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Several Penn students’ experiences in this year showed us that racism remains a prominent issue on Penn’s campus. College sophomore Ernest Owen’s recent op-ed in The Daily Pennsylvanian highlighted the discrimination he felt within his own racial group and showed us that racism has many faces.

Owen’s experience reminds us that racism itself is extremely varied and does not boil down to a black-and-white issue. This past spring, College of Liberal and Professional Studies student Christopher Abreu was verbally harassed by a group of students who assumed he did not belong on campus and confronted him with a racial slur.

Just a few short months after Christopher wrote an op-ed that shook the Penn community, the dust has settled and only a few isolated groups are attempting to address issues of race on our campus.

Incidents like those experienced by Owens and Abreu tend to slip away from our collective memory as time passes, but how can we create a greater understanding of race at Penn that sticks with the community and simultaneously engages those whose voices have been silenced due to discrimination?

In 2007, Shaun Harper, a professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, conducted several focus groups with Penn students in order to identify themes of racism on predominantly white college campuses. Several of the nine themes that surfaced during these focus groups included:

• Gaps in social satisfaction by race: While white and Asian-American students were socially satisfied, Latino and Native-American students were not as satisfied but were thankful for the opportunity to go to college. African-American students were dissatisfied with the social environment.

• Institutional negligence: All students, regardless of race, were frustrated with how their colleges promoted diversity but failed to offer students with ways to engage with racially different peers.

• Lack of shared cultural ownership in places on campus, in the curricula and student activities: Outside of campus ethnic or multi-cultural centers, Asian-American, African-American, Latino and Native-American students had a difficult time pointing out other locations on campus where they felt “shared cultural ownership.”

Based on Harper’s findings in collaboration with our own ideas, we would like to suggest a few ways in which the Penn community can aspire to create an actively inclusive environment surrounding issues of race.

First, Penn should be a space that acknowledges the existence of racism, and understands that racism manifests itself both subtly, on a systemic level, and openly, with verbal and written assaults.

Second, Penn’s campus should be a welcoming space for all students — regardless of their race, age, gender, sexual orientation or ability. We could begin to do this by forming coalitions between existing student groups in order to forge new bonds and promote understanding about difference. Third, Penn should aspire for diversity and acceptance instead of mere tolerance. Lastly, Penn should support an environment that fights racism, both on the individual and administrative levels, by cultivating a university culture that does not accept injustice of any kind.

As we progress through the school year, graduate and undergraduate students from various departments and groups will meet to strategize about how to tackle the racism that continues to pervade Penn’s campus. All are welcome, and those interested in being part of this coalition should email In addition, we have created a survey to better understand race at Penn.

Once we have successfully engaged student groups and organized the data from the survey we will begin to work toward tangible and realistic goals that address racism on campus, and foster an environment in which these issues can be discussed amongst everyone, and not just in designated spaces.

Based on Penn’s history, it is clear that action must be taken to halt the continuous cycle of racism. There is no better time to do so than the present, and we look forward to working with you in this effort.


Race Task Force at the School of Social Policy & Practice

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