Systemic racism at college campuses across the country was thrown into the spotlight two weeks ago, with protests at the University of Missouri and Yale University demanding action to address the institutional marginalization of people of color.
At Mizzou, students protested persistent racism as well as the university’s deafness in responding to those issues. At Yale, protests came to a head after two incidents around Halloween. The first was when Associate Master Erika Christakis emailed her college house about offensive Halloween costumes, defending students’ rights to dress insensitively. In the second, black female students were (allegedly) refused entrance to a frat party because it was for “white girls only.”
In light of these incidents, hundreds of Penn students gathered last Thursday to march in solidarity with Mizzou and Yale and to protest for change at Penn. They ended their protest in front of Penn President Amy Gutmann’s house, where they read off a list of demands for changes. This list included increasing the number of both faculty and Counseling and Psychological Services counselors of color and the University issuing a statement affirming Penn’s solidarity with students of color on campus, as well as at Mizzou and Yale.
We’re glad that so many students showed up last week to protest for needed change. We support the goals of the student protesters — at Penn and at universities across the country — and hope they will continue to speak out and take action until college campuses are welcoming places for students of color.
Many of the students’ demands are realistic and necessary changes that the University should implement. Only 7.3 percent of faculty across Penn’s schools were underrepresented minorities in 2013, according to the progress report on the faculty diversity action plan. Including Asians and Pacific Islanders, that percentage only rises to 21.9 percent. As a result, the few professors of color at Penn need to serve not only as teachers but also as leaders, mentors, counselors and role models for minority students. It’s important that the University hire minority professors and counselors at CAPS so that students of color will feel more welcome on campus.
But increasing campus resources can only go so far — it’s imperative that students and administrators work to change campus culture as well, so that members of the University community are aware of the struggles that their peers face. To that point, students demanded the creation of a mandatory racial awareness curriculum. While that may not be feasible beyond strengthening the College of Arts and Science’s “Cultural Diversity in the U.S.” Foundational Approach, which was intended to educate students about cultures different than their own, the demand gets at an important issue Penn needs to confront: the general lack of discussions and interest that non-minority students have about race.
It’s important that white students at Penn don’t ignore issues of race but actively seek to learn about the struggles that their classmates of color face on a daily basis. Students of color consistently experience racism on campus, in the form of microaggressions as well as outright discrimination. The only way for this discrimination to end is for all members of the community — not just those who are disadvantaged by these issues — to educate themselves and actively work toward a solution.
We believe that these solutions should be proactive measures — encouraging (and, perhaps, requiring) students to learn about other cultures, rather than punishing them for being insensitive, as has been suggested in the past (for example, in the creation of a Greek Community Judicial Board). But that doesn’t mean students should choose to be insensitive just because they have that option.
It’s important for the University to make it abundantly clear that racism has no place at Penn. That’s why we’re happy to see that Penn’s administration has taken the protesters seriously. The day after the rally in front of Gutmann’s house, the leaders of the University sent an email to all students affirming the University’s non-tolerance of racism on campus. However, the email made no mention of Penn’s solidarity with students of color at Mizzou or Yale, and many students felt that the large focus on freedom of speech — while an important right that should be affirmed — detracted from overall message that racism needs to be eradicated from campus culture.
Racism on college campuses is much larger than a single issue, like offensive Halloween costumes or insensitive Christmas card photos. And it’s appalling when people threaten those who speak out about the struggles that they face, as happened in Mizzou when protesters received death threats because they advocated for change. Here at Penn, we must strive to remember that we are not immune to the issues faced by students at Mizzou and Yale. And we must stand with students — on campus and across the country — when they advocate for changes to address those issues.
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