When Procedural Diversity is Not EnoughTwo fraternities at the University of Virginia were suspended as photos of members in blackface were posted on a Web site following a Halloween party, the Washington Post recently reported. If that sounds like an alarmingly familiar story, that’s because it is. Around the same time last year, Black Issues was still reporting on the aftershocks of the blackface incident at Auburn University, where members of two fraternities dressed up in Ku Klux Klan robes and blackface during a Halloween party. Like the Virginia case, the Auburn photos made their way to the Internet. According to the Post, the recent incident at UVA has reignited a debate on campus about how well Black students have been integrated into extracurricular life on campus and whether sororities and fraternities need to step up recruiting of minority members.
It seems to me that what’s taking place on college campuses is that we’re achieving significant diversity but our students are not getting diverse experiences and they are not connecting with each other. Ideally, colleges want their diverse communities to learn from each other. But that’s the difficult part, particularly when past racist conventions continue to resurface.
I encountered a jarring reminder of how the recent past has given way to today’s diversity. The past and present collided a few months ago at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, my alma mater, when actress Julia Roberts and crew filmed scenes on campus for an upcoming movie that is set in 1953. I can tell you that Wellesley in 2002 looks much different than it did 50 years ago. In fact, 40 percent of the freshman and sophomore classes are comprised of Asian, American Indian, Black and Hispanic young women.
The Wellesley administration had initial reservations about allowing the filming to take place — there would be disruptions, their decision to allow Hollywood to come to Wellesley would be criticized, etc. In the end, however, the administration thought it would be an intriguing experience for students to witness the process of movie making up close and personal. What the college was not prepared for, however, was the exclusion of a large part of their community and the pain, which resulted. Feelings were hurt and tensions ran high as the movie called for extras — almost exclusively White extras, which essentially shut out half of the student body of 2,300 women.“…What is most clear is that the disorienting experience of being abruptly transported back 50 years in time, paradoxically, underscored both the progress our society has made in erasing some of the corrosive consequences of unconscious White privilege and the depth of the racial wounds we continue to carry,” said Dr. Diana Chapman Walsh, president of Wellesley College, in a Boston Globe op-ed piece.
I cite the Wellesley case, not to suggest that the film crew was racist, because the fact is, Wellesley in 1953, was, well, Wellesley in 1953. The experience for the Wellesley community was a look into its past, and a painful reality check. Most schools today whether it’s the University of Virginia, Auburn or Wellesley, all look very different than they did when they were first established. However, we can’t erase the past or the racial wounds we carry, which is why the blackface incidents, in particular, still cause so much pain and anger among students of color, who would like to believe that surely racially speaking, our society is much further along and our peers are more sensitive, than say, 50 years ago.
In the past, these “teachable moments” have been addressed with a flurry of activity, teach-ins and calls for stepped-up minority recruiting. It seems that the persistence of these incidents requires that the moment be seized not only when they occur but become more permanently woven into the fabric of the institutions. And as we all know, fabric that is interwoven has to touch each other in order to make a quilt.
Hilary Hurd Anyaso
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