Students value open dialogue on race at State of the University

University students and faculty members engaged in an open discussion about their experiences with race issues last Tuesday, Feb. 28, at State of the University: Race at CMU. The discussion was organized by housing community advisors and the Office of Residential Education.

The event began with senior math major Connie Yang discussing the definition of racial stereotyping. She read that stereotyping is defined as “a way for the mind to make sense of the complexities of the world around us, a way for the mind to make complex things more understandable.” But this can become a problem when all characteristics of group are attributed to one individual. Yang shared many of her experiences with Asian stereotypes such as quietness and skill at schoolwork and math. She believes that we need to see people as human individuals first.

Senior electrical and computer engineering major Wole Idowu also shared his experiences with stereotyping and racism. During his childhood, Idowu lived in a variety of places, including Washington, D.C., Maryland, and West Virginia. “I’ve seen two different things: racism and ignorance, and the way I separate it is the malice. I’ve been assaulted for being black, and I’ve had people who are like ‘I don’t know why this offends you, it’s just a joke.’”
Idowu continued, saying, “At [Carnegie Mellon], I see a lot of ignorance. Though segregation has been gotten rid of officially, it hasn’t been gotten rid of in levels. High schools aren’t really fully integrated and so many people don’t have a strong experience interacting with some minorities.” He believes that, because of this lack of experience, people gain their perceptions of cultures from the media and entertainment. Idowu believes he can work with that and educate people, but added, “this can be very emotionally, physically, mentally draining in cases where they don’t have malice but don’t want to learn — that’s bigotry.”

Senior history major Robert Stephens agreed with Idowu, but also wanted to push back on the idea that the oppressed have the responsibility to educate others. “I get it, there is going to be ignorance that occurs, there are going to be misunderstandings, but at what point does the person who has never come into contact with ‘the other,’ say, ‘maybe I should try to learn more about you.’” However, Stephens wanted to emphasize the importance of curiosity. “Curiosity is great, curiosity is how we learn, but it’s a very different thing when [people] impose the beliefs they already hold on you.”

Junior psychology major Kanisha Vaughn said, “I don’t know how many times I’ve been told I’ve lost my ‘black card’, meaning I’m not ‘black enough’. It frustrates me. Sometimes the black community sets certain standards for ourselves that are drastically low and we, as a people, are so much better than that. It bothers me that sometimes we stereotype ourselves and turn around and complain that other groups put stereotypes on us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m also upset with everyone else who is stereotyping us, but I feel that step one should be understanding stereotypes we put on ourselves, and [addressing] that.”

The conversation then shifted with a question from the audience asking whether the idea of “not seeing color” is helpful or destructive. Vaughn responded, “I hate that phrase. The first thing you notice about someone is their appearance. In my opinion, I don’t see why there is a problem with seeing color. This is where ignorance and implicit biases come from. You should acknowledge color and focus on what that means.”

Stephens added that by telling a person you don’t see color, you are ignoring their culture and experiences. “Our experiences are intrinsically linked to our color,” he said. “I am a black man from the South. A lot of the stuff I’ve experienced comes from the lens of a black man from the South. There are many things that have happened to me because I am a black man from the South. You just don’t need to make color the topic of every conversation.”

The conversation changed to address questions on how to solve the problem of racism at Carnegie Mellon. Junior Kevin Wainczak asked, as a white man, how he can help. “I care about diversity, I want to support diversity. What can I do? What are the things you’d be looking for in an ally?” he asked.

Idowu believes being an ally is very important. “What I look for is to be able to learn, to be honest. It seems like a simple thing. Some people don’t want to listen to my struggles. You have to be open to listening to people and try to empathize with their pain. You might take offense to things, it might get uncomfortable. But you being an ally and overcoming that discomfort means a lot to the people going through these struggles.”

Vaughn, in response to Wainczak’s question on how to be an ally, said, “People are afraid to make mistakes. People are afraid to say the wrong things, do the wrong things and offend people. I wish more people would feel comfortable to come up to me and say, ‘I don’t know how to be respectful to you, I don’t understand your culture. Please help me, please teach me. It all starts with honest communication and admitting your ignorance.'”

Another discussion point was how the school, faculty, and staff can address racism. Professor Jelena Kovačević, Head of electrical and computer engineering, said that when she first came to Carnegie Mellon, she had been guilty of thinking the campus is its own bubble without larger problems, including racism. “The first thing is being aware of it. Then you can do something about it. You have to open up these conversations and ask, ‘What can I do to make this better?’ The first step is figuring out what’s going on. There’s a lot of ignorance.”

Assistant Professor Daniel Armanios from the department of engineering and public policy said that he has noticed that a lot of students feel too vulnerable to speak in public. “I create an hour outside of class where students can come and talk about stuff. They can vent to me about anything.” Armanios believes that if there is an organic network of faculty members who can open their offices, more students who don’t want to speak in public can feel supported to speak up. Though he acknowledged that many professors do not have the time to facilitate these conversations, Armanios said, “This really matters to me, given the state of our country as well as the world.”

The conversation ended on the importance of continuing to have these discussions of race, emphasizing how crucial it is to get more people on campus to take part in events like this.

The final two State of the University events of the semester will be conversations about mental health and gender.