increase in black faculty and more financial aid for students of color. University administration responded to the walkout’s demands with the creation of the Transitional Summer Program, an academic enrichment program meant to help prepare black students, most of whom attended underprivileged high schools, for the academic demands of Brown. This program evolved into the Third World Transition Program.

We disagree with the yearly mischaracterizations of TWTP. We believe that TWTP is not only a productive but a necessary beginning for students of color.

As three-time participants – once as first-years and twice as leaders – we know that TWTP is more than just a transitional program. It is a safe space for students of color to explore their identities, often for the first time, in relation to racism, imperialism, sexism, heterosexism and classism.

Some may characterize such a space for students of color as unnecessarily divisive. We believe in the need to provide separate spaces for every group to discuss these issues as they relate to them. These spaces are a necessary first step to building a broad coalition to fight oppression.

We continue to use the term “Third World” in the tradition of student activists, who sought to unite their struggles against racism at Brown with the struggles of other communities of color worldwide.

These student activists adopted Frantz Fanon’s definition of “Third World” from his 1963 book “The Wretched of the Earth.” Rather than adhering to either First World capitalism (United States, Western Europe and others) or Second World communism (the Soviet Union and others), Fanon challenged members of the Third World to construct a third way of life. “The Third World ought not to be content,” Fanon wrote, “to define itself in the terms of values which have preceded it.” Instead, they “ought to do their utmost to find their own particular values and methods and a style which shall be peculiar to them.” This notion of self-determination lies at the root of TWTP, which gives students of color an opportunity to define themselves on their own terms as well as to begin the process of envisioning a more just world.

The social injustices that inspired the creation of TWTP more than 30 years ago still persist today. Although we challenge all students to work towards social justice, it is important to acknowledge that students of color relate to issues of injustice in particular ways and need a space to discuss these issues with others who share similar experiences.

Ultimately, the controversy over TWTP is not about participants making friends before white students arrive on campus. This debate is really about two conflicting philosophies on how to fight racism in the United States. One philosophy advocates that TWTP should be open to all students, regardless of race, so that together we can build cross-cultural understanding and combat racism. Although this colorblind philosophy has good intentions, it ignores the particularities of racial identity.

In our white-dominated society, colorblindness homogenizes diverse peoples into our society’s white-centered norms and, as such, perpetuates racism. A colorblind philosophy suggests that TWTP is racist because it divides along racial lines. “Racism,” as Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton wrote in “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America,” “is not merely exclusion on the basis of race but exclusion for the purpose of subjugating or maintaining subjugation.” TWTP is not a racist program.

Our philosophy recognizes differential experiences and the need to build coalitions among people of color first before joining with our white allies to combat systems of oppression. We believe in pluralism, not colorblindness. In the program’s racism workshop, we discussed the ways in which people in power imposed racial definitions upon us. We rejected these impositions and redefined ourselves on our own terms. TWTP is a necessary space for students of color at Brown to begin this process of redefinition, a fundamental component to fighting racism.

Our theme for this year’s TWTP was “re:define, re:claim, re:build.” During the program, students of color redefine who they are, reclaim their silenced histories, and rebuild a community of color at Brown committed to social justice. The erasure of such a space for students of color would reinforce white privilege and would be detrimental to the fight against racism. The fact that a program that lasts only four days causes a yearly controversy reveals the extent to which white students feel entitled to all spaces at Brown.

We understand that many white students at Brown are also committed to the fight for social justice. Just as the Third World Transition Program was the result of tireless student protests, we encourage white students to take the initiative to create their own space to talk about white privilege with white people. This suggestion intends not to divide, but to eventually lead to coalition building across all races.

We must respect the need for separate spaces to tackle issues of racism, imperialism, sexism, heterosexism and classism so that we can appreciate our particularities and envision a third way. By providing such a space, TWTP starts the year off on the right foot.

Robert Smith III ’09 and Soyoung Park ’09 are active members of the Third World community at Brown.

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