Students Engage in Dialogue about Race, Identity
Providence, R.I.--A standing-room-only crowd of more than 75 students filled the new Unity Center, on the lower level of the Slavin Center, for a wide-ranging, faculty-led discussion about issues of race and diversity at Providence College.
The event was sponsored by the Balfour Office for Multicultural Activities (BOMA), the Board of Multicultural Student Affairs (BMSA), Black Studies Program, and Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR).
Its title, “Why Do All the (Fill in the Blank) Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria: A Conversation about Race, Group Identity, and Segregation,” was inspired by a similarly named book by the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, according to Elena T. Yee, BOMA director.
Yee said a study at the University of California at Los Angeles showed that while college students believed themselves to be “self-segregating,” they interacted with students of other ethnic backgrounds more often than they believed.
About 12.3 percent of PC’s student body is non-white, the highest percentage in College history. A Diversity Initiatives Committee appointed last year by College President Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80 recommended that PC increase that rate to 18 percent.
It also recommended the hiring of the College’s first chief diversity officer. Rafael Zapata will begin work in that role on January 11.
Making “border crossings”
Dr. Julia S. Jordan-Zachery, associate professor of political science and program director for Black Studies, described her experiences with race while teaching at the College for the past four years. She said the night’s discussion was inspired by the “activism projects” done by students in her Introduction to Black Studies classes, who looked at the College Web site as part of a larger project examining segregation within institutions.
But Dr. Keith W. Morton, professor of public and community service studies, noted that students attending the diversity discussion had quickly shifted the night’s topic to focus on interpersonal relationships. They wanted to know how they could make “border crossings” and approach students of different ethnicity without offending them or appearing condescending.
Malika Z. Gordon ’12 (Boston, Mass.), who described herself as biracial, said the challenge during her years at PC was to step outside her “comfort zone” to befriend white students. As she did, she found she was leaving her friends of color behind, and regretted it, she said.
“It took more of an effort for me to conform to PC than for PC to accept me,” said Gordon.
Gordon said she also wished that more white students attended multicultural events sponsored by BMSA. Her friends declined her invitations, believing they would “stick out,” she said. As a result, “Nobody’s trying to show up at African-American, Latino, or Middle Eastern events,” said Gordon.
Sophia Romeu ’14 (Lenox, Mass.) urged students to attend “Horizons,” a retreat sponsored by BOMA that explores multiculturalism. She did so in her freshman year and met students of many backgrounds there, she said.
Romeu said the promise of working on events sponsored by BMSA drew her to PC. While people meeting her believe she is white, she is Hispanic and lived for a time in Mexico, and diversity is important to her, she said.
“Why are people so afraid, or have a social stigma for the word ‘multicultural’?” asked Romeu. “It really is up to you to make your own experience here. It’s up to you to get over yourself and attend an event.”
“Change is occurring”
Dr. Eve Veliz, assistant professor of sociology, said both professors and students of color sometimes weary of feeling they must “enrich” the environment for non-white students.
Issues of race and ethnicity are complicated, the professors agreed.
Yee, a Chinese-American raised in a Jewish community in Newton, Mass., described a year in China in which, to feel comfortable, she sought out Americans, English-speakers from the Ukraine and Siberia, and a KFC franchise.
“There is a real complexity to race, ethnicity, and culture,” said Yee. “It’s not going to be in neat boxes.”
Veliz agreed. “You have in common more than you think,” she told students. “When I lived in Germany, I found out how American I really was.”
Jordan-Zachery said a recent program sponsored by Black Studies, “The Rhode Island African Connection,” brought 120 people from the black community to the PC campus, many of them for the first time.
“Change is occurring. Improvements are happening,” said Deborah A. Reyes ’12 (Pawtucket, R.I.), speaking after the event. “Maybe at a slower pace than some people would like. But just to see so many people here today is nice.”