This has been a landmark school year for racial dialogue on campuses across the country.
By Alexandra Svokos
The Huffington Post, May 5, 2015 — A student at Duke University hung a noose from a tree on the Durham, North Carolina, campus on April 1. This came about a week after the university began investigating reports that a group of white men had harassed a black female. The men were reportedly singing the same racist chant, which casually uses the N-word and jokes about lynching black men, that got the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity expelled from the University of Oklahoma earlier this year.
“I think the most important thing to make clear is that they’re not isolated events that have popped up this year,” Jamal Edwards, a junior at Duke and president of the school’s Black Students Association, said. “Institutionalized racism has created spaces for Duke — and for colleges nationally — to have things like this happen. Students aren’t surprised that an SAE chant can happen.”
Last week, the student responsible for hanging the noose wrote an open letter explaining that he or she hadn’t known the noose symbolized racism or intolerance. But this exemplifies the point many black students are trying to make: That too many of their peers don’t understand them or their experiences.
With the Black Lives Matter movement evolving over the past several months, this has been a landmark school year for racial dialogue on campuses across the country. The Huffington Post heard from minority students at several colleges about their experiences, observations and hopes for the future.
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Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agents attacked Martese Johnson, a junior at the University of Virginia, on March 18 because they suspected he was using a fake ID. The agents pushed the student to the ground in a bloody arrest.
According to Denzel Cummings — a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who is a former co-chair of UMOJA, an organization that brings together black student leaders, and helped found the Black Ivy Coalition, a multiuniversity group created last September in support of racial equality — this was the result of allowing casual, everyday racism. He said Johnson’s arrest was a reality check of his safety, or lack thereof — even on campus, even as a student at an elite institution.
Adaeze Okoli, a junior at Ohio State University who is the president of the school’s African Youth League and has served as the director of diversity and inclusion in the undergraduate student government, said that this incident represented what many of her white peers don’t understand: They think being a student on a campus frees people from threats of racially motivated violence.
“As we’ve seen now with Martese Johnson at UVA, it doesn’t matter,” Okoli said. “For a lot of students of color, that’s been the sentiment all along, that it doesn’t matter across the board if you’re considered to be a thug or an honor student — that your life actually doesn’t matter in the eyes of many people, which is a very sad but honest reality.”
Publicized instances of brutality against young black people set the experiences of students of color apart from those of white students.
Mark Martinez, a student at Western New England University — where 15 percent of students are international or a minority — said the racial disparity on his campus did not bother him until Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who was not found guilty of murder.
Several schools offered delayed final exams for the fall 2014 semester and offered therapy following grand jury decisions to not indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Schools made this decision recognizing that students who had been protesting the decisions had less time to prepare for exams and that the events caused emotional duress, making exams difficult to process.
“It was just impossible to focus in my classes, because that was always on my mind,” Martinez said. “There’s definitely times that I should’ve been focusing on what my professor was saying and instead I was focusing on: ‘I can’t believe this is happening. It’s 2014. And these things are still happening.’ … It certainly affected my schoolwork.”
Students of color face instances of racism much more frequently than the media reports — thought it’s not generally expressed quite as overtly as some University of Oklahoma SAE brothers announced it. Instead, students face “microaggressions,” subtle biases and phrases that are perceived to indicate discriminatory thinking.
For Mohamed Farah, a student at Ohio State University, this starts with compliments.
There are certain words and phrases Farah hears with regularity, he said, that are signals of racism to him, including “you’re so articulate,” “you’re the exception” and “I’m impressed.” These build up to another commonly heard phrase intended as a compliment: “I don’t really consider you black.”
Students started “Show Some Skin,” a collection of original monologues about different ideas of identity, three years ago at the University of Notre Dame. Every year, students anonymously submit monologues to be performed, many of which address microaggressions and stereotyping on campus.
Show Some Skin was derived from a student newspaper column on diversity and had its first production in 2012. The performances have sold out each year, with an estimated 1,000 students attending, said Lucas Garcia, this year’s director.
“Every year our responses are overwhelmingly: ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘do this again,’ ‘how can I help?’ — or ‘you helped me say this for the first time, I thought I was the only one,'” Deandra Cadet, this year’s executive producer, said.
Some students of color told HuffPost their peers assume they are only on campus because of affirmative action decisions. They feel the need to prove their place at school, as well as their worth.
“How much longer must I explain why I am here?” Edwards asked.
These assumptions extend outside of the classroom. Cummings spoke about consciously trying to fit in as a student on the UPenn campus, so as to not be targeted by security officers. He said that he’s heard from many students that they’ll “put on a costume” on campus, such as wearing clothes decorated with the school’s logo, to clearly show they belong on campus.
Even without instances of discriminatory violence, students are affected by racial disparities in the classroom. Some students talked about how being the only minority student in a class hinders their learning.
“I’ve talked to a lot of my peers who’ve said, ‘I actively don’t want to participate in classes, because if I say something wrong … I represent students of color,'” Cummings said.
Students also recognize the lack of black professors. Okoli said she has connected with professors of color, but there is only one black professor within economics, her major, at Ohio State. That she wishes there were more is something that “definitely goes without saying.”
“In places like this, [students] look for mentorship,” said Cummings, who also noted a lack of diversity specifically within the economics department at UPenn. “If you can relate to someone — or find inspiration from someone — in these departments, it helps your education a lot more.”
Students are additionally affected by what is taught in the classroom.
For example, all freshmen at Ohio State have to read The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls. Walls, who is white, writes about growing up poor and eventually becoming a successful editor. The book speaks about overcoming obstacles — but, Farah explained, it does not mention that Walls had an advantage in overcoming these obstacles, by being white. Race is not discussed in the book and was not brought up in class, which Farah said made it a frustrating read without much meaning.
In response to complaints from some minority groups on campus, UPenn’s curriculum now includes a cultural diversity in the U.S. requirement, which mandates that all students must take a course on the diverse culture of the country.
“That’s why the CD in U.S. requirement was invented, because you could very easily go through a whole experience at Penn and not learn about the minds or visionaries or academics of color,” Cummings said, acknowledging the requirement is an important step forward.
After the racist chant was reported at Duke, the Black Students Alliance began a campaign titled #WhatWeNeedFromDuke. Students wrote demands for the school on Post-it notes, placed on the wall of the BSA office. This is one of many efforts being made on college campuses today to change the culture of schools — and, by extension, the nation.
Students of color say they want to have white students actively supporting them as respectful allies. They understand that they cannot enact cultural change by themselves, and they encourage participation in their movement from students of other identities.
The students HuffPost spoke with recognize the work done in their schools’ histories that allowed them their space on campus — such as the Allen Building takeover at Duke in 1969, when black students occupied the building to issue a list of demands, including the establishment of an Afro-American studies department and increased black undergraduate enrollment. But students today know that there is still room for more growth.
Edwards at Duke said it’s important to “continue to ask follow-up questions” and keep the conversation going, rather than closing it after a distraction — like winning the NCAA tournament, which he said ended public dialogue about racist incidents on campus. Ultimately, although he has seen awful incidents on campus, he said he still has appreciation for the school.
“Yes, there are issues on Duke’s campus, and yes, these very divisive, very controversial, culturally offensive moments do happen,” Edwards said. “But there’s also parts of Duke that have still added to my growth and understanding of race and culture.”
“I think campuses and schools all across the country are battling to figure out how to best educate students on [race] and make sure that we’re actually being respectful citizens,” Okoli said. “It’s definitely going to take a lot of different communities to make sure that we’re educating students and providing a very inclusive environment. But it’s going to take a while, and I don’t think we’re really there yet.”