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Narratives

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Angelique, November 2013

This has happened so many times. Too many times.[1] Our biggest fear after the incident was that people would stop caring. That people would need another walkout or protest or incident, and another and another to remind them that this is important, that we have to keep having dialogue about race, that this is still a white campus and as a woman of color I’m still marginalized. I’m tired, okay, because it’s not fair. And I want to ask, when is enough?[2] I don’t want to have to keep reminding.

 

Katie, September 2013

Philosophy 101 was one of the bigger intro classes at Mabell. I think on that first day there were about seventy or eighty students in the lecture hall – and I know that sounds small to anyone from a larger school or research university, but for Mabell that was huge. Our biggest lecture hall only sat one hundred students. It might seem weird that so many people wanted to take an introductory philosophy class, but it was huge because it covered two or three different college requirements. Everyone wanted to get those out of the way.

I sat near the back of the classroom the whole semester. I’d never had any philosophy in my high school and I’m just a first year, so I didn’t want to be near the front and expected to answer questions. It’s lucky I sat in the back, though, because I was able to see what happened – the thing everyone’s talking about. On the first day of the class our professor started with a pretty standard overview of the syllabus, some highlights of who we’d read, Plato and Aristotle, you know. On the second day of class, the room was just as crowded as the first day, and this time all the students there were pretty much registered for the class. Our professor started his lecture by naming the “major philosophers through history.” He got through about ten names before I noticed students beginning to pack their bags and stand up. He kept listing names and all these students started walking out. It took me a second to realize all the people leaving were students of color. First all the black students left, then the Latina and Latino students, then the Asian and Asian American students. And our professor just kept lecturing, pretending he didn’t notice this crazy mass exodus, until the only students left in the classroom were white. I could see it all from where I was sitting in the back of the room.

The professor finished his lecture like nothing had happened, but all the students who’d stayed in the room left class talking – and not about the lecture. We didn’t know why everyone had left and we couldn’t quite figure it out. Luckily, later I saw one of the students who’d walked out and I asked her about it. She said it was because the philosophers our professor listed didn’t represent her. I guess I’m not sure how I feel about that. Representation is something I’ve never really thought about before.

 

Samantha, September 2013

Why did I walk out? Did you hear our professor’s list of ‘major philosophers’? Who did you hear on that list? Were you hearing who I heard? I heard white men. I heard dead white men. I didn’t hear a single woman or a single person of color. You know what that means to me? That means my voice, as a woman of color is not valued in that classroom.  That even means that your voice as a woman – even a white woman – is not valued in that classroom.

Maybe you should have walked out too.

 

Rachel, October 2013

We had a new activity today in my English class. My professor put papers all over the room with quotes at the top and stuff, and we had to write responses to the quotes and each other. It got a little off topic though. Like, I think my professor should have policed it more. Someone wrote a comment on one of the papers about the walkout and all of a sudden it turned into a huge debate. Everyone was standing around this one paper trying to write responses. It got pretty heated, and there were a lot of feelings which I think aren’t, like, that relevant to the class. You know? And I felt that there was a lot of anger. At times, I almost felt like there was racism that fueled that discussion — it was almost like a racist, anti-racist debate[3]. And, like, the classroom isn’t the space to have these debates about race stuff in another class, ‘cause that’s happening outside of the classroom. It’s not academic and it’s not what this class is about. So I’m feeling kind of frustrated that people aren’t leaving their emotions at the door and that people aren’t respecting the classroom space, you know? I signed up for this class to talk about American literature, not, like, this walkout and everyone’s emotions.

 

Jonathon, December 2014

I'm here, teaching here at this college, because of student protests, so the emotions that prompted the walkout are nothing new. Students wanted someone who did more multicultural work, the school wanted some more faculty of color, and I’m a black man who focuses on multiculturalism in the United States so I really fit the bill. That was back in the 1980s. Things like this have been happening since I got on campus and they were happening before I got here too. Students here now wouldn’t have any memory of this, but in 2007, almost the exact same thing happened. Students of color walked out of an environmental studies classroom because the class was framed as one that would focus on environmental racism and social justice, yet the professor began with Thoreau.

I didn’t know the Philosophy professor personally, but I’d seen him at faculty meetings and around campus. Like a number of professors I know, he’s probably – individually – a perfectly fine person. But he’s utterly unaware of the power he holds in society and in higher education, as a white man, and he’s utterly unaware of the way he reaffirms certain student voices while silencing others. That really implicates him, then, as one of the reasons students of color face additional challenges and burdens in higher ed. And it implicates him as one of the reasons scholars like me, working with counter-narratives and anti-oppressive teaching, really struggle to be accepted and validated in the academy.

Students here now think this is new; that this is a new struggle. What’s exhausting about it is that it’s not new at all. We still don’t have an ethnic studies department. I’ve got white students who still question my sources, who argue with me in class. I know they wouldn’t pull that if I were white. I’m constantly being asked to sit on this or that committee or panel because the college wants some “diversity.” I feel more like a social supporter and not scholar[4] because I’m expected to be a mentor to students of color in a way that white professors simply aren’t. I’ve been stopped by campus police more times than I can count because of the color of my skin, because we will not admit that when you see black people, you do see a sense of the criminal.[5] It’s not just the students. I’m tired too.

 

Mikayla, September 2013

I want to process what happened in my philosophy class. I want to process the fact that I did walk out and I want to process how angry I felt – especially because I didn’t think I would feel so angry in a classroom. But I did. It was just too hard for me to sit there and hear again that some voices – white voices – are valued and legitimate and that others are not. The walkout we had yesterday wasn’t planned. It’s powerful that all the students of color in our class could feel this same frustration and anger and react in solidarity with one another. If one person had left, it would have been just another angry person of color – they’d be overreacting; they’d be too sensitive. Other students, white students, would explain away the professor, as usual. People of whiteness have historically been incapable of hearing people of color and have delegitimized our perspectives by trying to explain their own good intentions[6]. The walkout was a way of actively not hearing the same silencing white narrative.

Now, though, I want to take my emotions and do something more, some kind of follow-up, but it’s hard to organize or take action when doing so isn’t valued by the faculty or administration. Sometimes I feel like they’re keeping us busy to distract us from demanding change – like if we’re too bogged down by papers and exams then we won’t question the micro-aggressions we face every day. Maybe that sounds paranoid, but it’s how I feel.

 

Andrea, September 2013

What walkout?

This afternoon I have a lab to finish, tomorrow I have an exam, then next week another exam and some problem sets. Last year I volunteered with the student garden but I don’t really have time any more. Thank god I don’t have work-study – I couldn’t balance a job with all the work I have to do for my major. I don’t really know how other people do it. Maybe other majors are just easier. 

 

Sonya, December 2014

I didn’t feel different until I came to Mabell. Then, I realized I AM “the other”[7] and it was shocking to realize that and to feel “othered.” I wasn’t aware that I could identify as a person of color until I came on this campus.[8] In some ways, it’s good to have this kind of solidarity with others, but I also feel cheated. I’m not sure I want to accept solidarity in lacking privilege. When professors or students ask where I’m from and aren’t sure whether to accept Los Angeles as their answer, when acquaintances tell me my English “is good,” when people assume I’m a math or science major because of how I look – I don’t want those burdens. And I feel cheated by the school itself. The brochures promised a “diverse community,” but I don’t see faculty who look like me, and I don’t read articles written by Asian Americans, and I don’t think my white peers are ready or know how to really accept me in their space. Here, I feel wrong / like that child you thought you wanted / but weren’t ready to have.[9] Mabell wasn’t and isn’t ready for me.

 

Angelique, November 2013

Following the walkout, some students in my affinity group and in some of the other affinity groups decided to use the energy and talk surrounding the incident to push for institutional change. We, students of color at Mabell, put together a list of demands we had for the college:

1. The education the founders of Mabell had in mind was for the benefit and growth of white women. Accordingly, this entire campus is their refuge[10]. We ask for a space dedicated to students of color. A space we can enter and know was intended for us. A space where we might feel a sense of community and belonging.

2. The voices we hear in the classroom and in our readings rarely belong to people who reflect us and our experiences. We ask for the creation of an Ethnic Studies Department[11] as a step by the college toward acknowledging the validity and value of non-white voices.

3. The narrowness of perspective that professors may have should not negatively impact the classroom experiences of students of color. We ask for mandated training in diversity and multiculturalism for all faculty and staff[12] so they may better support all their students.

             

Eleanor, November 2014

I was working in my office when three students came in with a letter signed by some of the major affinity groups at Mabell. One of my advisees, Angelique, read out the letter asking for more institutional support. I hadn’t realized how strongly she was feeling this isolation. That was really hard for me. It was hard to hear that we haven’t been doing our job and that these students feel alone. I’m also feeling trapped, though. We do not have enough expertise on this campus to grapple with some of the things that are going on.[13] We have a college plan for where we’re going to grow, and developing a new department isn’t a part of that plan. We don’t have spaces on campus we could give to students of color explicitly that aren’t already being used for other, more shared purposes. And I think that not all of our faculty or staff would be open to diversity training or the resources it would require. Maybe it’s a matter of changing the way we think about resources and priorities here, because I do feel so badly that students are unhappy. It’s hard to admit, but I don’t think students of color are thriving here the way they should and until we work to change that, this is not necessarily the best place for a lot of people to be.[14]

 

Katie, March 2014

Since last semester I’ve been talking a lot with Samantha and Mikayla. They dropped my philosophy class after the walkout, but we kept seeing each other around and I’ve gotten to know them a little bit better. I think I’m starting to understand a little why representation is so important. I came into Mabell from a really homogenous high school and I didn’t realize how homogenous it was because I didn’t really ever see anything different. I guess what I mean is, I’m white, most of my school was white, and most of my town was, too. And outside of that so were most of the characters I saw on TV or in the newspaper or in my textbooks. So it was pretty easy for me to exist and just never question what it would be like to not be white. And it’s not Samantha or Mikayla’s job to show me or teach me what it’s like. They don’t speak for all people of color or anything. But getting to know them has helped me think a lot more critically about myself and this campus.

I’m making some connections now: like, when people of color ask for safe spaces on a campus, they’re asking for something pretty similar to what Mabell created for women. By which I mean, women needed a safe space to learn and challenge themselves in a patriarchal world – women still need that – so of course people with other identities that don’t hold power are asking for that kind of space. Not the same space, but their own space.

Last semester, because of the walkout, I ended up in an all-white philosophy class. It was pretty troubling to realize that our class was really just reproducing the privileging of white philosophers and white voices, but I think what was most troubling was that the walkout made it explicit. I don’t think I would have noticed what my classroom was doing otherwise.

 

Sonya, April 2014

I went to a cemetery yesterday with my class and learned about the symbolism of ivy. It’s funny how metaphors turn up right when you’re least expecting them. One of my classmates did some reading and told us that ivy has traditionally been a symbol both of immortality and human attachment. And I thought: how accurate is it that ivy represents those things and also colleges and universities? I was thinking specifically about the Ivy League, but ivy is pretty symbolic for college campuses more generally. Green covered stone buildings, imposing structures, walled communities. I thought: if ivy represents immortality, think about the way elite higher education reproduces social structures over and over – maybe infinitely – about who is privileged and who has power in this country. If ivy represents human attachment, think about how attached we humans are to the certification a college degree gives us, and how attached we are to the name brand of particular institutions.

Then again, ivy crawls up walls and gets under stuff. It holds on and on and while it’s holding it breaks down stone and mortar that stronger tools and brute force struggle to move. Ivy changes the face of things, and though it takes a while, it does the job thoroughly. So, I thought, maybe higher education also has the potential to make change.


[1] Mzimeli Morris in Milne, A. (2007, April 17). Students Call for SGA Treasurer’s Resignation – The Bi-College News. Retrieved May 15, 2014, from http://www.biconews.com/2007/04/17/students-call-for-sga-treasurers-resignation/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mike Clifford in Heller, J. (2007, May 1). Profs Organize Race Discussion at HC – The Bi-College News. Retrieved May 15, 2014, from http://www.biconews.com/2007/05/01/profs-organize-race-discussion-at-hc/

[4] Cristina Beltran in Howe, N. (2014, March 30). College Losing Faculty of Color to Peer Institutions. Retrieved May 15, 2014, from http://haverfordclerk.com/college-losing-faculty-of-color-to-peer-institutions/

[5] Terrance Johnson in Heller, J. (2007, May 1). Profs Organize Race Discussion at HC – The Bi-College News. Retrieved May 15, 2014, from http://www.biconews.com/2007/05/01/profs-organize-race-discussion-at-hc/

[6] Ahsin, T. (2014, April 27). Bringing to Light the Context of Conversation. Retrieved May 15, 2014, from http://haverfordclerk.com/bringing-to-light-the-context-of-conversation/

[7] Abbot, S. E., Adams, K., & Lee, S. (2014, April 21). Exploring Multiple and Intersecting Identities: Themes and Suggestions for Action. Retrieved May 15, 2014, from /exchange/multicultural-education-2014/hummingbird/exploring-multiple-and-intersecting-identities-themes-and-s

[8] Ibid.

[9] Marleny Heredia in Perera, A. (2014, March 5). Time to Step Up. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from http://doublexchromosome.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/time-to-step-up/

[10] Jenness, S., Calderon, C., & Salas, J. (2012, November 18). Residents of Perry House Speak Out – The Bi-College News. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from http://www.biconews.com/2012/11/18/14434/

[11] Genovese, R. (2014, April 9). Issues of Race Addressed at Bryn Mawr Town Hall – The Bi-College News. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from http://www.biconews.com/2014/04/09/issues-of-race-addressed-at-bryn-mawr-town-hall/

[12] Ibid.

[13] Iruka Okeke in Heller, J. (2007, May 1). Profs Organize Race Discussion at HC – The Bi-College News. Retrieved May 15, 2014, from http://www.biconews.com/2007/05/01/profs-organize-race-discussion-at-hc/

[14] Andrea Morris in Heller, J. (2007, May 1). Profs Organize Race Discussion at HC – The Bi-College News. Retrieved May 15, 2014, from http://www.biconews.com/2007/05/01/profs-organize-race-discussion-at-hc/

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