New social activist Instagram account, Black at Whittier, held a live stream to discuss experiences of “Racism in [Whittier College] Academia” last Friday, August 1. Alumna Christina Brown ‘17, the Instagram’s account manager, led the discussion with input from viewers and guest speakers, including Whittier College alumni Esther Nailah Hills ‘18, KamRon D Perry ‘18, and fourth-year Daniel Hayes. Guest speakers discussed their own experiences of discrimination at Whittier College during individual time slots to speak with Brown.
Some key topics covered in the discussion included problems perpetuated by Whittier’s professors, such as an African history course watching The Lion King during class, a professor assuming Daniel Hayes, a Black student, was from South Central, KamRon D Perry, a Black student, not feeling safe to voice their opinions at the school, and the College’s students “mistreat[ing] Black staff and other staff of color,” all of which @BlackatWhittier highlighted on their Instagram story.
The African history course was a major focus of Hills’ during her time joining the live stream. Hills spoke to Whittier College’s “lack of true African history” in its curriculum despite the college mandating students to take one of six history courses including African history. Hills argued that the version of African history the College teaches focused on the experiences of African peoples as a colonized race rather than Africa’s ancient history prior to Western interaction, and, in doing so, did not truly study African history objectively. “There is lots of Black history that isn’t struggle, but we think that’s all there is until we research it for ourselves,” said Brown.
Similarly, by devoting hours of class time to watching The Lion King — a children’s animated fantasy movie — the course seemed to not focus enough on African history or the people that contributed to it. Instead, it did not seem to take the subject seriously. Hills also brought up that the course was not taught by a Black professor —which many discussion members believe the College has a general shortage of. As a result, Hills explained that the school did not seem to respect the need for a professor familiar with African culture, but instead hired a Latinx professor in what seemed to be an attempt to “fulfill a diversity quota.” This was to assume the school believed Latinx experiences to be “close enough” to Black experiences to teach about it, according to Hills.
However, for many Black students, discrimination does not end at a professor’s syllabi, according to the discussion. Both Hills and Brown mentioned experiencing unwanted attention from non-Black students and professors during class when discussing topics that have historically disproportionally affected people of color, such as slavery and poverty.
It is these spectators’ quick assumptions that Black students have poorer standards of living (based on Western ideals) that are harmful and can perpetuate stereotypes of people of color. These students were subjugated to a role as teachers for racism simply because of their race despite them not volunteering to participate in the class discussion. During his collaboration on the live video, Perry added that he “did not feel safe to voice [his] opinions at Whittier” despite having a normally vocal personality, demonstrating the harmful lack of inclusive discussions at the College.
Hills and Brown also discussed the lack of support for Black cultural events, beginning with a lack of study abroad opportunities in African countries. Brown commented that this can prevent students from learning about African history and culture due to stereotyped views of Africa as “dangerous,” as a professor told students during their trip near Cape Town, South Africa, a more wealthy, tourist-filled region of the continent. Likewise, they mentioned that many campus community members do not attend events like those held by the Black Student Union or Afro-fusion dance recitals.
During their time at Whittier College, Hills and Perry had served as President and Vice President respectively for the Black Student Union. Both guests demonstrated how the group has experienced many microaggressions from faculty and administration. Commenters said that the student organization was “blacklisted,” or purposefully ignored, by the Office of Equity and Inclusion. Perry recalled the OEI being inconsiderate of student leaders, by doing things such as scheduling meetings without much time for notice and “policing” a student leader and woman of color to the point of making her cry without offering an apology or helping to console her.
Perry also discussed his experience working in the campus mailroom, where students tended to speak to him and other staff of color in more demanding tones. “[The student’s] tone [seemed to say] ‘you’re lesser than human.’ It was very ‘dance, monkey, dance’ to me.” This sparked a thoughtful discussion of racism as propelled by the way people speak to each other. “It was hard to articulate why I felt targeted, and then I learned the term [microaggression] and [I] was like ‘yep, that’s it,’” said Perry about how language can encourage racial awareness. “Words like ‘urban,’ ‘ratchet,’ [and] ‘unique’ can be microaggressions,” he said.
Both Perry and Hills were invited to Whittier College’s alumni event for a discussion on anti-racism and acknowledged the College for their ability to define terms to discuss race with. As far as the meeting’s content, Whittier administration discussed plans for creating a more inclusive campus culture. Perry acknowledged that, until school begins, plans are not complete. “We need to wait and see student response when school starts,” he said.
Those involved in the discussion also mentioned a lack of Black professors at the College and alleged mistreatment of the few teaching there. Further analysis is needed for a holistic discussion of a lack of Black representation on campus, including the smaller Black student population.
However, this live stream did provide a platform for discussion and expression for the Black Whittier experience that has not been created in the past. Fourth-year Daniel Hayes voiced his positive opinion of the account, saying, “Collectively, all of us share an experience. I want people to understand that Black people, without all of us having the same identity or mindset, all share very similar experiences that can [range] from microaggressions to violent racism, and that’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed. That’s what I think this page is doing.”
Black at Whittier, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, have pressured the school to foster further discussions of race and discrimination on campus. The school has shown its support for the Black Lives Matter movement and as a result of both groups’ influence, the College developed an action plan for encouraging “Racial Justice and Equity at Whittier College” which was released to community members Wednesday, August 6. This plan strives to “address recruitment and retention of Black Board of Trustee members, executive leadership, faculty, staff, coaches, and students,” “create the position of Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion within the Academic Affairs Division,” “change institutional culture,” “improve and expand communication and partnerships with alumni, parents, and external audiences,” and “increase focus on the intellectual contributions of Black people and traditions.”
Whittier College also posted a message on their Instagram that acknowledged Black at Whittier’s account and “appreciate[d] the honesty and experiences the account” publishes. Moving forward, the College promised to be “responsive to [Black] experiences” and to “work with [students] to make necessary changes and progress” because “more action is needed.”
Black at Whittier plans to hold future educational live streams using polls for students to vote on what they want to discuss most. If you would like to tune into these live streams or get more information, please visit @BlackatWhittier on Instagram.