As Campus Protest Coverage Dies Down, Students of Color Continue to Live amongst Racial Tension

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, December 15, 2015

We Have a Race Problem on College Campuses

There has been much conversation about the racial tension on college campuses in recent months. In the wake of the University of Missouri controversy, news outlets, blogs, and social media pages have been alight with opinionated perspectives on the issue. In the context of the recent Supreme Court hearings about affirmative action, the issue has only become more heated.

Photo Courtesy of COD Newsroom

Photo Courtesy of COD Newsroom

Critics of the campus protesters say we’ve been coddling our college students, and that the demands for political correctness have spiraled out of control. This side of the debate insists that the first amendment protects students and professors from negative repercussions for voicing their opinions, and discourages Students of Color (SoCs) from actively objecting to microaggressions. Minority students are told they are too sensitive when they dare to dispute racist stereotypes or tactless comments.

Often lost in this debate, are the voices of the actual students who, while making new friends and studying for finals, are experiencing these conversations first hand in their day-to-day life on campus. First generation college students from urban districts often face many challenges that white students do not, and racial discrimination is among them.

Diversity as a Selling Point

As institutions aimed at preparing students for success in a diverse world, colleges and universities often accurately claim that the diversity they offer on campus is advantageous to all students. Racial and ethnic diversity is highlighted on campus tours and in brochures, and students of color are often asked to participate in events for publicity and public relations campaigns, situating the institution as a champion of diversity and inclusion. For students actually living on those campuses, however, this representation often seems false and misleading, as well as unethical.

Luz Pineda, a former Chicago Public High School student and current sophomore at Lafayette College, noticed this immediately upon her arrival to campus. While students of color had greeted her and represented the college during her initial visit, there were shockingly few Persons of Color (PoC) on campus when she arrived in the fall. Pineda said, “I thought Lafayette was diverse. I wish that I had visited when they had programs that were representative of what campus really is like.” Pineda went on to elaborate about the difficulty adjusting to this reality, “I was used to being the racial majority in high school. There was nothing I could have done to prepare for the culture shock of being in college.”

While race is a focal point for most students of color, there is dissonance about how to best engage these questions and strive toward progress. Daniel Huerta, another Chicago Public Schools graduate who now attends Oberlin College, describes the discussion on his campus: “Race is a very hot topic at Oberlin. Oberlin being the first school to allow African-Americans to enroll and get a degree, race will always be a center topic here. I don’t agree with certain aspects involving disruption and vandalism as a means to have your voice heard. There are plenty of methods that can reach the same conclusion.” Whatever the method, however, making their voices heard is precisely what students of color are endeavoring to do on the campuses of Primarily White Institutions (PWIs).

The Conversation Isn’t Pretty

The events on college campuses this year have provoked dialogs about race among college students across the country. While conversation and contact with members of other racial groups often leads to an increase in compassion and mutual understanding, the discussions that need to take place around race are usually not easy. Luz Pineda described an organized discussion about race on campus this month. In a small group of students attempting respectful conversation on white privilege, a white, male student cut off his classmates, shouting, “Don’t tell me the white privilege BS.” The student proceeded to perform a monologue about minorities bringing problems on themselves and the people around them.

The acknowledgement of privilege and the willingness on the part of both white students and SoCs to participate in these conversations is difficult, and not without friction. Pineda describes the covert tension about the issue in small examples, like, “girls writing ‘All Lives Matter’ over signs that used to say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ on dorm room doors.” Pineda, like many of her colleagues, is exasperated. “You’d think that it being 2015 this kind of thing would stop.”

Daniel Huerta says that officials at his university have facilitated the conversation around race relatively well. However, Huerta recalls, “Recently the campus security issued a memo to students about an incident that occurred at the Afrikan Heritage House involving death threats and racial slurs.” Even as most days are relatively free of overt racial incidents, there is an undercurrent of fear and hatred that requires attention. Luz Pineda similarly observes, “There isn’t day-to-day racial tension, but even before all this—working at a café, I see how people act toward me. Recently I got something wrong in an order and [the customer] said, ‘oh, I should have said it in Spanish.’”

Both Huerta and Pineda cite their core group of friends as a source of strength in these moments. Both are members of Posse, a prestigious scholarship program for students of color from urban areas. “This group,” says Pineda, “is essential to success in a PWI. They are all minority kids from similar backgrounds. We know the struggle, what it’s like to be a minority.” Even with the strong support of a peer group, however, Pineda expresses preoccupation with race relations on campus. “My friends and I talk about this almost every day at lunch together. Every day something happens on the news or Facebook. There’s always something. No matter how much we talk about these things and educate some people, it seems like a waste of time because white supremacists feel like there’s nothing that needs to be changed. It’s terrifying. I don’t know what to expect every day on this campus. It scares my mom being 800 miles away.”

 Safe Spaces

 Much of the talk about safe spaces amounts to justifiable demands for true, unhindered, access to education. While conservatives protest these demands as over-the-top, the students at these institutions feel the exclusion and very real fear brought on by racial bias. “Safe Spaces” has received criticism as a reflection of students’ lack of resilience. However, “safe” should mean that students do not have to negotiate racist slurs, denigrating behavior, and administrations that speak to but never act on diversity and antiracism policies.

One of the most praiseworthy functions of higher education is to promote social mobility and increase the inclusion of underrepresented minority populations in a democratic society. Unfortunately, this function has been largely ignored, downplayed or deferred when it comes to race. In our conversations about racial tensions on campus, let us remember their actual human impact and look to the individual students facing these issues in their daily lives.

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.