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Bryn Mawr College: A look at the representation of race (web event 1)

ari_hall's picture

A fact about owls: their eyes are fixed in their sockets, which means they must turn their entire head to see in a different direction. Like the owl, we often only see what is presented in front of us, but sometimes we must turn our heads in order to gain a fuller perspective of the people and world around us.

Part of the Bryn Mawr College mission “seeks to sustain a community diverse in nature and democratic in practice” believing that “considering many perspectives we gain a deeper understanding of each other and the world.” It is through engaging with others who are different from us that we can broaden our perspectives and reshape our choices. One way in which the College tries to represent their diversity is through their website; a medium readily accessible to millions around the world. However, the representation of diversity displayed on the Bryn Mawr website, through photos, statistics and language is incongruous to the actual representation on campus. This discrepancy is misleading to prospective students and the false idea about what the college presents itself as cherishing is detrimental to the wellbeing of all members of the college community.

A Little History First

Bryn Mawr College was founded in 1885 by Joseph W. Taylor. Taylor was a physician who wanted to create a college that embraced the Quaker culture, but differed from the majority of the colleges at the time, in that it would be a woman’s college. Bryn Mawr College prides itself on being “a diverse community in which one can gain a deeper understanding of the world and each other” however this was not always the case. Bryn Mawr’s fist dean and beloved second president M Carey Thomas, although a progressive feminist, was also a staunch racist. In a speech given as president to the students she stated; “If the supremacy of the white race is maintained, as I hope it will be…it is the only race to educate women…certain races have not intellect, government…” Interestingly enough the Bryn Mawr website speaks nothing of this, while rather sharing a quote from Thomas that says “Thomas' ambition—for herself and for all women of intellect and imagination was the engine that drove Bryn Mawr to achievement after achievement”, neglecting to mention that “all women” to Thomas, was of course only white women. The college has a long history entrenched in racial prejudice. For many years the very few amount of African American women that did attend the school resided off campus. Only in 1927 (very late in respect to the College’s founding) did the College allow “colored” students to attend, although they were not allowed to reside on campus. The college had allowed international students (from Japan and China) to attend the college years before allowing African American students to attend. Only in 1948 did the first African American residential student graduate.

The website continually advertises the school as having since “its earliest days…sought to offer the most rigorous education to those who were otherwise excluded from the best undergraduate colleges and the most challenging graduate programs” but from the earliest days many were still being excluded. Only in one sentence on the “history” page section of the website is the final turnaround of the campus to include women of color, especially black women, mentioned:  “from 1978 to 1997, a period of tremendous growth in number and diversity of students—now over 1,200 undergraduates, nearly a quarter of whom are women of color.”

Website versus Campus

 The racial makeup of the undergraduate college, according to the Bryn Mawr website is as follows:

African-American: 7%

Asian-American: 16%

Latina: 9%

Native-American: 1%

White: 45%

Unknown: 17%

Multiracial: 7%

Non-US citizen: 12%

For me, a current student, these statistics are quickly supported when I enter any of my classrooms. The majority of students I see are white and the next majority is Asian. Before going any further I must note that it was particularly difficult to locate this page. And to add to this, these statistics were at the very bottom of the page, so one would not see them if simply taking a quick glance. Under the title “diversity” the racial statistics come only after the regional makeup of the campus. Is it that the diversity of the school is not as diverse as other campuses? Did the creator of the website wish to hide this? Why did they choose to list African-American as the first race? And are these statistics current and accurate?

Although the statistics given may just about match up with what is seen in class or at a dining hall, the language regarding race throughout the rest of the website seems to be pushed into a category. The pages that specifically speak about diversity and race are only those pages pertaining to the Pensby Center or the affinity groups. The set-up, to me, seems to categorize women of color in a section, like in a library (as one of our fellow classmates drew in their anti-self-portrait), where there is no “section” for those of the white race. As seen in many other websites and discussions around “diversity” in our society, it clumps together people of color, people who are differently abled and those of “different” gender and sexual identities, as sort of an Other that is not inclusive throughout the whole site.

The pictures and language of the website also seem to set up a racial binary, and those who the website is seemingly trying to attract most are of African-American descent. The majority of the pictures of students featured on the website are white however a majority of the rest of the photos are of persons who are of African descent or Black. This is also expressed through the College’s programing and initiatives such as Mosaic Weekend and Posse (although for students of all races and backgrounds) mainly focus on Black prospective students.

What is often over looked in the racial diversity of campus discussion is the diversity of professors who teach at Bryn Mawr. According to the website only 15% of faculty are persons of color. It is also interesting to note that the majority of laborers (i.e. cooks, cleaners, renovation workers, campus maintenance) are majority Black and Latina/o. This may only speak to American society as a whole and the jobs that are institutionally distributed to certain races and classes, however it does also, I think, speak on behalf of Bryn Mawr College; where they hire many workers of color but little professors of color.

Diversity and Feminism Conversations

Although I have only been a member of the Bryn Mawr community for about 6 or so weeks I have noticed some trends in the conversations on campus around “feminism”. Often conversations between students around this topic focus centrally on gender identity and sexual orientation. What I notice a lack of is the recognition of women of color in this talk (besides in our Critical Feminist Studies class).  Feminism on campus, from my narrow perspective, seems to be solely about gender identity. I have been lucky enough to receive some knowledge which broadened my understanding of gender roles, binaries, gender fluidity, the idea of gender as a spectrum and even a ball (Bornstein) and a variety of notions I had not before been all that aware of, (and am still learning about) which I am grateful for. But when I hear these conversations I do not think about women of color. I do not picture the gender fluid brown skinned individual. I do not see the transgender women with an afro. And I do not see the cisgender Latina feminist. Maybe that is just my constricted imagination, constructed by years of dwelling within a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (bell hooks), or perhaps there is some truth behind this notion.

 A conversation that I am glad to be hearing though, is from many of my professors. This conversation focuses on race as a social construct. It makes me over joyed to hear teachers not just confronting that slavery, internment camps and racial prejudice existed in a small section of a history book. But to actually teach that race is socially constructed, while too still having implications on all of our lives. To hear them educate the class about the assumption of the white race as the normative race and them therefore possessing an advantage and privilege over non-whites. To hear that race is not a thing of the past, or that we are not beyond race because we have a black president. To hear that race is not biological or genetic all confirm that they acknowledge the institutional and systematic structures set up against non-whites. This acknowledgment creates a sense of comfort between me and my professor. I know that I will not hear from them that I am not smart enough for their class, or that I will not be able to succeed. This information that they are teaching tells me that I am not alone. I am not alone in understanding the privilege whites have and how they benefit from it internally, culturally, interpersonally and institutionally. There is finally an education system advocating for me so that I will not have to be the minority in the class who suffers from the unacknowledged privilege and stereotypical assumptions. Maybe it’s just the certain classes I am taking which are particularly discussing race, that they educate the class about race in this way. And I have to wonder if this is just a section in the syllabus we will soon be done with, or will this perspective on race carry on? But I hope and I pray that this knowledge is being given and spread throughout the campus. In this way can Bryn Mawr College truly begin to “gain a deeper understanding of others and the world.”

Outside of my classrooms however, many of the diversity conversations that do exist among the campus often center around the Pensby center or the affinity groups. There are distinct divisions and groups which organize and operate to help, guide and teach students and staff about diversity. I am in strong support of these efforts and am glad they are present, but note that they are all fairly recent additions to the college and are needed because of disproportionality of races in the Bryn Mawr College Community. And before going any further, I want to state that I do recognize that the location and history of Bryn Mawr and racial history of America as a whole are factors that contribute to the unequal representation of races. This therefore incites the necessity of such organizations like the CDA (Community diversity Assistant), and the Diversity Council.

One particular conversation I was let in on with current students, expressed the concern about the value of one of the affinity groups to the Bryn Mawr College community. Sisterhood, an organization to support Black and African-American women at Bryn Mawr, open to all women regardless of race or background, was recently designated a significantly less amount of funding (for events and gatherings) than previous years, and also in comparison to other organizations. While it was expressed that the amount of money received was going to be sufficient, it was the idea of receiving less support from the College that triggered a bit of disappointment in some. It had seemed as if the group and what they do, were not of high priority or significance. Similar sentiments about the value of other outlets for the Black and Latina/o community have arisen, in particular, in regards to the Perry House.

Perry House

What was it?

The Perry House was a house purchased by the college in 1962. This house served as the Black Cultural Center as well as a residence space. Upperclass women who were responsible and active members of either  Sisterhood, Mujeres, or BACaSO were permitted to reside here. The house is set back in an area near the main campus. It comprises of two floors, bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen; a real house for students. Along with housing upperclass women this space was often used for parties and other social events hosted by the aforementioned affinity groups. The house allowed for various gatherings including many that utilized the house’s kitchen. This kitchen and the food created in it bore intimate communions filled with laughter and togetherness like dinners on Sunday, providing a familial environment while away from home. Those that lived and united within the walls of this house-made-home felt that it created a space where, as one student quoting W.E.B. Dubois said, women of color did not have to “operate within a double consciousness” that many have grown accustom to as marginalized groups. Students who knew the Perry House said that it provided a haven “for students to find others whose face resembled theirs, whose experiences often matched theirs and where they could speak freely without being burdened by having to speak on behalf of their whole race”. To those who used it, the Perry House was much more than just a house off on the side; it was family and security.

A House No More

 However, this house, just over 50 years old has run its course. Last year it was brought to the attention of students and faculty that the Perry House had been condemned and could no longer house students for safety reasons. The Perry house was too important for members of the Bryn Mawr College community to go down without a fight, and so one ensued. Several students, mainly of the Bryn Mawr affinity groups that used Perry House, formed a committee to save their home. This committee, along with the help of several professors and deans worked very professionally and resiliently to keep what this house provided alive. They set out to “develop a process and policies for considering all options for the disposition of Perry House”.

 They researched and wrote several letters about the significance of the house, including linking statistical retention rates of Black and Latina students in college to the necessity of an affirming space for students of color. They gained among 40 professors’ signatures in support of “celebrating” Perry House and having all possible options for its fate be considered. They met with Jerry Berenson (Chief Administrative Officer, co-convener) and then president Jane Dammen McAuliffe with several ideas and options they had for the space, including renovating the existing house, or building a new house, all while considering zoning laws and access.  There was even a Plenary resolution (Big Cheese Forum) calling for transparency from administration regarding housing and renovations.

 About eight meetings ensued around this issue, and the College decided that renovations or rebuilding Perry House would be too costly and concluded that the idea of the Perry House be moved to an already existing location on campus; a tower in Haffner. However, because of asbestos found in Haffner and renovations needed to create a safe place, what was formally the Perry House is now located on the 4th floor of Pem East, with no kitchen and little space.

 Much of the community that held Perry House dear in their hearts, and those who fought for Perry House were not satisfied by this resolution. It had seemed, to many, that the feelings of those at stake in the situation did not matter in the final scheme of things, and that the situation was resolved solely from a monetary aspect. One student expressed that the situation was symbolic in that it resembled other issues about race that have come up on campus in the past; mainly deriving from money issues, which was foretelling about how the college views and displays their concern with the value and worth of students of color, especially Black and Latina students. The Perry house had gotten to such a condition where it needed to be condemned due to years of neglect by the College to maintain it, conceivably illustrating how low of a priority Perry House was to Administration. This student also expressed how the process of reestablishing the Perry House created a dynamic in which Black and Latina students were made to feel like “the Other”; distanced and not full-heartedly considered. When asked about the hopefulness of the renovation or rebuilding of the Perry House many remain somewhat optimistic, but do not see that outcome in the near future.

Looking Onward

  For prospective students looking at the website to gain a sense of how comfortable they will be with Bryn Mawr, or how well they might fit in, will find that if they are white they will have many faces, both of students and professors who look like them. If non-white, and especially Black, Latina or Native American, the statistics may have them decide that this is not the environment for them. However, many non-white prospectives will continue to pursue the college for its other factors, such as the great education Bryn Mawr provides. In this case they may look for outlets or spaces that create a sense of comfort or belonging. These spaces do exist, mainly through the affinity groups and with the services provided through the Pensby Center. Although we have the presence of these organizations there is still a hint of not-belonging. Outside of the affinity group gatherings, a walk on campus highlights the racial statistics presented on the website. The majority of upper class women of color live off campus and personally, the only time I see a majority of people who look like me are at the Sisterhood meeting, which are only held once a week.

 Continually throughout history we see the devaluation of worth of many communities of color, including specifically, or rather more intensely in American society, that of the Black and Latina/o communities, Bryn Mawr College itself being a part of this exclusive and discriminatory history. As society has shifted to provide more opportunities and access for marginalized groups, Bryn Mawr too has shifted with the tide. However, despite all the progress, there are still many areas, institutionalized and ingrained within the American psyche, which reinforce the inferiority of certain racial communities. The neglect of care of the Perry House, the decreased monetary funding of the Sisterhood, the lack of physical brown and black bodies present on campus, the lack of professors who identify as persons of color, the overwhelming amount of Blacks and Latina/o’s that work in maintenance service for the college highlight the discrepancy in what the website promotes as key factors of their institution, and what actually persists here.  

   The language on the website, I perceive, works in a way to “to seek—rather than just allow—students of color to come.” (Florence).   So, all of the pictures of black students, Mosaic Weekend, the partnership with Posse and other aspects of the website serve as a way in which the College seeks to gain diversity, although the current diversity on campus is not equally proportional. This discrepancy is misleading, and I believe that Bryn Mawr College provides an exceptional education system, highly esteemed professors and various values and opportunities to expand their student’s education, however,  it is mainly through the websites advertising of diversity that students of color, especially Black and Latina students, feel they can attend and feel secure.   

  I as a black woman am proud of the education and opportunities I am receiving at Bryn Mawr College, but I would be amiss if I did not also point out the areas in which the College still has yet to improve. To be a member of a community is not only to take from the community but to also provide, educate and better it for others. The owl cannot see what is around them until they turn their head, and like the owl we will not see what needs to be improved and enhanced unless we too turn our heads to see the other perspectives.




Anne Dalke's picture

mis-leading representation

you've done a power of research (and I appreciate the active links to your sources), tracing the gap between who is here on campus and how they are represented. As pialamode314 observes, you are moving from the topic of the month--the question of self-representation--to the matter of how others (in this case, the College) represent us. Along those lines, your report on the future of Perry House can be updated; as the president announced this summer, the first goal of the Haffner renovation is to "embrace and embody the Perry House Program."

There are so many directions you could take this line of inquiry, should you want to pursue it further. What drew you to Bryn Mawr? How diverse a place did you expect it to be? How comfortable and welcoming have you found it? How well do you see yourself represented in materials put out by the College? Do you understand why the Black Cultural Center is "Perry House"? Or why (what was once) the Multicultural Center is now called "Pensby"? What percentage of minority students have leadership roles on campus? What are the relations among U.S. minority students and those who come from abroad? Among U.S. Asian-American and Asian students, among U.S. blacks and Africans? What levels of support are given to each? How much attention is given to racial difference in classes and classrooms? Could you find out more about why the % of faculty of color is so low, and the % of support staff of color is so high?

iskierka's picture

I loved this piece, and I

I loved this piece, and I found the use of Perry House as a sort of symbol really effective. I remember W.E.B. DuBois' quote being mentioned before in class, and I thought your implimentation was really well done. I was really concerned with the idea of people using the internet as a safe place where they could express inner thoughts, and I thought Perry House represented a similar idea, a home base of sorts dedicated to the open expression of a group of people whose voices might not necessarily be heard, for one reason or another. While Perry House is a very face-to-face environment, though, which seems to foster more of a coalition, family-style environment through the formation of a certain identity, I looked more at how complete online anonymity allowed one to create an identity suiting a person's social needs online. It shows a nice juxtaposition between the capacity of physical-world safe spaces and virtual world, as well as the fragility of such a space in the context of how other people treat it. While Tumblr is hardly the last in the line of anonymous-potential social media, Perry House sounded like an opportunity and an underappreciated investment whose neglect left a group of students somewhat estranged. 

pialamode314's picture

I really loved reading this

I really loved reading this because I think you bring up some really important points in your discussion about representation of race on the web. Although I ended up writing my paper on representation of gender on Facebook, another path I found really interesting and almost took for my paper was representation of race on Facebook. One of the big issues I read about and explored for that topic, and which I believe relates to your discussion of how race is represented especially at an elite liberal arts college originally founded for privileged white women, is how Facebook seems to be like an "Ivy League network" created for and dominated by privileged white individuals. Thus, just as with gender representation on Facebook, it leads to racial discrimination and stereotyping based on one simple aspect of a person's identity. An interesting difference between that and the representation of race and diversity on BMC's website though is that on Facebook, this type of discrimination arises from self-representation of racial identity (though that self-expression is limited by the structure of Facebook), while on the BMC website, that racial identity is being represented for you and, it appears, in a misleading way.