Feb 25, 2011
Content Warning: Racism
UO President La Riviere was walking with two aids towards the EMU, engaged in a discussion about racism at the University of Oregon. The aids informed him that racism is not a serious issue at the University of Oregon, that “we take it very seriously, for our staff and students. Just this week I had a meeting with prospective students, almost twenty seven of them. We care about the community of DIversity, we are even letting six of them in…” Nobody questioned this, nobody was astounded that in reaching out to students, only one quarter will enroll. Why is it difficult for students of color? Why is it difficult for the University to overcome its lily white complexion?
Racism is not found in the same wide scales and dramatic blows that Bull Conner dealt in the 1960s, but we all know it exists in the wage disparity and other systematic measurable inequalities. We continue to find the situations which at their face appear full of racism, but which we can rationalize as some benign thing, but as laws can be a harbor of injustice, so too can just laws be carried out with injustice- look to the prisons for this to be evidenced. A society cannot continue to legally or socially exclude it’s people, we cannot live in perpetual fear, living that fear in enclaves and pretending the world will not change around us.
We must embrace different cultures, but can still embrace our own cultural heritage; we can defend our uniqueness, but we must with the same vehemence condemn the exclusion of people from society for different religious or cultural backgrounds. We must embrace each other or we will have failed the test of time. No person need abandon their cultural heritage to appreciate another’s. This is a predominantly ‘white’ campus, a campus that does not reach out to students of color, does not empower its own diversity. The institutions of administration tolerate differences, perhaps, but do not work towards empowerment. If even the educational circles cannot reflect empowerment, the rest of society is overwhelmingly condemned to cultural ignorance and social inhibition.
When a people are deprived of the cultural experiences different from their own, they betray their own potential. This does not exclude the opportunity of an individual’s cultural expression or forming enclaves- quite the opposite, it calls for cultural celebration to explore similitude. The idea of cultural empowerment ought not exclude the growth of others and indeed should seek actively to empower other communities, building solidarity over our mutual human desires for expression and our mutual resistance to oppressive systems- like Imperialism, corporate domination of our lives and environmental racism.
As a society and for a campus, which faces the quiet cruelty, born in the numbers of students of color and lack of diversity among backgrounds. We as people must face the facts, that our behavior towards one another and as much as our attendance at events of empowerment reflects our real sentiments and that we need to examine our behavior. As a campus we charge for cultural events, impose restrictive codes and when we impose bureaucracy on cultural growth, this is racism. At the University of Oregon, all the ’ethnic’ non-white identities, including international students and those of unknown status, equal less than one third of the student population (as of Fall term, 2010, according the registrar). This should be appalling, that students of color, are excluded for reasons of tuition, university outreach and support as well as a culture on the campus which other students play a role in. But it doesn’t stop at the students, there are low margins of faculty, support staff and administration of color as well. How can students of color be welcomed, when the campus makes a clear statement in hiring- that persons of color will not be supported.
Reflections of racism are found on campus, as elsewhere, among its communities and networks. The lack of solidarity is appalling and there is a history of awkwardness in behavior that perpetuates this.
It takes time to acculturate one’s self into unfamiliar communities, as well as for communities to trust one another, the level of understanding necessary to overcome the awkwardness and quiet racism takes longer. Make no mistake however, overcoming the sense of awkwardness is the responsibility of the empowered communities, the allies in struggle and the more numerous ‘ethnic’ group Caucasian students. Once these relationships are established, the hard work begins of collaboration and mutual empowerment.
Breaking the cycle of quiet racism, the cruel devil, which isn’t the flaming rants of rabid white supremacists, is no easy task. If this university is to overcome quiet racism, it will take an increase in sheer numerical value of students, faculty and staff of color- with a focus on empowerment and retention. Early anti-oppression crash-courses, ‘courses’ plural, because it is all to easy to sit through a lecture and never challenge one’s self to break cycles of ingrained racism. Breaking internalized racism takes time and personal, internal, confrontation. The anti-oppression courses are necessary and of critical importance to a balanced education. Simply leaving it up to students to create a desirable campus will not succeed, the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity (OIED) needs to be given the tools to make a real standardized improvement across the scholastic system. This improvement is relative to different departments, but requires concerted efforts. Efforts to outreach to students of color by peers and more institutionally with support networks is a significant key to empowerment a recently McClatchy article finds (see below).
We cannot afford to pretend that racism does not exist on our campus and be honest- in our hearts, unless we challenge it. We cannot pretend that we do not look away and may hear the stereotypes of social roles, judgments if even sometimes jokingly. This is racism. We need to challenge racism and it’s legitimacy in ourselves as in those around us, to command that voice to not only be silenced but to be replaced by one of cultural embrace. We cannot continue to perpetuate an institution of quiet cruelty, we must create an environment of welcoming and supporting communities. We need to recognize the intellect, skill and sheer guts to come to the University of Oregon as a student of Color. We need to demonstrate solidarity, by attending events and meetings of one another, supporting faculty and staff of color if for no other reason than our own sense of dignity by recognizing the dignity of others as people. In attending events, deliberately not exercising white privilege, by commanding safe space, but respecting the space and its occupants. Respect is shown by not speaking over communities of color or speaking in diminutives, be respectful and show support.
As the author of this article I am ‘white’ by heritage. I no more choose this that an African American choose their skin color. I cannot therefore speak for communities of color about their oppression, but I will speak of the oppression itself as I see it and experience it- from a position of privilege. I recognize that I cannot speak for communities of color, but I will say I can sense an almost palpable sensation of terrible awkwardness, that becomes behavior, repeated over and over. I have witnessed this again and again on campus, a sensation that I myself, in moments of cowardice, have felt. The culmination of this feeling is both disempowering to the communities it targets, it is also not empowering among the communities who perpetuate it, walking away from such interactions knowing they have not been supportive. The nauseating frequency of such events normalizes them and only allows racism to build and be perpetuated. The sum culmination of these experiences creates a quiet cruelty, not a single student is responsible, solely and that is the problem. No one person can be called out, or held accountable, unless every student, individually recognizes that this is oppression and it must be challenged. That we are perpetuating this oppression and we must challenge ourselves and others to step up and join communities of color in an effort of empowerment and solidarity. To break the silence and tolerate no longer the quiet cruelty.