Students, alumni and faculty address questions they have been wrestling with as issues of inclusion ignite debate on campuses everywhere, including Kenyon.
Story by Meera White '18, Jené Schoenfeld, Ben Hunkler ‘20, Emily Birnbaum ‘18, Glenn McNair, Sara Carminati ‘13, Richard Baehr ‘69 and Ivonne M. García.
The following essays, as well as the stories in the "Scripting Change" feature of the Bulletin, were curated with the goal of inspiring meaningful conversations about diversity across generations of alumni — and in future issues of the magazine. While the term “diversity” encompasses many identifiers — class, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation and more — racial and ethnic diversity are the focus of this first series of stories. Here you will find eight personal essays by students, alumni and faculty that address questions they have been wrestling with as issues of inclusion ignite debate on campuses everywhere, including Kenyon.
We want to hear from you, too. What questions are on your mind when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s keep this conversation going.
Meera White '18 reflects on the challenges of finding her place on the Hill
During my senior year of high school, I visited Kenyon. I arrived on a Saturday for the Cultural Connections visit program, which is specially designed for diverse students and students interested in diversity. During my visit, I met wonderful students, faculty and staff. I knew that Kenyon was a place that could embrace me. However, my visit was also memorable because of one distinct image.
On Monday morning, my last visit day, I ate breakfast in Peirce Dining Hall before rushing to sit in on a biology course. As I made my way out of Peirce, stepping gingerly over the seal and out onto the sidewalks that cut across Ransom, I saw hordes of students trudging up to class. They had bookbags and winter coats. They were confident, fierce and totally collegiate. I tried to imagine myself as them one day, attending classes at an elite private liberal arts college. I admired them. But I noticed something else — and this was the challenging part of that experience — they all appeared to be white.
Perhaps this is not jarring to some people. For me, however, it required processing.
Here I was, about to enter an institution that would launch me into a lifelong commitment to learning and critical thinking, and yet few students around me would share the perspectives I knew. And even more troubling, I knew this difference could lead to discrimination. So, as a high school student, I saw, in transparent terms, what Kenyon would often be: a place where I was marked by difference.
In some ways, this could be a strength: I am part of the Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program, which supports students of color and first-generation students. I have always felt like I have a network of leaders and friends, because we are linked by our status as “different” on this campus. I did, after all, choose to come to Kenyon. I knew that it would be a place where I could grow as a student and as an individual because of the variety of perspectives.
On the other side of the coin, of course, are the negative experiences. As a visiting student, I imagined them without any real frame of reference. Would I be teased or mocked? Would I be forced to face students who were either subconsciously or consciously racist? Would I feel respected and listened to in classrooms and residential spaces? Would I be the odd one out, operating on the fringes because other students would rarely see me as a human? Would I be subjected to discrimination based on my skin color, hair texture or socioeconomic status?
I will say that I have been lucky to not feel the intense weight of these fears enacted. But I have also taken precautions at Kenyon to protect myself from these things. I took classes that focused on marginalized populations and their experiences, so I could find like-minded students. There are people to avoid and places not to enter because of their status as a space for the white majority at Kenyon. I learned of these precautions from friends, but also from the feeling in my gut when I know I am unwelcome. To some readers this may seem silly, but there is an emotional and psychological toll to planning your life around the fear of others.
Despite my efforts, at Kenyon and elsewhere, I have experienced situations where those who are different are not embraced or tolerated. In classrooms here on campus, I have seen students openly roll their eyes at women professors who offered critiques. I have heard students complain that other students are “too sensitive” about issues of racism and sexism. I have been called racist for questioning the actions of white men on this campus.
While seated at my desk in class, I’ve looked up to realize that I am the only person of color, and sometimes the only woman, in a class. In those classrooms, I felt the weight of being different. For example, when I gave presentations, I sometimes noticed that my peers seemed unengaged, playing on their laptops rather than listening to my words. And I couldn't help but ask, was it the subject matter of my presentation they found unappealing? Or did they take me less seriously because of my gender, my race, or both? I often felt overlooked. It was demoralizing to sit in a space designed around the exchange of ideas, and to sense that my ideas didn’t merit the same attention as my peers.
I will say that being at Kenyon has forced me to more carefully consider and navigate my identity. My years here have been formative because I have learned how my position in this world impacts my life journey. In my studies, I have analyzed the policies and societal attitudes that enforce and reinforce barriers of gender and race. In my daily interactions on campus, I have come to understand how my perspective, as a woman of color, is marked by its lack of entitlement. My experience here has been the process of finding my place in this world, and then working to elevate it and those of others like me.
My concern, then, is how can that process of discovering one’s position in this sociopolitical context be fostered in every person on this campus? Not just those who must confront their identities because they are “different.” I think every student should examine their life and experiences in order to better grasp why our world is the way that it is. In my opinion, an education is incomplete without self-reflection. And so many students show that they have not engaged with strenuous, detailed self-reflection when they promote and assent to creating spheres of exclusion and discrimination on this campus.
When I was a senior in high school and I saw that Kenyon was a predominantly white, high socioeconomic status campus, I chose to come here anyway. I understood that it would be difficult. But I also understood that the ideal of community that Kenyon so frequently touts is not false. It is, however, in need of an upgrade.
Associate Professor of English Jené Schoenfeld on why feelings matter
Feelings matter. An article in Science magazine makes an important distinction between diversity and inclusion: “Whereas diversity refers to differences within a group, inclusion speaks to how those members are treated and how they feel” (“Without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough,” Sept. 15, 2017). It argues that an institution can have plenty of diversity initiatives — and we do — but that it cannot fully achieve its goals if the experience of students from under-represented groups is negative.
Feelings are sometimes dismissed as subjective or unimportant. But, as the definition above notes, feelings are an important indicator of the success or failure of inclusion. The slave narratives that I teach offer a useful illustration of the importance of feelings. Slave narratives almost always dismiss the physical suffering of slaves, emphasizing instead the dehumanization that slaves experienced. Of course, Kenyon is a college, not a plantation, and the year is 2018, not 1818, but the feeling that some people do not see my humanity or that of my students or colleagues of color as equal in value and complexity to their own is real and present, both on and off campus.
There has been considerable discussion on campus lately about inclusion and free speech as two values that are in tension. Some of my colleagues are concerned that a commitment to inclusion will diminish the education we offer or limit academic freedom. They worry that they might get in trouble for what they say in the classroom or for what they produce as artists. I think that concern reflects some misperceptions.
First, respect for inclusion does not mean that we avoid challenging material. I teach “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” in which the n-word shows up frequently, but I would not use the term to refer to or to address a student or a colleague. Second, freedom of expression does not mean that we can say whatever we want, at any time, to anyone. Or, perhaps we can, but not without consequences. I’m a literature professor. I believe deeply that words have power; they have impact. I believe it is always good practice to choose our words with thoughtfulness. If I say something offensive, I risk damaging a personal relationship or my professional ethos, or even the campus climate. But as I encourage my students, sometimes we need to risk saying the wrong thing in order to engage in meaningful dialogue. That is part of learning. Students and faculty who are asking for more attention to inclusiveness are not asking for censorship. We are asking for sensitivity.
And yet there are times when offensive statements are not accidental. With regard to claims about “free speech” in these instances, we should consider power dynamics. In his 2015 New Yorker essay “Race and the Free-Speech Diversion,” Jelani Cobb writes, “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.”
Speaking on campus in April, Cobb also cautioned against “individuals who mistake the absence of privilege for the presence of oppression,” and he noted that white people are not, by and large, a disadvantaged group.
At Kenyon, while we value the idea of “learning in the company of friends,” in the end, students know that faculty members hold the gradebooks, so in any faculty-student interaction, faculty have more power. This can be even more true in the case of white faculty and students of color. Consequently, I encourage my colleagues to recognize our relative privilege and embrace a genuine concern for others and for the community as a whole, rather than chiefly a concern about our own comfort.
When several black students on campus sent an open letter titled “I am not your N-Word,” they asked us to live up to the values of community that we sell in our admissions brochures. Maybe we can’t change what happens in the wider world, but we have a duty to work toward making Kenyon more inclusive — a model for what community can be. We need to recognize inclusion as an essential community value and make it part of the culture at Kenyon. This is not a job only for the administration; it’s the responsibility of all of us.
Ben Hunkler ‘20 compares his Kenyon experience with that of his father
People often say my dad and I look alike. We have the same wild, dark hair, same nose, same eyes, same smile. We’re about the same height. We share a shoe size. We’ll soon share an alma mater, too.
It’s been nearly four decades since my dad, a rural Appalachian son from a historic, deep-rooted Ohio town, traced the familiar Middle Path gravel for the last time. I often think about his footsteps, his memories of a Kenyon experience at once similar and disparate to my own.
My dad tells me about how his classmates grappled with issues of student accessibility, the rumblings of South African Apartheid, the fraying relationship with the Soviet Union. Reaganomics set root and the Iran hostage crisis met an immediate conclusion. Affirmative action programs, neighborhood integration and the desegregation of public schools sought to improve racial equality at home and across the nation. A Beatle, a pope and a president were shot in rapid succession, he recounts. But to my dad’s memory, the issues of racial identity and inclusion that presently embroil Kenyon’s community did not capture headline news.
Today, my classmates are expressing their outrage at insensitive misrepresentations of people of color and the structural racism that normalizes them. Students, professors and community members are debating the rights and moral obligations of free speech, satire and artistic license. The founder of Kenyon’s unprecedented Whiteness Group, Juniper Cruz ’19, has been derided by Breitbart and Fox News and has since received threats to her life.
These are my issues. And, yet, at the same time, they’re not. I’m white. The pain effected by the characters’ words in Wendy MacLeod’s “The Good Samaritan” is not my own, and I do not, cannot know how it feels. In fact, I’ve found it unnervingly easy to forget the hurt and the tempestuousness in the weeks since the play has been withdrawn. I’ve had the privilege to be able to forget the conversation. But I’m realizing that the conversation won’t change unless people who look like me take action to change it.
At the inaugural meeting of Kenyon’s Whiteness Group, Cruz said that racism is a white people problem. The scores of white people wedged into the room chewed on that truth and began to talk. We are its beginning and so we must try to bring it to a conclusion, we said. It stung. I don’t want to think of myself as a racist, yet each day I eat the fruit it bears. And, so, like my father before me, I’ve had to question myself and where I stand. These are my problems: although I do not suffer the effects, I am part of the cause. What does it mean to be white? What undue advantages have I been systematically afforded because of the color of my skin? How do I find the strength to make a change? How do I become more than complacent?
Am I complicit?
Aspiring toward honesty, a real and genuine honesty about being white, continues to be staggering, punishing, paralyzingly uncomfortable. But I am white, and whiteness is a part of me. It’s time to ask myself what role I have played and how I might take action to change it, no matter how difficult the answer.
Emily Birnbaum ‘18 on what happens when your college newspaper article goes viral
It is unnerving to be a student journalist at this political moment. Considering national attention is fixated on “politically correct” college campuses and “fake” news organizations, I was nestled at the perfect intersection of public disdain when I covered the “Good Samaritan” and its aftermath for the Kenyon Collegian. As the publication’s news editor, I realized a controversy was brewing as soon as I saw Facebook posts about mistranslated Spanish lines in the play. “Keep an eye on this,” Editor-in-Chief Gabrielle Healy ’18 texted me. Our premonition was right: By the next week, I was reporting from the center of Kenyon’s most public conflict in recent years.
I interviewed the executive board members of Adelante, the Latinx student association, on a Tuesday evening. They were palpably exhausted when I sat down with them to discuss the “Good Samaritan” controversy. (I use the word “controversy” hesitatingly, as I fear it lends credence to the perception that the events surrounding the play were simply dramatics. They were not: real people felt their lives and identities were trampled upon.) They had been in meetings with administrators all day, defending the Latinx community. Despite the amount of emotional energy this had taken, they still talked to me for over an hour. I think it is vital to begin at this moment: a room of marginalized college students using every ounce of energy they had and every means they could to be heard.
I was proud of the work I did on my first article about the play. I spent days interviewing faculty and students — but, on the night the Collegian went to print, MacLeod announced that she had canceled the play. This forced me to reorient the piece and elicit new quotes from sources in a matter of hours.
I remember the senior news editor Bill Gardner ’19 saying, “I think this might go viral.” He knew it spoke to an ongoing conversation about political correctness vs. freedom of speech. As an aspiring professional journalist, I didn’t think about the costs of going “viral” in a hostile, and even dangerous, online climate. I thought a viral story could boost my Google presence.
The story did go viral. My original article and its follow-up, “College debates Good Samaritan’s effect,” which I co-wrote with Gabrielle Healy, were both picked up by national right-leaning media outlets, including Fox News, the Weekly Standard, Breitbart, the College Fix and the Drudge Report. These outlets reported the story alongside an article about Kenyon’s new Whiteness Group. “Kenyon College Cancels Play About Immigration; Starts ‘Whiteness Group’,” declared the headline of the Weekly Standard piece written by Adam Rubenstein ’17. “Kenyon College nixes play on illegal immigration as ‘whiteness group’ takes shape on campus,” the Fox headline announced.
I found most of this coverage offensive on two levels: (1) facts were distorted, ignored and manipulated for the sake of twisting the story into a preexisting narrative (none of these national reporters reached out to the Collegian for fact-checking) and (2) along the way, the voices of the students of Adelante were erased.
The “Good Samaritan” and the Whiteness Group had nothing to do with one another except each spoke to a national conversation that has been constructed almost entirely in the body of think pieces: Political correctness, the argument goes, has run amok. Freedom of expression is dead. Never mind the fact that the students and faculty members involved expressed themselves publicly, and the playwright would have had support from the administration should she have decided to stage the play.
In an attempt to squeeze the “Good Samaritan” into a story about censorship on college campuses, the Weekly Standard and Fox News glossed over the complex racial critiques at play. While Kenyon students asked probing questions (“Why does it matter when stories reiterate, rather than dismantle, stereotypes? Why does representation matter at all?”), the right-leaning articles implicitly questioned, “What’s wrong with these snowflakes?” Complicated and worthwhile discussion points were subsumed into trend pieces about political correctness and freedom of expression, phrases so broad and ambiguous that the Collegian has all but stricken them from our vocabulary.
As we lost control of the story, everybody involved seemed to forget what I believe is the most important point: the members of Adelante, tired and hurt in Peirce Dining Hall Alumni Dining Room, telling me on the record that all they wanted was respect. That was the story that needed amplification.
In response to my frustration with this coverage, I tweeted a few corrections. Evan McLaren ’08, then-executive director of white nationalist organization the National Policy Institute, retweeted one of these tweets, drawing an army of neo-Nazi trolls into my Twitter mentions. One user tweeted, “just a wild guess here, but......... you’re Jewish, right?” Other tweets called me a “sand merchant” and asked me why “Jews want to genocide white people.” Though this experience was initially shocking, I’ve since realized that this form of online harassment is commonplace in today’s media landscape. Nearly every journalist with any marginalized identity is subject to this abuse day in and day out. I guess I’m lucky I learned this early.
In a climate obsessed with stoking the flames of an ongoing cultural war, people quickly cease to matter.
I would implore readers to consider this: Why do we continually approach stories unfolding on college campuses through the lens of “freedom of expression” vs “political correctness”? Why are we not engaging with the actual critiques, typically regarding the vital topics of race and ethnicity, being posed by students? What would happen if we actually listened to the voices of minority students protesting and resisting dehumanization?
What happens when Professor of History Glenn McNair brings a KKK outfit to class
I own Ku Klux Klan regalia. I use it as a teaching tool in my history classes — oh, and I’m black. These three facts never fail to produce open-mouthed curiosity or incredulity. The most obvious question is how the regalia came into my possession. With a straight face, I say that in the late 1980s the Klan was going through hard times so they started an Affirmative Action program for self-hating minorities. Some people — amazingly — believe that, and some people don’t. (I confess. I have a devilish sense of humor!) The real answer is that before becoming a mild-mannered college professor, I had spent a dozen years in law enforcement, first as a police officer in Savannah, Georgia, and then as a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, ATF for short. It’s the agency responsible for enforcing federal firearms, arson and explosives law. White supremacist groups have a penchant for illegal firearms and explosives. Our office investigated a Klan group in north Georgia, and when the case was over, I decided to keep the white hood and robe.
The next logical question is why — why would a black man want a Ku Klux Klan outfit? After all, the Klan is the single most recognizable manifestation of anti-black racism and violence in the history of the country — and that is precisely why I wanted to own it. I wanted to possess this symbol of hatred to demonstrate to myself and others that it was nothing more than a cheap polyester costume. I had learned that while dangerous, most white supremacists are tiny people who lack conviction when confronted by those who are not afraid of them. I used to let my nephew walk around in it when he was a kid. Now he’s a man, and he’s not afraid of white supremacists either. So that’s how and why a black man ended up owning Ku Klux Klan regalia.
One of the great challenges facing history teachers is making the past real for students. We do so through primary sources, documentaries, movies and artifacts. Being able to see and touch objects from the past is one of the most effective ways of making history concrete. So there was never any doubt in my mind that I would use the Klan costume in class. In the early years, I wore it myself (a student picture of the spectacle was my first Facebook profile pic). I knew that the shock of the regalia itself and the incongruity of having a black man wear it would create a real and surreal experience, one that would provoke spirited and thoughtful discussion. It did. A few years in, I decided to get students to wear it. The outfit was always too small for me, and I would be better able to describe its features (the hood, the blood red circular emblem with St. Andrew’s cross, etc.) if a student wore it.
Who is willing to serve as Klan model has changed over the years, in telling ways. Initially some white men would wear it; now none do. Their reactions to it were the most striking. Like most students, wearing it started out as a gag — until they put the hood over their heads. Many began to shake visibly as the reality of what they were wearing and what it meant sank in. This realization led to some of the most insightful conversations that I’ve had. But that was years ago; like I said, no white male student will put it on now. I understand why, but that feels like a loss.
College students have come a long way in thinking about white supremacy and being sensitive to the experiences and perceptions of non-whites. But have we reached a point where that sensitivity can be a barrier to learning? Think about it. Could a white professor own Ku Klux Klan regalia? Wear it in class? Ask students to wear it? Use the language that Klansmen used while wearing it? Reflecting on those questions will provide yet another opportunity for the white robe and hood to teach us something about ourselves.
Sara Carminati ‘13 on why it’s important for everyone — especially white people — to acknowledge and discuss race
One day in Peirce, a group of white friends gave me the moniker “racially ambiguous girl.” It was accurate and funny, and it’s still something I call myself — but not once in those four years did any of us acknowledge their whiteness. As a brown girl who grew up in northern Colorado, I was the only person of color I knew at Kenyon who arrived in Gambier to find the most diverse place she’d ever lived in. Being different, and feeling that difference, was not new to me. And just like at home, it was never unbearable, but yes, I would have preferred not to feel it. I don’t say this to blame or complain, but I often felt singled out and that I was up for discussion when others were not.
In class, eyes would often flit over to me clearly asking, “Is she that race that was just alluded to?” You’ve seen this — when race comes up, everyone becomes more aware of the nonwhite people in the room, and there’s the expectation that we must have something to say. Every person of color has been asked to serve as an ambassador to the world of not being white. But Kenyon is a place where we write essays in math class. Shouldn’t we expect all our students, and not just students of color, to be able to think and speak about race? These conversations can be uncomfortable, but they are also essential, because inexperience talking about race leads to a lack of sophistication about race.
In her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” scholar Peggy McIntosh writes, “Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us.” White privilege is largely the privilege of feeling normal.
For me, moments of feeling normal are moments of incredible relief and joy — relief at things as simple as being able to talk to someone about my hair as something that is not different or strange.
I recently tried to explain to a white friend how people of color are forced to think about whiteness all the time. I talked about my experience of being brown, and he did not talk about his experience of being white. He didn’t say, “People never ask me where I’m from or tell me to go back to my grandparents’ country.”
Or, “My girlfriend’s dad doesn’t have a problem with the idea that I might make his grandchildren whiter.” Or, “I never wonder whether I was fired from my first job because I talked about musical theater too much and my boss decided I was too white.” Or, “I’m not sick of talking about this because I haven’t tried to explain it over and over again.”
At one point this friend said, “To me you’ve always been Sara.” Well, I am Sara, and I’m also brown. I am brown every day of my life and most often in places where others are not. As a huge part of my experience, it has become part of my identity. I think he meant to tell me that he thinks of me as a person, as normal — but when being “normal” is understood as being neutered of your race, the underlying assumption is exactly that your race isn’t normal.
When I learned about the formation of a whiteness group at Kenyon, it made sense to
me right away. I see it as an invitation into our normal, to think and talk about the things we have to, all the time. It’s about including white people’s experience in what is up for discussion — about not making someone a target as the only person in the room we talk about when we talk about race. Though the discussions will engage with things we do not have in common, this is how we reach common ground — when people strive to understand an experience they themselves don’t need to have. It’s an effort to make Kenyon a place empathetic to all people within it, by inviting us to consider: What are the things that you don’t have to think or talk about and that other people do? What could we learn by talking about them?
Richard Baehr ‘69 on the danger of identity politics on college campuses
A narrative that seems to have taken hold at Kenyon and other colleges and universities is that there are two classes of students: the privileged and the non-privileged, and privilege is largely tied to identifiers such as race, class, gender and sexual orientation. But to what extent does this narrative reflect a real assessment of privilege or advantage? An alternative argument is that this narrative reflects a desire for greater power and influence on campus by certain groups.
I would argue that every student who attends Kenyon is privileged. Worldwide, the vast majority of college-aged students are not enrolled in college; and in the U.S., fewer than a third of college students are enrolled full-time at residential, four-year colleges, let alone at elite private colleges like Kenyon. Unlike the schools that educate most of the nation’s students, Kenyon classes are generally small with faculty devoted to teaching. The facilities are by and large state of the art and routinely upgraded. Opportunities to do research abound. There are campus organizations to suit almost any interest and 22 intercollegiate sports teams for men and women. And, as alumni will attest, the Kenyon name is respected by both graduate schools and employers.
There is one more reason why Kenyon students are privileged: The real cost of a Kenyon education exceeds what students pay in tuition and fees, as significant as those fees are (about 80 percent of the College’s operating budget is funded by tuition and fees). If a student is not able to pay the full fare, as I wasn’t, the College will make up the difference with a scholarship and/or federal loan. Some students hold work-study jobs to contribute to the cost of their education, and many take on summer jobs to earn tuition money, but, at best, this will pay for a fraction of the costs. Whatever their circumstances, a significant share of the cost of a Kenyon education is borne by others.
My sister and I were the first in my family to graduate college, and I was able to attend Kenyon because I received a full scholarship and loan. (The College’s generosity is one of the reasons why I have contributed to the school every year since I graduated.) I came to Kenyon in 1965 from an elite high school in New York City, where well over 90 percent of the student body was Jewish. During my time on campus, Kenyon had no programs for Jewish students, and some of my peers had never met a Jewish person. The college chaplain and Episcopal priest, Donald Rogan, arranged rides to Columbus for the high holidays and matzoh on Passover. Today, the student body, faculty and administrative staff are far more diverse than when I was at Kenyon, and there are more resources to support students, whatever their background, than at any prior point in the College’s history.
Privilege is not absolute. It is relative, and individual. A black or Hispanic student may
be more economically advantaged than a white student; a gay student who comes to Kenyon from a top private school may be more academically advantaged, or better prepared, than a straight student who graduated from an overcrowded public school.
The growing passion for identity politics — that one is defined primarily by membership
in a group — and the rank ordering of privilege associated with such groups, divides people into camps and can rapidly lead to a toxic campus environment between the supposed victims and their privileged oppressors. Kenyon has always been known for its collegiality but this can disappear quickly, as it has on so many other campuses.
At times, the only ones heard from are those who push this agenda. Students and others avoid challenging the prevailing narrative for fear of being called a racist or bigot. This is especially true on a small campus like Kenyon, where students who take an opposing view cannot easily hide from the public eye.
Kenyon has always respected students’ individuality, and students were judged for their behavior, their character and their accomplishments. Is judging people based on their membership in a group, and the perceived level of privilege that goes along with it, a better way?
Richard Baehr ’69 has been a management consultant in the healthcare field since receiving
his graduate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has been writing political commentary as a sideline for 20 years.
Associate Professor of English Ivonne M. García on the upside of being the first, or only, minority voice in a room
As someone who advises primarily underrepresented students — whether those minoritized for their socioeconomic status, or for being first-generation, or for their race, religion, gender, sexuality, or nation — I often hear about the challenge, the difficulty, of being “the only one,” usually as a lonely, disempowering and exhausting position.
I want to share a few moments when being “the only one” in a male-dominated, predominantly white context made a difference in my life, taught me important lessons and set me on the road I travel today.
The first time I was called a “spic,” I was a sophomore at Harvard in 1979. In case you don’t know, that word is a racial slur, used mostly against Latinx people, based on the premise that we can’t “speak” English and/or that we speak it with “an accent.” I was a leader of the Puerto Rican student organization planning an event with some male Latinx friends. (I use Latinx as a non-gendered plural identifier, and Latina to self-identify as a woman.) A white, male, first-year student in the room we had reserved listened for a while and then beelined to me (not the burly guys I was with) to say: “You don’t belong here. Show me your ID.”
I was stunned. Couldn’t he see we were students, with backpacks and Harvard hoodies, just like his? I waved him off as a “stupid freshman,” and refused. He threatened to call the Harvard Police. “Go ahead,” I said, faking more courage than I felt. “I’ll show them my ID and you’ll look like a fool.” He stormed out but not before he called out that I was a “spic” b-word. His words felt like a kick in the gut and I wondered why none of my male friends had stepped up to defend me. I realized that as a minoritized Latina I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for some prince to save the day. I had to learn to save myself.
That moment, and others like it, are tattooed in my memory. They crystallized for me my position as an outsider within Harvard. They fueled my determination to become an activist for diversity. Our repeated demands paid off when Harvard created a position for a Hispanic Liaison to the Bureau of Study Counsel, the center that provided counseling and academic advising. I was appointed to that position, starting me on the path to mentoring and supporting Latinx students that I still walk today.
Fast forward to 2014, when I found myself here at Kenyon, appointed as the first associate provost of diversity, equity and inclusion, and then in 2015 as associate provost, serving as the only Latina senior staff member and as the only Latina faculty member in my department. In those positions, I have felt the weight, the duty of being “the only one,” of contributing a certain perspective, raising a particular topic, expressing a specific concern. That’s why I struggled with making the decision to take my thrice-postponed post-tenure sabbatical this year. Once you are given a precious seat at the decision-making table, you’d better think hard before you give it up.
For a long time, I dreamed that Harvard would come calling, in some fashion, and I got my wish last year when the 35th reunion planning committee for my Class of 1982 asked that I participate in a panel on “The Future of Higher Education.” I had never been to a class reunion, but this seemed like a great opportunity to share my experiences, so I accepted. On that panel, I was the only woman, the only person of color, the only former public school student, the only Latina, etc. Certainly, I was the only person who spoke about the imperative of considering diversity, equity and inclusion as the future of higher education in our country.
Like I tell my students, being “the only one” doesn’t lead to winning popularity contests, or a restful and uncontested journey. It does often feel disheartening and solitary. But, when you find your voice and get the chance to speak, it also builds resilience and an understanding of the significance of representing minoritized and historically oppressed points of view.
If you’re part of the decision-making majority, how often do you think of your own positionality? Do you take for granted that everyone has the same privileges, the same access to a seat at the table? What can you do to help empower historically disempowered and minoritized voices?