My Campus, Like Your Campus, Is Probably Racist

UPDATE: Dominican Star article on the protests. Administration has been speaking out in solidarity with the students and we’ll see what happens. Meeting today at 8:30 of Faculty to discuss actions.

Last week African-American students at Dominican University protested racism on campus. Here are two videos. The first is a short protest in the cafeteria. The second is long and outside the office of our President. Both videos are shared with permission of one of the protest organizers.

So what are the issues on our campus? That’s a bit complicated. We’ve had several incidents of racist graffiti in dorms and at least one racist epithet uttered on campus by one student to another in a public space. These have been scattered over the years (and were well publicized on campus in both our student media and official condemnatory statements from administration). Students also speak of micro-aggressions in the classroom, from faculty, although I don’t have permission to share these details. I expect in the week to come to have more information, hopefully a statement with demands detailing issues and demanding change. I promise to share them as appropriate, always mindful of the students’ right to control their own narrative. I’m not a disinterested journalist here, but a white male tenured faculty member.

The protests came as a shock to some of my colleagues, judging from comments on social media, and even more so to alumni who viewed Dominican as a safe, nurturing, space. We are a relationship-centered university. We form close bonds among students, between students and faculty/staff, and are proud of our community. We are, or will be soon, a majority Hispanic institution, with 65% of this year’s first-year class Latina/o. Our ties in the Chicago Latina/o community run deep (as I wrote about in this piece on our president’s leadership on immigration reform). We also proud of our commitment to social justice. To be told of a campus climate of racism jars against our sense of self and mission.

It’s also certainly true. There’s no reason to question the lived experience of others, especially students taking the risk to protest publicly. Moreover, Dominican, like all institutions, partakes of the hierarchies of the society in which it exists. There is no ivory tower. Racism permeates Chicago, Illinois, and America (and beyond). Why should Dominican be exempt? Moreover, to acknowledge its truth does not erase the good things, the real change that our students undergo as a result of their education here, or the intense efforts of faculty and staff to make our campus safe, inclusive, and welcoming. Structural change is hard!

I take these protests as a moment to self-examine, first of all. I know my values and I know how I want to behave. But I, too, partake of the hierarchies in which I live. The pernicious nature of micro-aggressions is that the aggressor can be fully ignorant of his or her actions and be fully of good will, yet still turn a campus into a hostile space.

The inequalities run deep. Here are two recent pieces on structural racism in American universities, both written by African-American women with PhDs. Stacy Patton, for Dame Magazine, writes about the ways that American colleges and universities were never designed with racial equality in mind.

The irony is that many predominantly White colleges and universities appear to have the signs of progressive campus cultures with healthy race relations, especially in comparison to their 1950s predecessors…The problem is that they are signs of an alleged commitment that is rarely realized, and they give the false, and dangerous, impression that race relations on campus are much better than they really are. It is no wonder that so many universities lack even the basic data on faculty diversity or a plan to address systemic racism (much less define it). 

Tressie McMillan Cottom, in The Atlantic, writes:

Given the history of racism, wealth, and institution building on which all U.S. universities are constructed, the debate about Calhoun is specific but not unique. It may also be missing a larger point about the relationship between memory and politics. The legacy of racism is not just carved into the facades of university buildings; it is found in the persistence of inherited privilege that shapes the composition of the curriculum, the student body, and the faculty.

These things are true at Dominican University, for all its lack of fame and money. It’s in a fantastically wealthy mostly white suburb of Chicago (River Forest), surrounded by West Chicago (Austin neighborhood), the African-American suburb of Maywood, and the heavily-Latin suburb of Melrose Park. Our buildings are gorgeous and gothic. As the forest preserve to our west adopts the fall colors, the campus glows in the late afternoon with reflected sunlight. We should not be surprised with our African American students articulate ways in which this environment is less than perfect for them.

I am grateful to these students for speaking out and for letting me share these videos. More to come.

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