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VOICES

When Racism Erupts On College Campuses

The University of Pennsylvania campus.

CREDIT: Flickr user Stephen M. Scott.

Since the November presidential election, a number of racist incidents have erupted on college campuses. At the University of Pennsylvania, a group of Oklahoma-based students created a GroupMe account titled “N****r Lynching” and added numerous black freshmen to the account. The perpetrators then signed their hate speech with the name “Daddy Trump.” Another black female student at Villanova University was assaulted by a group of Trump supporters during the supporters’ victory march. In Massachusetts, a group of white male students drove through the Wellesley College campus in a Trump flag-bearing vehicle, then spat at a black student nearby.

The recent spike in racial hate crimes is alarming. But it’s also a painful reminder that a college education offers no guarantee that graduates will exhibit tolerance, acceptance, or empathy toward those deemed “different.”

College can be a remarkably formative experience for young people. While attending college, students are often shaping their sense of self and crystallizing their worldview. They’re navigating their identity across multiple domains of race, gender, religion, spirituality, and heritage. In many cases, they’re also being exposed to new cultures and identities that they may not have previously been exposed to.

However, my own experience as a daughter of immigrant parents, attending an Ivy League university, taught me that racial unity in college is no organic, guaranteed process. Worse, students can graduate from elite universities and carry the same prejudicial attitudes they had when they first entered as freshmen.

While attending the University of Pennsylvania, I witnessed my peers—some white, some non-white—exhibit racism in both overt and subtle ways. For instance, in the spring semester of my senior year, the local chapters of the Chi Omega sorority and Beta Theta Pi fraternity organized an invite-only “gangsta-themed” party, encouraging attendees to don costumes that mock and exploit lower-income residents in Philadelphia. The following semester, the nearly all-white male chapter of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity distributed a holiday card in which they posed next to a black-faced blow-up sex doll.

My experience is far from unique. Similar incidents have been taking place at colleges and universities across the country for decades.

But perhaps just as important is the fact that there’s a process of “dismissal and denial” that usually takes place following these events. In these instances, when black students voice their demands for a safer, more inclusive space, our interests are cast as illegitimate. Black students are told that they are being overly dramatic, or are advised to “get over” their direct experiences with racism.

And then there are microaggressions, the everyday interactions that communicate negative, hostile messages. For example, when I was admitted into the University of Pennsylvania, one of my peers snorted that the only reason I got in was because I was black. Another peer asked, “What was your SAT score?”

These snide jokes and invasive questions ultimately boiled down to the question: Do you really belong here?

The answer should be, unequivocally, yes. However, these subtle jabs demonstrate a serious ignorance of the achievements, contributions, and diversity of black students. From the Southern progressive Christian to the Sudanese refugee, black students offer much more to college campuses than their skin color. One of the gifts of my college experience was my exposure to the diversity in our intellectual beliefs, religious philosophies, and cultural upbringings.

In fact, many black people in America juggle multiple, intersecting identities. Many African Americans are also Latino, Muslim, immigrants, undocumented, women, and/or LGBTQ. For the queer black man, the Jamaican-American young woman, or the undocumented Senegalese Muslim, the racist events spurred by this year’s election raise serious questions of “Who am I? Do I really belong?”

I witnessed many of my friends carry these questions with them to class, in their interactions with peers and faculty, and in their dreams and ambitions for post-college life.

To be clear, college can be a positive and rewarding experience. It certainly was for me.

It is also promising that many colleges and universities have been swift in their response to the recent incidents. For instance, I am proud that Penn denounced the GroupMe perpetrators and has displayed solidarity with the affected students. All university administrators should be this forthright in condemning racial hate crimes. However, creating inclusive campuses will require more than an eloquent press release. It requires officials to recognize the danger in silence and complicity, long after the controversy dies down.

Even when it is not garnering headlines, race still defines many students’ daily lives. U.S.-born black students, who have long muscled their way through racism, are confronting it yet again. International black students, who have just arrived in this country, are getting their first taste of what it’s like to have dark skin in America.

In this new Trump world, the historical legacy of race and racism has become even more visible. Unfortunately, we cannot escape the social mechanisms that sort us by race. But colleges and universities can no longer afford to sit idly by while some feel emboldened by the racist rhetoric now deemed presidential. We cannot wait until ignorance spirals into hate. And we cannot wait until implicit bias turns into explicit violence. After all, people of color cannot escape racism, not even at institutions of higher learning.

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