Race and Racism at Colorado college
Revealing microagressions and institutional negligence
by Han Sayles, co-editor-in-chief
Here’s the truth: At Colorado College, I’ve never been discriminated against, treated differently or even felt mildly uncomfortable because of my race.
Yet, this isn’t because CC is the paradisiacal “camp college” that we want to believe it is, a post-racial haven for progressive intellectuals where diversity is embraced. If CC was this place, then your response to my statement might be, “Of course you haven’t experienced racism—not here!” But let’s be real. The reason my declaration is true is because I look white, not because CC has achieved the harmonious racial utopia that we advertise on our brochures.
Here’s another truth: I’m half Mexican, on my mother’s side, though you wouldn’t know it if you saw me. I pass. I pass spectacularly into the homogeneity of whiteness on our campus and I reap all the privilege of being a white-looking student. However, I strongly identify with my Mexican roots—at home, I listen to my relatives speak in Spanish on the phone, my mom and I dance to mariachis and we make tamales during Christmas. I don’t question my cultural authenticity. But part of navigating my racial identity at CC has been realizing that it’s only a walk in the park due to my skin color; I have the ability to engage in my cultural heritage conscientiously. Even though I and another minority student look the same on paper to the Financial Aid office, the discrepancies between my experience and theirs is likely enormous—namely, I don’t encounter any form of racism here. That’s not a surprise, but it’s problematic because there are students of color on this campus who struggle every day with their experiences at CC, which are often determined, warped and characterized entirely by their race.
This is not a new problem, and it’s not one that will be fixed by a single article or action. It does, however, demand all of our immediate and indefinite attention. I stand behind every honest faculty member and student who has said it, many times over, before me: The students of color at CC have been systematically marginalized and are forced to encounter daily racist microaggressions. What’s more, even after they have continued to reiterate their experiences to the institution, their voices has fallen onto seemingly deaf ears.
That being said, I can’t and have no desire to speak on behalf of students and faculty of color on the issue, which is why I asked. I asked with no intent to enforce a blanket narrative, since every student’s perspective and experience is different—a web of intersectionalities. What’s more, their individual responses do not represent the realities of all students of color at CC. To preserve these nuances, and in an attempt to resist modifying their voices, I have compiled transcripts from the conversations and stories they relayed to me about their lives on campus.
Across the board, they spoke about the daily subtleties of indirect comments, dismissive interactions and the often unspoken tones in communication with peers, faculty and staff that culminate in a new language—a silent, adverse language that can be understood clearly by those who are subject to its discrimination and those who choose to hear it. It becomes apparent in these interviews that what we are saying about race on a platform at CC is antithetical to what is being said implicitly in our actions. What we are really saying about race isn’t necessarily verbalized, but it’s definitely institutionalized and proliferated to maintain the same message. All these interviews articulate in various ways what that message is, and although I didn’t search for a connecting strand, there was agreement throughout the interviews that CC is failing to support students of color.
Clearly, our unwillingness to engage in conversations openly about race is perpetuating this failure, and as a community, if that’s what we are, we have to stop feigning ignorance to these experiences. We can, we must, do more than just listen, but listening is the first step.
Beza Taddess ’15, Black Student Union (BSU) member
HS: What has been your experience with race at CC?
BT: Let’s see—the other day I overheard a conversation in Benji’s that “all the black kids hang out together.” Have you ever asked why that is? Imagine being the only one at lunch who can’t relate to skiing that weekend or going to your friends’ cabin in the woods … you would feel like an outsider and that’s what it’s like. I’m lucky—I have friends who care about minority issues, but I also have friends who don’t know anything. It’s heartbreaking that at an elite liberal arts college there are people who honestly believe racism is over. The truth is, it’s somebody’s lived reality every day and, as we stand now, it absolutely sucks for minorities on this campus.
HS: What are some of those daily experiences?
BT: You can see people’s thoughts when they walk by like, “Oh, there’s a black person.” Or how everyone mistakes one [minority] person for another, I mean there’s not a lot of us on this campus, the least you could do is learn our names. Also one thing that really turned me off to house parties forever was seventh block of my freshman year. I went out to a house party with a friend and we were dancing with a bunch of these guys for a while when one guy says to me, “Oh, you’re really nice, but I’m not attracted to black girls.” It was so incredibly racist.
HS: Do you think that white CC students are aware of what it’s like?
BT: No. I don’t think it’s a question of blame either. If it’s not who you are, you tend to think it doesn’t exist. Yes, you might not be a minority, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort to understand them. It just takes stopping for a moment to realize, “Oh shit, there are some people on this campus who can’t just walk into a party and expect to hook up with whoever they want.” It’s the privilege to do that. It’s realizing that someone’s college experience is different. It doesn’t take intense sociology classes to foster your ability to sympathize with others. Especially on a campus this small when your experience is so influenced by everyone around you, I think we could all make a little more effort to understand each other’s experiences.
HS: Do you think it’s possible for college campuses to actually address racial tensions, and if so, in what way?
BT: Absolutely. To start: train faculty and staff as to how to interact with minority students, how to frame questions. [It’s important] for minorities, to be able to speak about their experiences and to have those experiences valued, the faculty needs training to address the sensitivities. Take NSO as another opportunity. We talk about drugs, sex and alcohol over and over during orientation. But are you really going to teach these 18-year-old kids, who are maybe interacting with other minority students for the first time in their lives, about gender equality and race issues in 30 minutes? No. I think if we truly value diversity on this campus then we would make sure that the experience of diverse students is just as exciting, as intellectually stimulating and as great as any other students’. Come on.
HS: Have you had a class with a minority professor at CC?
BT: No … I took a half block with Mario Montano … holy shit. I think that’s a lot of people’s experience.
HS: Do you think that prompting these difficult conversations about race is something that the administration should provoke?
BT: I think the Office of Minority and International Students (OMIS), BSU and SOMOS provide that environment but clearly the majority of the campus doesn’t want that. BSU puts on an event, SOMOS puts on an event, but the people who come to those things are the people who already live that experience. It’s great to create community within the group, but the majority of CC students don’t care.
Aurora-Maria Bamba ’14, member of BSU, past Chair for SOMOS
HS: What has been your experience as a student of color at CC?
AB: I’m skeptical and saddened by the racial relationships on campus. I’m Mexican American and my family is Chamorro, from Guam. I’m one of the only Pacific Islanders on campus. My first year was really hard because I was having trouble understanding: Why am I here? Especially when I was in classes—I couldn’t form my thoughts or write as well as my peers—I felt so behind. At the time, I didn’t understand institutional or structural racism and I thought these inequalities were normal so I didn’t question it. My first sociology course blasted me out of the water and changed what I wanted for myself, my family and my community.
My problem with race on campus right now: OMIS, which is now being called the Butler Center, caters to the white majority population here, but Students of color don’t need to cater to the majority population. We bring so much to this campus and we don’t get much back. There are already so few resources for diversity of any kind, not only racial. These OMIS groups are safe spaces for minority students and if other people want to come and learn, cool. But I’m not going to be encouraging SOMOS leaders to say at the campus activities fair: “You don’t have to be Latino/a to join!” Instead, we should just say, “We celebrate Latino/a culture; we empower each other and learn.”
HS: How was your transition from freshman year to now?
AB: Freshman year I didn’t join OMIS groups, but sophomore year my best friend and I were invited to BSU. I felt like BSU provided a safe space where I could just be myself. It’s a family. It’s the one thing that kept me mentally healthy on campus because all that goes on with these microagressions is so bad.
HS: Can you explain what microagressions are?
AB: [Microagressions are] comments or actions that are commonplace and may not seem prejudiced, but they are. It’s asking, “Where are you from?” [therefore] automatically assuming you don’t belong. Stuff like that has really affected me. It’s when someone looks at you and expects you to answer a question when they’re talking about (in my case) Mexicans in class. Or even bigger stuff; my sophomore year I was woken by four guys in my hallway screaming, “Nigger, nigger, nigger!” I was so scared and I thought: Did I lock my door? I shouldn’t have to feel like that on campus. If it wasn’t for them [BSU] or other connections that I had established, I wouldn’t have made it through college.
HS: Would you talk about your research for your Race and Ethnic Studies minor?
AB: My capstone looked at microagressions. I have been working on collecting them since junior year and they were very easy to collect. CC Confessions was one of my data polls and I asked people to email me their experiences. Microagressions are very small actions that are extremely hurtful. These same insults happen to the exact same group of people every single day. It’s when you hear a student say, like I heard the other day: “The only reason you bring diversity on campus is for the brochure.” It struck me, and I thought: what are students of color doing on this campus? Why should we have to feel like that? Why should we have to think like that? How I see it, at every event that OMIS groups host the only people who go are the only people who care about it. Going back to my capstone, my big question was: “How do minorities deal with microagressions?” I took my own experience of BSU and SOMOS and talked about how that space became a pocket of resistance because of how myself and others felt during these groups. There’s not many spaces like that on campus. It’s unfair for only OMIS groups to be those spaces because students are doing all the work for themselves. There should be more mentorship, more support. There is a problem institutionally; I’m tired of CC having these token policies of diversity. They say, “We like diversity,” but in practice it’s nothing; there is no substance here.
HS: What do you think of OMIS changing its name to Butler Center?
AB: It’s problematic. How dare they strip us of our fucking name. Who’s going to know? As a minority student, I’m glad they’re restructuring it, but calling it Butler Center, it’s a shame. The CC institution is constantly stripping OMIS with a lack of funding. We need the to go to conferences, we need to bring speakers. We need to start doing things for ourselves. There is little to no funding for OMIS groups. OMIS didn’t even provide senior stoles this year. They left it up to the groups because, with the time and the money, they thought it wasn’t worth the stoles. But I remember being a sophomore seeing seniors get their stoles and feeling like it was something to work towards. Those stoles mean something to students because it says, “I did contribute to CC.” You can see from just this micro event, OMIS groups having a hard time getting stoles for seniors, how the institution does not care about diversity on campus.
W. Chris Johnson, Riley Scholar-in-Residence of Race and Ethnic Studies (RES)
Heidi Lewis, Assistant Professor of Feminist and Gender Studies (FGS)
From CC’s webpage: Since 1988, CC has attracted minority scholars to teach on campus through its Riley Scholars program; it sponsors an average of four Ph.D. candidates or post-doctoral students each year, each of whom works and teaches part time on campus.
HS: What do you think of the Riley Scholar Program?
CJ: Well, the Riley Scholars are through the Consortium for Faculty Diversity, which is designed to place minority faculty into tenure track positions. As far as what I think about the Riley Scholarship position here: CC is failing in that regard. It seems that the program is becoming more casual. There are several faculty members at CC who started as Rileys and have eventually gotten a tenure track job, but in my case I was initially denied a second year fellowship because the Deans said that there was only a certain amount allocated … and historically, that’s unprecedented. Eventually RES and FGS faculty appealed the Deans’ decision and Jill intervened on my behalf. But by then I had been offered a tenure-track position elsewhere. The Riley program seems like a very expensive, casualized labor source for CC.
HS: Is it just a revolving door right now?
CJ: That’s what is seems like. I haven’t been here very long, but I have observed and I have heard from other faculty that, for whatever reason, the college cannot retain faculty of color, whether they’re not choosing to keep them on or folks are moving on for their own reasons. I’ve had a great time teaching, it’s been a good experience, but I was brought here thinking there would be a greater opportunity for me to stick around.
HS: I’ve heard from a lot of students that you’re a mentor and they are sad to see you go. Have your students in your classes talked about their experiences at CC on a whole, specifically students of color?
CJ: In my classes, I invite students to theorize through personal narrative and life history, and encourage them to apply texts and concepts to their present moment. I’ve met with the BSU a couple of times and heard their various perspectives. From what I’ve heard, it seems like students are very traumatized here. It seems like they just don’t have support from the institution. It seems like they’re called upon, and not just students of color but FemCo too, to educate their racist and heterosexist peers. They carry that burden of not only being in an oppressive environment but also having to create safe spaces for the hate of other students. I told them at one event: they don’t owe CC anything—CC owes them everything. They are called upon to educate their peers inside and outside the classroom. The liberal arts model depends on the sharing of experiences and they are actively decolonizing this college and democratizing it, and in doing so it seems to be a very painful process. The clearest thing that I see is that the college has abandoned them.
HS: What are other campuses doing to provide mentorship or support for students of color?
CJ: Mentorship is one thing. If the college is not retaining and recruiting faculty to mentor, or even driving out faculty of color, that’s one issue. Pedagogically, there also is a larger issue. I teach black history. Black history hasn’t been taught here in at least five years, so we’ve already had more than one full class of students that has not studied black history. I’m teaching a class that should have prerequisites, but there are literally no prerequisites available. Students are underserved here if there are no courses in black history. For students in any liberal arts discipline to graduate without knowing W.E.B. Du Bois seems to me that they need to get their money back from the college. So, pedagogically, CC is, quite frankly, teaching a white supremacist system. How do students feel welcome if their history is neither taught nor respected? CC considers the history, culture, and theorizing of minority populations as marginal to the liberal arts. Students tell me that there are few trustworthy faculty across the college. And it seems that the kind of marginalization that happens to interdisciplinary fields, like RES and FGS, reflects hostility within the college to prioritize whiteness studies without calling it that. CC celebrates white subjects as knowledge producers, and white students as knowledge makers.
HS: Is it possible to have an environment on college campuses that is better, or freer from racial tensions in a society that is persistently racist?
CJ: Certainly, though you know one of the major problems with peer institutions I’ve been to, and I assume is the same here, is the faculty. These folks aren’t required to take—or if they are, they skip out of—diversity training. The most steadfast and resistant people are the faculty that have the most power. Until the college says conversations about race and class, colonialism and patriarchy belong in every course on Shakespeare, instead of just every RES or FGS class, then we haven’t begun educating. As long as you marginalize racial and feminist subjects to the ID house and to the Glass House, we are underserving every student here. All we are doing is perpetuating this institution’s historical white supremacy, what we’re calling “an education” here.
HS: What does training for faculty look like at the other institutions you’ve been to? I mean how can we help, a lot of students have mentioned it would be helpful.
CJ: It’s so much deeper than that. Academia insulates these kinds of abuses; you can’t go a week without news of another Title 9 violation at an institution of higher education. Academic bureaucracies hide or even reward sexual harassment, racism, rape and rape culture. Faculty can opt out of diversity and sexual harassment training without repercussion. Unless there is some kind of vigorous enforcement it …
[Heidi Lewis joins]
HL: Can I just say that it’s problematic that faculty of color are almost always asked to communicate a solution-based narrative about race. I don’t know what you need to do! You know, I don’t ask my gay friends how NOT to be a heterosexist, because I know that long bodies of literature, speeches and manifestos have been in existence decades, and I could go find them myself if I wanted to. I’m teaching a black feminist theory course this block, and these women have been saying almost the same thing since the 1890s. I mean, go do your homework! It’s not the same kind of expectation on both sides. I don’t know what white folks need to do; I mean white folks need to stop acting like black folks haven’t already been telling them this for decades! Sometimes I wonder if some academics have ever read Martin Luther King or Du Bois or all these people they claim to admire and appreciate.
CJ: See, this is also what’s being asked of students. Freshman, sophomore, junior and senior year students are sitting there wracking their brains about how they can fix the racism. They are getting little to no help, and they don’t owe anybody anything.
HL: Fixing CC’s race problem is really above my pay grade.
CJ: Yes, if we are being asked to educate our peers and the faculty to be human beings—then what the hell is this liberal arts thing about? How are they teaching liberal arts here? I had to go through a faculty colloquium here at CC about pedagogy and the function of the liberal arts as learning to be human. Yet we were required to read stuff that was explicitly racist. Critics saying that anything other than Shakespeare wasn’t knowledge, and that ethnic studies in particular wasn’t knowledge. As if Shakespeare had nothing to say about class and race, sexism and patriarchy. These are fantasies of many faculty here who have positions of power. What they count as knowledge and count as the liberal arts perpetuates colonial violence. And Shakespeare had plenty to say about colonialism.
HL: It’s purposeful and strategic to keep us preoccupied with this. I can’t do the work I do for the public, my communities who don’t have access to this space, and I can’t do the work in my classrooms if I’m taking all my time and energy to keep white people from being racist. You know how time-consuming that is? This is why faculty of color write texts like “Presumed Incompetent” and “The Imperial University,” because the kinds of work we are expected to do is not recognized, nor is it appreciated in the ways we need it to be. The minute we raise a critique we are often pinned as ungrateful or ignorant to the ways in which the entire academy is racist. Sometimes I wonder if some people really do want to know how not to be racist. If you are racist in 2014, it’s because you want to be.
In all honesty, I work on a campus that is less than 2 percent black on the faculty side, and I’m black and I work in a program that has one contractually-committed faculty member in it. What kind of message does that send?
CJ: It’s really obvious that FGS has one full time faculty member and RES has none. The people who are asked to do all this educating are junior faculty for the most part. There is one person in these departments. How does interdisciplinary work fall on the shoulders of one faculty member? It’s all about the exploitation and the overburden and the lack of commitment from the institution. They won’t be able to recruit anyone else to come in because it’s so blatant that CC is hostile to interdisciplinary and intersectional work.
Another important thing: The students of color here are also invested in building something for the future. They are racking their brains and troubling their hearts to try and figure out how future students can have a better experience. To me, that’s another tragic situation they are in. They have to have the burden of protecting and caring for generations that aren’t even here yet.
HL: You know, there is a supposed genuine investment in figuring out how to fix these problems. Part of my suggestion—as much as I may resent this—is that faculty in power—namely white faculty with tenure—visibly increase their investment in doing so. What I mean is that some of this work is supposedly happening behind the curtain, so let’s open the curtain.
CJ: All senior faculty on this campus need to teach anti-racism and anti-sexism. Until they are doing that work and mentoring students of color, until their syllabi reflect a knowledge of and commitment to subjects other than bourgeois white men, until the Econ. department trains students in social inequalities … that welfare isn’t wealth redistribution … CC will continue to defraud students and cultivate inhumanity.
Another way that CC has fallen behind with it’s peer institutions is with financial aid. It’s not even trying to pretend to be need-blind and one hundred percent need met. It’s embarrassing, but it’s more than that, it’s unjust. I’ll be perfectly honest with you—it has felt like blood money having this Riley here. For being able to have such a lucrative fellowship, but to know I wouldn’t be able to afford to go here myself, to know that my body, my research, my teaching and my work aren’t welcome.
Esther Chan ’16, Mentor for the Bridge Program
HS: What is the objective of the Bridge Program?
EC: In my perspective the point of Bridge is to help first-generation, minority and underrepresented students better acclimate to the CC environment. The transition is a huge culture shock—it’s trying to level the playing field a little bit more. A lot of students come from impoverished areas, where schooling was not the same caliber, and because CC is so predominately white, upper-middle class, Bridge is supposed to bridge that gap. Is it successful? I don’t know.
HS: What has been your experience with it?
ES: When I was a freshman, I loved it and it has defined my experience at CC. I thought for two weeks that CC would be diverse [for the two weeks before other students got here]. We have a lot of programming. We also have conversations about diversity on campus. One day, I was a co-mentor for a Bridge class and our professors weren’t there for the day, so I was leading a discussion and it got onto the topic of affirmative action. The majority of the students in the class believed that they were here to fill a quota. It made me so sad, because when I came here I thought the same thing … for these Bridgies to start out thinking they are only a number to make CC look good, totally suppresses their aspiration. I don’t think we emphasize enough the problems minorities face here.
HS: What do you think those problems are?
ES: Coming here is just tough. You have to navigate far more pressures than your peers. Students come here with far more issues at home, with place and identity. They weren’t taught to reach out and to ask questions, to feel validated in being vulnerable or to ask for help. The difference in cultural capital is a huge thing here.
Admissions wants to fill a quota to promote diversity—I get it. They have the best intentions and they see the potential in these students. Bridge is supposed to be the link that helps them acclimate to campus, but Bridge can’t do all that. There is a lack of mentor training and too many Bridgies—63 kids, 6 mentors and no training. This year they are improving on that. We’ll see how it goes. Helping students on campus takes more than just two weeks. It needs to be continual support, a process. There are so many factors that go into a minority’s place at CC. It’s a whole slew of shit that is just piled on you. They are trying to improve on it, but I don’t know.
HS: With your experience, what do you think would help students?
ES: We need to not only work on the Bridgies, but to educate the rest of campus, and that is faculty and administration—that’s what’s missing! There needs to be a force from the other side. They are trying hard and having focus groups, but it’s a process. Sometimes, especially this year, it was so hard for Bridge. I got a ton of students saying, “Esther, I want to transfer.” They aren’t able to branch out of their Bridge group and they have given up on campus life. I don’t know if any institution can ever solve diversity issues … but I think I have hope. The most that we can do with the growing number of students of color is to adapt to it. We have to continue to find passionate individuals on campus who care. Who care about us.
We need discussion where everyone is involved and we aren’t just preaching to the choir. We already know that shit. We know there is low diversity, that there is racism on campus. It’s about communicating and connecting with other people. We need to sustain and educate our campus somehow. BSU, SOMOS, Asian Student Union (ASU) and the Chinese Student Association are all very fragmented right now. We need to cultivate the connection between these groups in order to have a place to jump off of. But damn it, why is it these groups’ job to educate the rest of campus?
Bryant “Tip” Ragan, Professor of History
HS: How do you think CC is doing supporting students of color?
BR: Many of us at CC have wanted the college to become a more diverse institution for a very long time, and it is extremely exciting to see what Jill and her team have been able to accomplish in a relatively short time to making that goal a reality. Our new challenge is to support the students, faculty, staff and administrators from historically under-represented groups as best we can. We need to work even harder in meeting their needs so that they can flourish here.
HS: What are the perceived struggles? How can faculty members help?
BR: I believe that faculty at CC, whatever their various backgrounds, genuinely want to create an academic environment in which every single person can reach her or his potential. Although many people want to be supportive, they do not always know how. I have found great personal satisfaction in working with our allies, advocating on behalf of LGBTQ people in the context of our larger College community. At the same time, I know how much psychic energy it takes constantly to be asked to speak in the guise of my being a “gay man.” Then, the challenge is to balance CC’s need to support members from minority groups, to listen to their voices, and to work not to overburden them.
In the classroom, I try to achieve a good balance, but it’s not always clear to me that I’m successful. I don’t want to put individual students on the spot, making them feel compelled to speak on behalf of one of their particular identities. But I also do not want to ignore them. I want them to know that we value their unique perspectives and we want to learn from them. It seems to me that faculty really want to have these kinds of discussions with students, but we need more help in learning how to moderate such interactions in the most productive manner possible.
In my own personal history, I have seen incredible change. When I was an undergraduate, in the late 1970s, there were relatively few women in academia. And I almost never was assigned a reading by a female author. But within about ten years, things had changed significantly. When it comes to women in academia, we have clearly made a lot of progress, even while recognizing that we still have not reached complete equality yet. Obviously there are differences between the experiences between different “subaltern” groups in our society. But I like to think that as the case of women has suggested, with a great deal more focused attention, with a lot more frank discussion, and with a renewed sense of commitment, we can make progress toward creating an institution that supports and benefits from all communities a reality.
Joel Begay ’14, previous co-Chair of Native American Student Union (NASU)
HS: What has been your experience at CC as a student of color?
JB: It was rough at first. I relied on my professors a lot and I found it hard to make friends outside of Bridge in the beginning. They [my professors] really worked with me, but it required me to do a lot of outreach to make it okay. A lot of Native American students have this cultural barrier of being afraid to ask questions. I often find current Native students struggling to even ask for help or letting professors know they are struggling … It’s been on my mind recently. I tell students that my one piece of advice is to remember where you come from. Stay true to yourself, and if that means that you have to transfer, that’s fine.
HS: A lot of CC students don’t have any conception of what it’s like to be on campus as a minority. How do you think it’s different?
JB: It’s been an interesting past four years. When I first came to CC I was very introverted. I had to come out of my shell and learn to speak and a lot of students don’t know how to do that. Freshman year, my Native friend in general chemistry was struggling, and I was doing all right so I did everything I could to help her as her peer and her friend. I ended up speaking with the professor by pulling her aside and saying, “This is what’s going on; in Native communities we are discouraged from questioning our elders.” Next thing you know, the professor did reach out and began to provide more individualized attention.
HS: Students said they felt like faculty training could help. Do you think that training would be in order, something substantial?
JB: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it. I took a class on Native American music and the professor would often ask me about a certain tribe’s music, and I wasn’t even associated with the tribe—they just made the assumption. I still deal with it nowadays. I think it’s very interesting that we emphasize the knowledge [of cultural sensitivity] for the students but not for the professors. I would like to see something like that implemented, but it’s easier said than done.
HS: As an admissions fellow, what do you tell potential students of color who want to come to CC?
JB: Well, I tell them about the innumerable opportunities and the amazing faculty and students, etc. Then, oftentimes when we are having a cultural panel, in the evening when it’s just us there, I say, “Okay, now I’m going to take off my admission hat, and I’m going to talk to you guys for real.” CC definitely has this initiative of increasing the number of diverse students, but the thing is—although they are trying to increase numbers, we need to ensure that the students who are coming to CC have the resources necessary to, again, do well and to succeed. We need to retain students. I think if we can solidify the structure of OMIS, we can support more students at CC.
HS: I have talked to other students who actively discourage other minorities from coming here because of their experience.
JB: I would always encourage students to come here. I wanted to increase cultural awareness and promote Native communities. That’s why I became involved in the Admissions Office. We have created goals to go directly to Native communities and recruit them, but again, that would require that we have support for our Native students. It makes me nervous as an outgoing student to see these initiatives. These are resources I’m a little bit wary of. I still encourage students to come to CC. It’s been a difficult four years but I don’t regret it. I’ve enjoyed every friend, connection and opportunity I made.
Gianina Horton ’14, Bridge Mentor, past co-Chair for SOMOS, Member of BSU
HS: How has your experience been at CC? What is you perception of racial relations on campus?
GH: As a senior. I’m torn. I feel like I’ve wasted my time for the past two years because there is such a dominant catering to the white student population in the OMIS groups. We are trying to invite you guys to our table to have this discussion. It’s us coming to you, and it’s our responsibility to educate our white, wealthy peers. I’ve been struggling with this for the longest time, but recently I’ve felt like it might be a waste of time and energy for minority students. It should be our peers coming to us. Half of the freshmen that were part of the Bridge program thought about transferring. What does that say about the actual support of everyday operations of CC not providing a foundation of minority students? As an upperclassman minority who has been able to mentor some amazing individuals in these past few years, I ask, “Have we failed ourselves as a minority community in establishing a platform of solidarity and unity?” I think we haven’t done that. There’s not a manifesto of objectives and no direct advocacy. On one hand I understand the value of having allies and educating our white peers and I get it—I’ve done that for two years. But at the same time, why the fuck should we care? It doesn’t have to be on the shoulders of minority students.
HS: The pressure is so intense. How are you supposed to do all those things? It kind of seems like a lot of minority students are ushered into an activist position—does that seem true?
GH: Yes, but I do want to clarify that not all American minorities feel this way. There are some who are perfectly comfortable never going to an OMIS meeting. Some of the most interesting debates I have about wanting to be inclusive versus wanting to be exclusive are conversations I’m having with other minority peers. And I’m still passionate about global issues too, but because of my minority status, my inferior position already as a student, I didn’t feel like I had the opportunity to focus on global inequalities when I was seeing the everyday inequalities happening in my own life. For me, there was eventually a lack of choice.
HS: One thing Heidi said is that we expect the minority students of color to have the solution, to help us not be racist.
GH: It’s a love-hate relationship with CC. Just talking to my friends, we are so grateful for the education we have been able to acquire here. I’m blown away by the discussions I’ve had; I’m going to miss it. But at the same time I’m so discontent with its treatment of minority students. CC is a joke when it comes to being supportive of minority students. I had a board of trustees member tell me one time, “You know, we’re not here to provide rudimentary education for incoming ethnic minority students.” I wasn’t even talking about that! It’s such an insult to minority students, this myth of meritocracy.
Because there is such a huge focus on establishing relationships with our white peers, we lose a sense of unity amongst ourselves. I think it’s so key that the focus shifts for OMIS groups. I want to see what programs we can establish or what programs we can improve that can increase the positive experiences of minority students on this campus. It’s not about getting them to go hiking. They don’t need to try and assimilate. I have hope that one day the minority student population will be more of a unit, a team, across OMIS groups.
HS: To go back a little bit, many students don’t know what it means to be in a racist environment. How does that manifest itself?
GH: It’s those small everyday slights that build up over time. By the time students are ready to graduate these students feel like, “Fuck you, CC.” The experience is not that our peers are intentionally being racist. It’s about the basis that they don’t recognize that we see everyday because of our status as minority students. It makes a lot of my friends who are seniors say, “I cannot wait until the day I graduate.”
HS: I think part of it is that students shouldn’t be expected to have all the answers if the administration were to take integration seriously, right? It’s so much work for students to do.
GH: Our faculty and staff are some of the worst people who perpetuate racism on this campus, regardless of if they do this on purpose or not. It’s also extremely important to qualify that question of integration. Is it really what minority students need? Really? I think that’s the million-dollar question. What does that mean? Who is integrating and how is that integration going to occur?
HS: What advice would you give to another student of color coming onto this campus?
GH: Be ready. I’ve had students ask me from home. I tell them if I know they are a first-generation minority student… They’re going to have to confront their race and their class. You are entering a unique environment that is mostly white and mostly wealthy. You just gotta be ready for it.
HS: Anything else you want to add?
GH: I think it’s extremely key to note two different avenues of thinking (which there is a lot of gray area in): being able to Kumbaya with our white peers and, on the other side, flipping them off and saying, “We’re gonna do us.” We go back and forth all the time and it is extremely difficult to plant our feet in which ideology of how we, as racial minorities, should be on this campus. It’s always at the back of our minds, “How exactly do we want to do this?”
This article clearly isn’t the beginning or the end of racism on our campus. But we have to take the interviews, the experiences and this issue seriously. Maybe, in the right hands, these transcripts can be the beginning of knowledge for those (myself included) who had never realized how deeply we are creating and sustaining a hostile culture—not by directly being racist, but by politely saying nothing. It’s the lack of words and the presence of glances, the fabric of our day-to-day interactions, the way we carry ourselves or the way we refuse to reach out to each other. All in all, this marks at least one definite beginning: Cipher will now include an article every block focusing on or exploring the experiences of minority students on this campus. That means featuring the work these OMIS groups are doing or writing about the culture of different ethnicities; it means there will be follow-up every single block to ask professors why reading material on their syllabi are all white men and how we can work together to remedy it; it means hearing the things that minority students and faculty have been saying on this campus for decades and publishing it.
Cipher is going to pursue and highlight our campus culture, and that “culture” doesn’t constitute a single entity. That said, we have to move beyond “awareness,” and beyond reading an article in this magazine. Now we need the motivation for action on an individual and institutional level. I’m talking to my white peers, my white professors and the vast majority of the administration when I say: it’s our problem. Let’s stop asking minority students and faculty how we can fix it, and instead listen and act to re-create trust on this campus. Only then, as Johnson said during our interview, can we “start being honest, start being real and start really teaching.”