When I arrived at Trinity College in August of 2015, I did so with the assumption that my experience here would be fairly similar to what I had experienced in high school in regard to the social climate on campus. Like many other Trinity students, I grew up in a small, almost entirely white, middle class New England town. For eighteen years my world was pleasantly small, and while I enjoyed the comfort my environment provided, I harbored suspicions that my understanding of life beyond the bubble was stunted because of it. With only two students of color in my graduating class of over two hundred students, my exposure to the struggles of other races was supplemented primarily by the news. As a result, such issues seemed important but distant. I wanted desperately to prove to myself that my homogenous upbringing had not made me close minded or biased so I was delighted by the thought of making new friends of all different races. In hindsight, perhaps my plucky eagerness to expand my horizons was self centered and blithe. I had no way of knowing that coming to this environment would not only make me a more cultured and well rounded person as I had hoped, it would expose to me an ugly truth about the frustrations that surround race relations which my new peers had been dealing with for their entire lives. The last three and a half months have revolutionized the way I perceive race and social class and while I have only begun to make strides toward enlightenment, I am truly grateful that my first exposure to this new environment was guided and enriched by this seminar.
Racism: Oh my gosh, it’s everywhere!
Reading texts like Beverly Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” and Stacy Lee’s “Unravelling the Model Minority,” watching documentaries like Skin Deep, and discussing the topic of race at length in our seminar primed me to be more attuned to omnipresent racial subtleties on Trinity’s campus. In this way, our seminar did not just expand the bubble of ignorance that carried me to Trinity, it completely shattered it. I began to notice incidences of racism everywhere I turned. When a group of Black students on the football team walked into the gym to watch the men’s basketball game, I overheard some of the white fraternity brothers in the stands behind me asking who had let the Black students in and making jokes that insinuated the Black students were delinquents. When a Black athlete asked an official to talk to the opposing team about their pregame warm up music, which prominently featured an offensive racial term, the official responded by saying, “Does it really bother you?” A myriad of examples presented themselves during day to day life. Initially this flood of new insight was met by horror. By the second month of school, I was beginning to think I had unknowingly chosen to attend the single most racist college in the continental United States. Surely racism could not be this prevalent everywhere, right? I was convinced that the social climate on Trinity’s campus, fueled by the school’s location in Hartford, had created a perfect storm of racism making Trinity the pinnacle of social injustice. Deeply dismayed and discouraged by this, I voiced my frustrations to a Black classmate who preceded to inform me that this was not the case. While Trinity certainly has a lot of problems, she said, she and other minority individuals experience racism and micro aggressions all over, not just here.
“Its not a touchy subject, its my life.”
Not only has my experience in this seminar drastically increased my perceptiveness of racism, it has also made me more aware of how people of color feel racism. I have found the most effective way to increase awareness in this respect is simply to listen to people tell their stories and voice their frustrations. This is exactly what I was able to do on November 16 when our seminar attended the Wake Up World event organized by students of color on Trinity’s campus. The event began with an organized walk out from classes immediately followed by an open mic forum which allowed all students, regardless of race or gender, to share anecdotes and be received in a supportive environment. The stories shared and frustrations voiced at this event were sincere, enlightening, and at times heart wrenching. Many students described how it felt to experience racism and have their struggles invalidated or swept aside because they made others uncomfortable. Such was the case for one Black student who explained the pressure she and other minority students feel to assimilate into the dominant white culture on campus. “I feel like I have to change myself,” she said. “So that people at Trinity will feel better.” Even more frustrating is the fact that when she and other minority students try to voice their opinions regarding race, they are too often dismissed. She explained that the unwillingness of so many people to discuss or even acknowledge the issue is exasperating, saying, “Its not a touchy subject, its my life.” There is a noticeable divide among students of color and white students in the way they perceive issues of race. This divide was particularly evident on homecoming weekend when a Black Lives Matter banner was hung on the chapel as a protest against racism in solidarity with Black students on college campuses around the country.
While many students, some of whom were white, joined the protest by dressing in black and walking out onto the football field at half time, others found it off putting. Some white students resented the hanging of a Black Lives Matter banner on the chapel. Upon seeing the banner, one Trinity freshman said, “That’s horrible. The chapel is the most important building on campus. If they feel that strongly about it, they should hang that on their own frat house.” While there is no such thing as a Black fraternity at Trinity College and the student was likely referring to a cultural house like the Umoja house, statements such as these are an accurate depiction of the ignorance and disregard that many white members of the Trinity community have for issues regarding race. The notion that an oppressive force such as racism is not important enough to be featured on the chapel is reprehensible. For those who admit racism is a pressing issue but would simply prefer our beautiful chapel not be sullied by such a controversial topic, I would encourage you to think of the people who feel the effects of racism daily and do not have the luxury of being able to banish this issue to the corners of their consciousness when it makes them uncomfortable.
“A Fantastic Burden”
During one of our seminar meetings, our student mentor, who was enrolled in this course two years ago during her freshman year, offered some sage advice. The discussion had wandered from how prevalent racism is to possible solutions and it was beginning to take on a hopeless tone. Some students echoed suggestions they had heard at the Wake Up World event calling for a course in social justice to be a prerequisite for graduation while others struggled to see how society could ever become untangled from racism. Sensing the discouragement our mentor took the floor. She explained that after being heavily invested in this predicament every day for months, after reading books and articles, watching documentaries, attending events, conducting interviews, and discussing our findings at length with our peers we had unknowingly taken on a heavy burden. Regardless of our race we are now awake to social injustice and have a responsibility to speak out against it. Though our knowledge is a burden, it is a fantastic burden to carry.