Nearly 100 students and staff members from all demographics of Wellesley shared their experiences and perspectives on race with a focus on racism against black people at “Let’s Talk About It,” hosted by the Ethos political action committee. The discussion centered around topics such as defining race, color-blindness, microaggressions and experiences minorities have faced while at Wellesley.
Taylor Stewart ’15 chairs the political action committee, which has lain dormant for a while within Ethos. They started the committee up again to open up a platform for people to address issues of racism on and off campus.
The event opened with an icebreaker led by Kanda Faye ’15. Faye asked students to stand up if they agreed with or resonated with statements she read. While initial statement centered about demographic details, later questions were more thought-provoking, such as whether students were stereotyped or made racist jokes. The discourse following the icebreaker revealed that the activity increased students’ awareness about actions such as making racist jokes.
Prior to the event on Monday, Ethos posted flyers around campus with quotes such as “I want to be exceptional in class without being considered a credit to my race; I am not the exception,” and “Can I touch your hair?” Stewart and Gabrielle Taylor ’18 read reactions to the posters that participants wrote at the beginning of the event. The comments varied from “What is this? Ooh, sounds interesting. My white self will be interested in hearing some perspective” to “Oh dear, nothing’s changed since I graduated from Wellesley years ago.”
Following the statement reading, student and staff discussion spurred from a few terms that are common when talking about race. Students of different cultural backgrounds shed light on what the term race meant to them.
“I don’t know how I’m classified in terms of race,” Gul Ayhan ’16 said. Ayhan, an international student, identifies as Turkish.
“When you’re not black enough or asian enough, I think that makes race all the more confusing and it can be very hard growing up without a label,” Taylor said.
Stewart posed the question, “Can we be color-blind?” shifting the discussion to the idea of post-racial America. “I think our history prevents us from being able to be color-blind,” Mikey Jackson-Smith ’16 claimed. Jackson-Smith, an Africana Studies major, argued that once one learns about the history and oppression of minorities, it becomes impossible to turn off seeing color.
Dominique Steele ’17 claimed that the ultimate goal should not be color-blindness, but rather, accepting and understanding difference. “The goal isn’t to get to a point where color doesn’t matter. Respect society for what it is instead of homogenizing society,” Steele said.
Microaggressions are another issue that black people and people of color experience on a regular basis.
“Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color,” Stewart said to define the term.
Audience members spoke about how other people degraded their accomplishments by assuming that they were admitted to college because of their racial minority background and not because of their achievements.
The discussion facilitators then asked the audience to talk about microaggressions they have encountered at Wellesley. Dominique Steele clarified the social boundaries around using the “n” word.
“At the end of the day you have to be black,” Steele said. “Otherwise it’s a derogatory statement.”
Other students spoke about microaggressions in the classroom. A couple black students pointed out that they have been asked to speak about and therefore represent black culture. Several members of the audience stated that they have been subjected to the stereotype of being an angry black woman.
Afterward, facilitators asked audience members who were of the majority culture to describe how they feel about speaking on a different culture. Several students pointed out that people should read about marginalized groups, but that reading about the history does not familiarize the reader with the personal experience many black people and people of color face.
“Taking a class does not make me an authority on the subject,” Danielle Brooks ’17 said.
Many students agreed that the responsibility does not belong to students of color to educate people on campus about inappropriate actions toward people of color.
“I just feel like this a more progressive campus, and I shouldn’t have to educate you on why what you’re saying is wrong,” Jamila Miller ’18 said.
At the same time, other students expressed that they are willing to help a person who tries to educate themselves about racism and microaggressions.
“If I see that someone’s trying, I’m willing to meet you halfway,” Patrice Caldwell ’15 said.
The facilitators then encouraged members of the audience to address the comment made by an anonymous student on the Wellesley Compliments Facebook page. The anonymous student posted, “Can you compliment Ethos- Wellesley College on their #LetsTalkAboutIt? I am super excited to go and really appreciate the fact that they are trying to start an open conversations to teach and educate instead of just being angry.”
Several participants noted the angry black woman stereotype that was prevalent in the statement. “By projecting the stereotype that people are seeing constantly and projected in the media, it makes it less of a safe space for us here at wellesley,” Stewart said.
“If you understand the histories, you understands where stereotypes come from,” Sabrina Zionts ’16 added.
Before the discussion broke off into smaller discussion groups, audience members also addressed how many people on campus are complicit in anti-black racism, including professors who don’t challenge students who say offensive comments.
The Ethos facilitators asked the smaller discussion groups to talk about how that would respond and how they would like to respond to the scenarios when microaggression do occur, such as friends singing the “n” word in a song at a party.
Before the event ended, the Ethos political action committee announced that they hope to continue programming over the year. For Stewart, “Let’s Talk About It” didn’t cover all the issues Ethos wanted to cover, but still felt pleased with the mass attendance.
I think it was a good starting point,” Stewart said. “We can only go up from here.”
Photo by Wenyan Deng ’15, Features Editor