By Joanna Sperapani
Elm Staff Writer
On Thursday, Feb. 16, black alumni returned to campus for the WAC Like Me Panel put on by the Black Student Union (BSU) as a part of Black History Month. Alumni included Leah Singleton, Class of 2001; Kia-Michelle Massey, Class of 2000; Colleena Calhoun, Class of 1999; Ariana Cork, Class of 2011; and Christine Lincoln, Class of 2000.
The panel began as a colloquial discussion of diversity and inclusion, but quickly delved into a stark conversation of race relations on campus. Alumni and current students shared stories of hate crimes and racism experienced at Washington College. It was evident that the event served as catharsis for participants.
The alumni recognized that current levels of diversity on campus are much higher in comparison to their time at WC. They made a point to recognize the issues that WC still has regarding inclusion, such as the isolation that black students feel on a predominantly white campus.
When asked her opinion on the current diversity of WC, Massey said, “Diversity is not just skin color, it’s culture, gender, disability, and many other traits. You can’t group people together. When I was here, there were about five black students. Because of that, I didn’t experience racism until I was here at WC,” she said.
The alumni also recounted experiences of pain and insensitivity in the classroom, and discussed diversity training for faculty.
“I was asked numerous times to speak for an entire group of people. I can’t do that; no one can do that,” said Singleton.
Cork recalled a specific incident when a former WC professor referred to her and her friends as slaves. She said, “Training professors to be culturally aware is a big deal. That was scarring.”
Erneatka Webster, the BSU faculty advisor, expressed her surprise at the incidents discussed at the event.
“Honestly, I was speechless during most of the discussion. I really had no idea that these issues ever existed. When the panel discussed their experience, it was heart-breaking to hear. I say this because we are in a time where no one, no matter the race, color, gender etc. should ever have to endure being harassed, scared, or threatened,” she said.
A common theme of the panel discussion featured attempts to create a supportive and inclusive atmosphere for minority students. While discussing the George’s Brigade program, one alumna pointed out a potential issue with drawing in students who may not feel at home at WC.
“It’s not enough to recruit without creating an environment where they can thrive,” said Massey.
The policing of black students on campus is an issue that is not often mentioned. Several students discussed bias-motivated incidents with the Chestertown Police Department (CPD) and the Department of Public Safety (PS), such as being stopped and asked to present their student IDs.
BSU President Taylor Johnson responded to this: “We are students just like everyone else and deserve to be treated as such. I believe that no one should be targeted because of what they look like. I definitely believe there is potential for change, but first there needs light brought to this issue, because it is a problem,” she said.
The alumni were not hopeless in the face of these issues, and suggested that students speak out when they experience bias.
“I think the other things you have to understand is that there are resources available to you; the [American Civil Liberties Union] ACLU, the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] NAACP. If you want to be able to do anything, you’re going to have to be able to fight for something,” Singleton said, recounting a story about her friend who was denied a job in Chestertown on the basis of race.
“It is the predominant culture’s problem. It’s everyone’s battle. Every time a person is violated because they are different, everyone is violated,” Lincoln said.
The panel concluded with discussions of potential changes that could be made by the College. The tone was a mix of both frustration and hope; alumni expressed that they feared the students’ complaints were falling on deaf ears, but still encouraged students to come forward.
Johnson aims to have many events like this one in the future.
“My main takeaway from this event was that every individual has a job on campus to make diversity and inclusion a more prevalent topic on campus. As students, we have to voice our opinions and speak out when acts of discrimination or bias occur, and for faculty and staff, you have to talk about these uncomfortable conversations more frequently so that over time they can soon be more easily discussed,” she said.
Webster also encouraged students to speak out. “Like Taylor said, the students have to stop complaining among themselves and let someone know. Find that staff or faculty member that you can confide in and tell them. The students are crying out for help, but in order for us as a community to help, we have to know what is going on.”
The event ended with a call for unity, not just among minority students, but across the campus.
“We have to demand change… You can make a difference here, not every college campus is like that,” Lincoln said, concluding the panel with a message of perseverance and persistence.
If a student experiences an incident of bias, they can contact Public Safety at 410-778-7810 or submit an anonymous tip through the LiveSafe mobile app. Students can also contact the Bias Incident Response Team through Chair and Assistant Dean of Students Dr. Jean-Pierre Laurenceau-Medina at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Joanna Sperapani