By Molly Igoe and Brooke Schultz
Despite the increase in diversity on campus, Washington College has always had a complicated relationship with race.
“After 26 years, my experiences are many and I am now battle weary,” Ruth Shoge, dean of Library and Academic Technology, said. “Although there has been an obvious increase in minority students at WC, the conversation on race relations has not changed. We are all still grappling with the meaning of privilege and diversity, even though we may know what they look like.”
The second-annual #WACLikeMe Panel, held on Feb. 16, was a chance for alumni of color to come back to speak with current students about diversity and inclusion. The panel aimed to shed light on the reality that students of color face on a campus that is, and has always been, predominantly white.
“I had come to the panel discussion last year and was rather discouraged by the conversation,” Colleena Calhoun, Class of 1999, said. “The students in attendance seemed quiet, defeated, and uninterested in fighting for justice and equality on their own campus. So, I was expecting more of the same since it had only been one year. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the passion of the students, the drive and desire to see change happen.”
Taylor Johnson, president of the Black Student Union (BSU), said she was not surprised that the panel sparked frank and open conversation.
“I could definitely relate to some of the things that the alumni mentioned, which is quite heartbreaking to me because I would like to sit here and say things have changed, but they have not changed in all aspects,” she said. “I feel as though things are not as ‘in your face’ as they were during the time period the alumni attended WC, but they are still there. They just seem to go unnoticed or are hidden beneath the surface.”
Freshman Amanda Mede spoke about an off-campus incident that occurred while she was walking on Washington Avenue the day after the 2016 presidential election.
“There was a car — I don’t know if it was a student here or just someone driving — but they rolled down their window at the red light and they started staring at me, and I was like, ‘Is there something on me?’ And as they drove by they were just like, ‘F*** you, black n*****.’
“It’s insane to me because I grew up in a diverse place [Miami], so I was friends with white people, I was friends with black people, everyone. So, I was kind of shocked that that would happen,” she said.
Symeon Turner, sophomore, said that he went to a predominately white high school and was similarly surprised by the difference in culture at WC.
“There were just certain things they didn’t know about that I had to teach [white students at my high school],” he said. “It’s really just a learning experience, and we’re all here for the same reason: trying to get an education. We’re just saying that the way you guys [white students] are comfortable walking around campus, we want to be comfortable walking on campus, and some things just can’t be said for comfortability levels. It’s nothing personal.”
Turner recounted a recent exchange between a group of his friends and a Public Safety officer.
“We were in the gym past the time it closes, at about 11 p.m. My friend was shooting around [hoops], and I was on the bleachers doing homework. A PS officer walked past us the first time, and didn’t say anything. Then when he was coming back a second time, we were already finishing the workout, and I was wrapping up my homework, so everybody was packing their things, about to leave.”
The officer then came over and told them that the gym was closed.
“He goes to one of the stairway entrances to the locker room in the gym, and he’s like, ‘Wait, hold on guys, I smell weed.’ And he said, ‘I need your names.’ So I said, you can’t have my name, but I don’t have a problem emptying my bag.”
Turner said that he took out the contents of his bag: a laptop and two binders. His friends did the same.
“It just bothered me because it was, like, number one, I wouldn’t smoke in the gym, and number two, why are you assuming that we would be the ones that have weed out of the many people who were in and out of the gym throughout the day?” he said. “I just didn’t understand where he was coming from. Once we already emptied our bags, nobody looked high, we didn’t smell like weed, it was just the hallway.”
This isn’t the only time that Turner has felt targeted specifically because of his race.
He said that he and his friends go on walks through campus at night around 10 or 10:30 p.m. because it’s peaceful. “There’s been times where [Public Safety has] followed us from one part of campus to another part of campus thinking, I guess, that either we were townies, or I don’t know,” he said.
“I don’t understand, because you technically work for us, because we pay tuition, so we’re paying you, and you’re not doing your job on our behalf. So what are we paying you guys for? I still try to be respectful because I’m not a disrespectful person, but, at the same time, if I have a question about something, I’m going to ask you to help me understand what’s going on.”
Director of Public Safety Gerald Roderick said that Public Safety officers do not usually approach students unless they are asked to specifically.
“We have instances where we have community members come onto the campus and use our facilities in an unauthorized fashion, and so we’re directed to go down, respond to the call, and gather the information we can. The officers are asked to, in a polite fashion, go up and introduce themselves, explain why they’re there, and ask for identification if they think it’s warranted,” he said. “If you look at the number of calls we get for that, it’s pretty significant.”
He said that officers are more often called to address community members than minority students who are rightfully on campus. “It’s unfortunate that that happens, but we’re trying to work with our community by addressing how our campus deals with this,” he said.
Despite these incidents, Mede believes that the College has been doing the best that they can with the information available.
“The school didn’t know what was going on. They were doing the best that they could, but now that they’re aware of what’s going on, they might be able to do a little bit more. I feel like if nobody talks about a situation, you keep it between a group, and nobody speaks out about it, then nobody can really help.”
The panel did catch the attention of the administration. Both Sarah Feyerherm, dean of students and vice president, and Patrice DiQuinzio, interim provost and dean, attended.
“I think I had heard some [evidence of racial tension] anecdotally here and there. It was something about all these issues coming together in one place…[that]was so impactful,” Dean Feyerherm said. “I’m very glad I was there, because I think it makes a difference to hear what people are experiencing more from the heart, in a less filtered way.”
Dean DiQuinzio said that she spoke to panelists after the event to better understand their perspective.
“[They] gave me feedback on how to react as a white person in certain situations, and pointed out things I hadn’t considered. I worry that minority students carry more of a burden, and my instinct is to protect them. The panelists and students I spoke to said that I may not be helping; ‘If a student says they want to fight back on their own, then let them,’ they told me. The panel really helped me think about students’ roles and struggles.”
Since the panel, Dean Feyerherm said that College administrators need to ask, “What are the facts behind this, behind these experiences? What are the things we can do right away, what are the things that need to be discussed further and unpacked a little bit more to better understand them, and what are the things that may be pure misunderstanding that we could probably get out into the open?” she said.
She said that the conversation involving Public Safety was troubling, and something that she reacted to quickly.
“One of the first things I did was have a conversation with Jerry Roderick — because he wasn’t [in attendance at the panel] — to allow him to understand what we heard, and he was very responsive in wanting to further the conversation,” she said.
Roderick echoed this sentiment.
“My door is always open to students,” he said. “If anyone is feeling [racially profiled], I very much want to hear about it so that I can hear it from them and better understand all of the circumstances that led them to feel that way. With that information, then I can do things. I can act. If I’m not getting that information, it’s hard for me to understand what they’re feeling.”
In part two, The Elm talks to faculty and staff about their experiences at WC.
By Molly Igoe and Brooke Schultz