Friday, May 16, 2014

Race relations under the dome

This piece was written by Notre Dame freshman Hannah Meissner and originally published as an article in Common Sense on April 23, 2014.

“Welcome Home.” Reading those words on our acceptance letters sent our hearts soaring with the knowledge we had made it.

Yet, for many minority students, coming to Notre Dame will never quite feel like coming home. Instead, as senior Felicia Byrd put it, they will spend their time here “feeling tolerated instead of accepted.”

Recently, the issue of racism at Notre Dame has been made public thanks to projects such as “I, Too, Am Notre Dame.” While the project has met with support, there has also been substantial negative backlash at the thought that the incidents depicted in the photos could have happened on our campus.

Sophomore Preston Igwe, a Pre-Health and Sociology major, believes that “A lot of people just accept these little incidents of racism at Notre Dame because we don’t want to believe that at this perfect place, where everyone is happy and part of a cohesive family, that this problem could exist […] but no family is perfect.”

We want to believe that we are a post-racial society, but we are not. Racism still exists and afflicts many of Notre Dame’s minority students, despite the claims of the University’s inclusion clause, which states that the University “strives for a spirit of inclusion among [its] members […] We consciously create an environment of mutual respect, hospitality and warmth in which none are strangers and all may flourish.”

But when a student believes he/she can describe the NAACP or the BSA as “racial rabble rousers,” how can one doubt that Notre Dame struggles with racism?

Of the thirteen minority students I interviewed, only two had not personally experienced racism. However, each interviewee recalled instances where he or she had witnessed racism directed towards others. Most instances of racism on campus consist of microaggressions, small acts of mostly non-physical aggressions between different races. These incidences range from stereotypical comments to using derogatory language such as the “N” word. But what all microaggresion have in common is that they make Notre Dame’s minority students feel unwanted, unappreciated, and unwelcomed.

Freshman and Science Pre-Professional major Natalie Thomas has continuously dealt with comments such as “You’re pretty for a black girl” and “You’re so white!” when she does not meet the criteria of ‘black’ in someone’s mind. Natalie also has to correct people after they assume that her scholarship is an athletic one.

As ‘Katy,’ another Notre Dame minority student says, “the minute the sweatpants come on you are automatically assumed to be an athlete.” Some people believe minority students encountering comments like these should “grow thicker skin,” but what these people don’t realize is that this is not the only time they’ve been asked if they are an athlete.

Minority students continuously correct people’s misperceptions about whatever scholarship or financial aid they may or may not be on. After awhile this becomes a nuisance; a nuisance that white students here have seldom dealt with. This is how microaggressions work. It’s not the one bee sting that usually does damage, it’s thousand that are devastating.

Minorities also often feel targeted by another kind of microaggression: exclusion, or having to deal with people who don’t want to get to know them simply because they’re minorities.

A freshman minority student, ‘Edna’ says, “I feel like there is this giant wall between me and everyone else because of the melatonin in my skin.”

Freshman Electrical Engineer Michael Hutchinson says one of the reasons he dropped out of ROTC was because he felt like he was being kept at arm’s length from everyone.

Many minority students can relate to Natalie’s, ‘Edna’s,’ and Michael’s stories, and many more can relate to being called the “N” word - a word that, due to it’s painful past, is never okay in any circumstance.

Sophomore Ray’von Jones has had friends come back from parties upset because someone shouted “What are these n***** doing here” and has heard people shout “n******” on South Quad (though she is not sure if this is directed at her). “Edna” has been in a Notre Dame guy’s dorm where a male student came up to her and asked “Can I call you n*****?” and when met with complete silence explained his action by saying “I have a lot of black friends.” ‘Edna’ was in a room full of people, and not a single person stood up for her or told him that it would not be okay for him to refer to her as n*****.

Finally, there is Curran Cross’ story. Curran Cross is a sophomore History and French double major. Curran has not felt welcomed at Notre Dame. He has dealt with people calling him “n*****” despite asking them to stop, people putting their fingers in his hair, asking him to play his “ghetto music” and to twerk for others, making Curran feel like a circus animal. At one point when Curran was talking to other guys about an attractive white female, one of the guys told him, “You have your women, and we have ours.”

When asked to tell his most serious incidence of racism, Curran said: “One time I was hanging out in my dorm with some of my guy friends when another guy came in and slammed the door shut. The entire room became silent. The guy looked at me and said ‘I am going to beat your f****** ass n****’ and no one said anything. I was in a room full of guys and not a single person spoke up. The guy kept yelling at me. I started counting how many times he said the “N” word and it was 19 times in 17 minutes […] Another time I was walking out with another friend and this guy looked at me and said ‘F*** n*****,’ but that time my friend did stand up for me.”

Each of these incidences has occurred at Notre Dame and was carried out by Notre Dame students. Most of them have been in the presence of others and not one person spoke out or stood up against it.

Occasionally some brave soul will stand up for their friend, such as in Curran’s story, but on the whole, students here are either tolerating racism or are “remarkably” ignorant to the fact that racism is a problem.
The sad fact is that when being confronted with racism, most of us will stay silent. As ‘Katy’ says, “no one wants to be the one who shuts the person down.” It seems that here, at Notre Dame, we are scared to confront, we are scared of conflict. But as Felicia points out, “Conflict can be good if it is healthy and if we can work together so we can help each other.”

Racism is a big issue. It is a problem that will not be resolved this year, or next. But there are steps we can start taking now in order to make Notre Dame a home not to just the majority, but the minority as well.

Olevia Boykin, a senior Political Science and Sociology double major, has some ideas as to how we can start taking the first steps: “The first thing that needs to happen is Notre Dame needs to make it a priority […] We have vague commitments to inclusion and to diversity, we haven’t defined what these things mean. Any effective business sets goals, and we are not doing that in terms of the racial climate on our campus […] Also we’re students, we’re busy, we come for four years and then we leave, we cannot be the sole drivers of change […] The administration needs to not focus on getting black students to come here, but needs to focus on making sure students stay and enjoy their time here. It would be a lot easier to recruit if the current black students could say without question their real story instead of their [Spring Visitation Weekend] story.”

As Olevia says, students should not be the sole drivers of change, and there are some steps the administration and the students can begin to take to improve the experience of minority students at Notre Dame.

The administration could create a “Cultural Competency” class. Many students may have never had to interact with racial difference and as a result often view that difference as a threat rather than as an opportunity to grow.

Having a class during Freshman Orientation either in the dorms at a Diversity meeting, during “Building a Community the Notre Dame Way,” or some other time, and presented by the leaders of the minority clubs in conjunction with faculty and administrative leaders at Notre Dame would help make students less ignorant of racism.

Such a presentation would educate people on issues ranging from “why it is never okay to use the “N” word” to how to ask someone about their culture in a respectful way. This would be a small change, but an important one. Especially since most of the time, microaggressions are the result of students’ ignorance to how what they are saying is offensive and could be perceived as racist.

By holding a cultural awareness class, Notre Dame would be better able to eliminate some of these problems.  And an awareness class would certainly increase the likelihood that someone would step up and contest the aggressive behavior of those out and out racists who currently feel comfortable and safe in bullying minorities because experience has emboldened them.

Of course, students can do many things on their own as well. Freshman Computer Engineering and Music double major Quinlan McWilliams points out that “hardly anyone corrects people when they use the ‘N word,’ if we seriously want to stop racism from occurring on campus, we need to start calling out people when they are racists.” We as a community need to stop tolerating these incidences.

We also need, according to Jas Smith and others, “to get the student body involved in going to other cultural events. We need to embrace people for who they are. We can learn a lot from each other.” The goal of eradicating racism is not to baselessly accept more minority students. Everyone, including minority students, wants the students at Notre Dame to be duly qualified.

The goal is also not to become color blind. Instead we should see minorities for the race they are, but not assume we know everything about them because they are Black, Latino, Asian, etc.

As Preston Igwe says, “If you don’t see the color, you don’t see the person. We have to appreciate the difference.”

We as a community at Notre Dame, the students and the administration, need to come together and actively work to begin to make all minority students feel as if they have a home, a home where each member is recognized for their unique talents and abilities, and cherished for the differences that have made them who they are today.