Nick Anderson and Susan Svrluga, Washington Post, August 11, 2016
In most respects, the roommate-wanted notice seemed routine. Three students at the Claremont colleges in Southern California were looking for a fourth this summer to join them in an off-campus house. They added a caveat in parentheses: “POC only,” they said, using a common abbreviation for people of color.
When a classmate challenged that condition, the Pitzer College student who posted the notice on Facebook pushed back. “It’s exclusive [because] I don’t want to live with any white folks,” wrote Karé Ureña, who is black.
The online comments touched off a debate this week over race at Pitzer and neighboring colleges, one that flared into national headlines after the Claremont Independent student magazine wrote about it.
To some, Ureña’s request was completely understandable following a racially charged year when many students of color had demanded more support from the administration. To others, it was simple racism to exclude potential roommates based on skin color.
Pitzer President Melvin Oliver–a sociologist who is an expert on racial inequality–sent a message to the campus community Wednesday about the housing ad and the debate it sparked. It read, in part:
While Pitzer is a community of individuals passionately engaged in establishing intracultural safe spaces for marginalized groups, the Facebook post and several subsequent comments are inconsistent with our Mission and values. . . .
This is but another example to us that social media is not an effective platform to engage in complex dialog on seemingly intractable critical issues that have varied histories and contested understandings. They create more heat than light and invite extreme viewpoints that intentionally obfuscate the nuanced context that surrounds these issues. Pitzer offers its new 2-course Intercultural Understanding requirement and dedicates new curricular and extra curricular programming to address difficult issues of racism, diversity, community discourse and national and international political conflict.
Claremont McKenna was swept up last fall in the national debate over the racial climate on college campuses. Student protesters pushed for several measures focused on diversity in student affairs and academics.
Ureña, 20, a junior at Pitzer, and one of her roommates, Sajo Jefferson, 19, a sophomore at Pomona, defended their query in a statement to The Washington Post. Ureña describes herself as Afro-Caribbean and Jefferson identifies as a multiracial black person. Minority communities on campus, they said, constantly must deal with issues that arise when they are surrounded by classmates who don’t understand where they are coming from and have little interest in finding out.
“When and if you understand this context, it becomes clear that students of color seeking a living space that is all-POC is not only reasonable, but can be necessary,” they wrote to The Post. “We live in a world where the living circumstances of POC are grounded in racist social structures that we can not opt out of. These conditions threaten the minds, bodies and souls of people of color both within and without the realms of higher education. We are fighting to exist.”
Asked if the debate that unfolded was a reflection of national events and a glimpse of what the mood on many campuses may be like this coming year, they responded: “Our people are being killed. Every which way, through every which angle. Our people are being killed. Our housing arrangements are not racist. They are not exclusive. We are simply fighting to exist and we are fighting to exist in whatever way we can.”
A student who said she is supportive of Ureña’s preference to live with other people of color questioned the wording, wondering if it sounded restrictive to exclude other groups.
Another responded: “People of color are allowed to create safe POC only spaces. It is not reverse racism or discriminatory.” That student wrote that it comes down to self-preservation.
Another wrote: “White people have cause[d] so much trauma on these campuses . . . why in the world would I want to bring that into my home? A place that is supposed to be safe for me?”
Elliot Dordick, who wrote the article for the [Claremont] Independent, stands by it. “There was absolutely no spin put into this piece,” he said. “It was made up almost entirely of my classmates’ quotes. . . . I can’t find a single word of the piece that was my own personal opinion.”
He said several people questioned how he, as a white person, could write objectively about racial issues. In a phone interview with The Post and subsequent email follow-up, he said that there were several resident assistants who said outright that they’re not interested in open dialogue about racial issues.
“The fact that RAs, who are selected as student leaders, admitted that they are not interested in discussion, that they want instead to simply spew their own opinions without facing any disagreement, is a disgrace to Pitzer College,” Dordick said.
Dordick said he wasn’t surprised at the debate because racial tensions have been heightened during the past year. He described last year’s protests on Claremont McKenna College: “Hundreds of students stormed through the center of Claremont McKenna College chanting ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogans. The president of the college came out to a central area of campus and was verbally attacked by many students of color whose emotions were out of control. They shrieked about their experiences on campus and demanded racially segregated ‘safe spaces.’ Two girls even went on a hunger strike.
“… The Claremont Colleges are radically liberal and ideologically monolithic.”
Ureña said she has no regrets about the Facebook posting. She and Jefferson said they take issue with people who focus on “white people and their ‘exclusion’ in this housing ad.” They said they want to “reframe” the conversation.
“This is not about white people,” they wrote. “It never has been. The insistence that it should be only reaffirms [our] understanding of how deeply we are submerged in a white-centric world. Recentering this question so it is about the well being of POC is therefore an act of resistance.”