Before I even enrolled in courses at Pomona College and the Claremont Consortium, I found that some of the Consortium’s black students were the subject of a highly divisive national debate: Should students of color explicitly request to live only with other people of color?
The story is as follows: Karé Ureña PZ ‘18, along with Sajo Jefferson PO ’19 and Isaac Tucker-Rasbury PO ‘18, are black students at the Claremont Colleges.
Ureña posted Facebook statuses on her personal profile and to the Pitzer College Class of 2018 page requesting a fourth roommate for the students’ off-campus home. Ureña specified: “POC [people of color] only.”
The Claremont Independent, a campus news source, first reported the story on Aug. 9 with the headline: “Students at the Claremont Colleges Refuse to Live with White People.” Just days after, national news sources such as The Washington Post, U.S. News and The Guardian reported the event, another materialization of the tense racial relations recently highlighted at colleges and universities across the nation.
Lots of people had something to say, including students who found the request “racist.” Melvin Oliver, Pitzer College’s president, condemned the group of black students in a Message to the Community: He cited Pitzer’s Mission and Values statement, which emphasizes “diversity, dialogue, inquiry and action” to promote “intercultural understanding” as a counterargument to Ureña’s posts and the students’ request for a POC-only home. Administrators pointed at the mission statement as the default response to a much deeper, unaddressed problem.
What’s disturbing about this splashy nationwide debate is that it perpetuates the system that marginalizes black people for taking issue with a social system that doesn’t support them.
What’s more troubling is that in institutions that are supposed to build “intercultural understanding,” the legitimate needs and concerns of the black population aren’t heard or met.
Rather than examining how Pitzer, a school whose walls are colored with murals denouncing social injustices, has failed its black students, students and administrators victim-blamed Ureña (a decades-old response). They claimed she needed to change—not the community making her feel uncomfortable.
The narrative holds: blacks are fated to be uncomfortable; so instead of holding the institutions accountable, most students are told to accept this norm and not seek systemic change.
Media coverage of the controversy never described the concerns of the Claremont students as legitimate, in keeping with a familiar narrative: the myth of black inferiority. Psychologists propagated this myth and legitimized it with empirical data, saying blacks need to adapt to (white) middle-class customs in order to succeed. This raises two problems: one, that the burden of assimilation necessary for success is on the black community. But a second, more sinister phenomenon occurs: As Martin Deutsch writes in The Disadvantaged Child, “problems of social adaption” at lower-class (i.e. black) public schools weaken emotional sensitivity toward black students.Thus, others become deaf to the words of black people. If educational systems, the stepping stone into American life and culture, aren’t sensitive to the black community’s feelings, society is given a pass.
But there’s more. Not only are blacks’ emotions invalidated through a perpetuation of the status quo, but their methods of emotional expression are also criticized. In the 1960s, researchers popularized the idea (resting on false assumptions) that because the language of black mothers is insufficient, black children don’t know how to properly express themselves. Mothers who give orders without explanation are to blame. Because their language is inherently unable to express said emotions, these children experience “language deprivation,” and their emotional accounts are deemed illegitimate, according to these researchers.
So when a black Pitzer student describes the “trauma” she has experienced at the college, the just response is not to the look the other way.
People are desensitized to black people’s emotions, as evident both in the collective failure to humanize black slavery and the failure to acknowledge Ureña’s, Jefferson’s and Tucker-Rasbury’s request for a roommate of color and emotional recognition.
What’s worse, again we blame the victims—really the survivors—of these dynamics while failing to indict the system for foul play. The players (in our case, the black people and people of color at the Claremont Consortium) are expected to score goals with an invisible net.
Yet psychological studies don’t answer the particular question of whether Ureña, Tucker-Rasbury, and Jefferson are acting on prejudice.
Spoiler alert: they’re not prejudiced. They’re definitely not racists, and what’s better, they’re entirely justified.
For college roommates, race means something. Living with same-race roommates, both for minority- and majority-identity students, saw higher comfort, less anxiety and a greater chance for a lasting friendship than with other-race pairings. What’s more, white students expressing hostility toward minority students, even at “progressive” schools like Pitzer, is not a rare phenomenon, and may even be common. Research supports giving students the freedom to choose their own roommates. For blacks, living with whites, or even other people of color, can be harmful. So we should not act astonished or condemn students for making a “POC-only” roommate request.
Should schools include race on their housing forms? Private homes don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the colleges. But for American school administrators, is there an obligation to apply research supporting same-race roommates in the roommate process? For many campuses, with myths of this country thriving in a post-racial society, at sometimes troublingly loud volumes, the likely answer is no. When Cal State Los Angeles instituted black-preferred housing, the media rebranded it as “black-only” and created uproar heard across the political spectrum. But while public colleges and universities will find it difficult to adopt these measures, maybe private schools can take the first step, if they want to live up to their diversity commitments. Or maybe, to start, administrators, students, and the public can tell students who want to decide the community the live in that it’s not just acceptable; it’s valued.
Zemia Edmondson PO ’20 hails from West Palm Beach, FL, lives in Harwood Court, and is a prospective Environmental Analysis major.