The first time I was taught that intelligence trumps all was in seventh grade. World History taught me that the Chinese empire, with their Confucian roots, made the smart decision of using a civil service exam to decide who worked in government. One of the most advanced empires at the time, China's development and growth were greatly influenced by the civil service exam. What we didn’t learn was that the Mayans had one of the most advanced calendars of that epoch or that the Arabs invented the concept of zero. We never learned that the only reason the Europeans made it to the “New World” was thanks to the maps of the Turks.
Claremont McKenna College is an introduction to exceptional individualism. Work hard, work smart, and you’ll succeed. It doesn’t matter who you are. Follow the rules, exist in the system and you’ll prosper. Look at our alums! Kravis, Roberts, Day—they altered the financial system but remained inside the confines of a financial-based capitalist system. Our “leaders” are behind-the-scenes people, propping up others to simply fill a role. But they make money, have connections, and meet the CMC definition of success.
Of course, we internalize this idea that we got here because we worked harder, led more organizations and won more awards, and that education is our right. For the most part I forgot what I had. My mother is a college grad and my father is a self-educated community organizer. It was easy to forget at CMC that my middle- and high-school best friend’s parents were immigrants who couldn’t speak English and never finished middle school. But I worked harder and did more, so it made sense that he was a drop-out and I’ll graduate from a top 10 liberal arts college.
For the most part, I’m not afraid to tell people about my academic record. I know for a fact that grades are not the best indicator of intellect or even how well you know the material for a given course. But at the same time, grades at CMC do imply some level of effort and knowledge. I’ve worked my way through my four years at this institution eliciting surprise from students who hear about my grades. Normally, people expect them to be better. But at the same time, they generally are unaware of the fact that I am involved in multiple on-campus organizations and have to work multiple work-study jobs to be able to afford to go to CMC. Many of my friends have expressed surprise that I’m even on work-study, mainly because they assumed some level of financial subsidy based on academics.
CMCers are generally wary of affirmative action. It elicits a ton of cognitive dissonance as they try and comprehend how people who need a helping hand and academic breaks could still attend an elite institution. There’s a common complaint about Latino/a and Black students in class who “just simply can’t keep up. It’s not that they aren’t smart, but maybe they should have gone somewhere a bit more suited to them.” It’s hard not to laugh, especially when they follow that up with “I’m not talking about YOU. YOU deserve to go here. YOU get good grades and are really interesting in class. It’s just that THEY aren’t as smart.”
I came to CMC three and a half years ago, and one of the first things I heard was that CMC is “one big frat.” Instead of being an exclusive organization inside of an exclusive institution of higher learning, we’re just an exclusive institution of higher learning that enjoys drinking, destroying our living quarters, and making other people clean it up. But not only that, we marginalize people of color.
The photo that has been circulating of six young women dressed up on Halloween is not surprising. No matter what efforts the administration has gone through to make CMC feel more inclusive to marginalized communities on campus, there isn’t going to be a change until we realize that the culture at CMC is the endemic problem. I hold no grudge against the women in that photo, nor do I think that they should be targeted as individuals. They, to my knowledge, are good and caring people; but at the same time, for them to feel comfortable doing that at CMC is a sign that there is no accountability from a large portion of the school. The backlash from the POC community at CMC is not new. This isn’t about one halloween costume, the same way that Black Lives Matter isn’t about Michael Brown or Tamir Rice.
The CMC administration has built up institutions to try and make CMC an inclusive place, with things like the Multicultural Advisory Council in admissions, but at the same time, the school has not reoriented its focus to actually include the scholars who enter the school through MAC. CMC got ride of the POSSE program, one of the most successful programs at both attracting minorities to elite institutions and actually having them complete their education. Now MAC has been tacked on to admissions, yet nothing has been done to address the need for a change in campus culture. The one dean of color who worked in the dean of students office left, and there has been no change in CMC’s culture of denying responsibility.
As my time at CMC wraps up, I’m grateful for the opportunities that have been provided to me, especially through 5C organizations, to remind me of my roots. Had I stayed on CMC's campus all four years, I would have never realized the hypocrisy of our institution. We preach hard work and success while conveniently forgetting about respect. A lack of basic respect is endemic in the campus culture, whether it’s respect for our own campus, to the people who care for our campus, or even to other students.
The events of Halloween remind us that minorities at CMC aren’t respected. Latino males, including me, have been called sexual predators, been told that people shouldn’t go to our parties because they’ll be sexually assaulted, or had Campus Security called on us simply because there were too many brown males in one space. The academic records of our peers are called into question for no particular reason. And now, our “dress/culture/mariachi uniforms” have been mocked and derided. This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time that this happens. These people exist everywhere.
It’s time that we call on the CMC administration to take a look inward and realize that the attitude that they’ve fostered for so long is dead. This isn’t the 1960s anymore. You don’t need token brown people who are pushed to the side. There needs to be a change in campus culture and students need to be taught the basic tenets of respect. Respect isn’t the political correctness police asking for a safe space, it’s asking for lived experiences and accomplishments not to be invalidated simply because it doesn’t fit into the “CMC mold.” If the “CMC mold” doesn’t include people of color who speak up, then CMC has failed at its goal of fostering leaders. It’s instead fostering a bigoted, xenophobic community that will look down its nose and mock all those who don’t fit that mold.
J. Camilo Vilaseca CM '16 is majoring in international relations and economics. He hails from the Bay Area and enjoys coffee, the Oakland A's, and short walks to the Hoch-Shanahan Dining Hall.