When Silence Is Not Golden: University Initiated Conversations on Racism and Race Relations

Article excerpt

For the most part, colleges and universities have not been very energetic or imaginative about developing opportunities for students to engage in structured conversations on the sensitive topics of racism and race relations. The college students of today are the leadership of the next generation and thus, there would seem to be substantial value in helping these individuals to communicate and interact with other students from different racial and/or cultural backgrounds. Postsecondary institutions can play an important service by structuring dialogue sessions which offer students an opportunity to share perspectives and insights on this "American dilemma" of racism and discrimination. It seems that student affairs professionals will need to lead the way for their institutions to realize the importance of initiating such conversations. Given that they often serve as the "conscience" of their campuses, this situation represents a significant circumstance in which student affairs professionals can step forward to provide the leadership that has not been displayed from either the faculty or academic affairs areas.

"A sure way for one to lift himself up is by helping to lift someone else."

Booker T. Washington

Of all the settings that President Bill Clinton might have selected to issue his call for a dialogue on race relations with the American people, it is particularly ironic that he chose a university campus. The irony lies in the fact that even though the general impression may be that institutions of higher education would be in the forefront of initiating constructive dialogue among their students and faculty about the "American dilemma" of racism, (Myrdal, 1996) far too few such conversations actually occur. Indeed, when it comes to institutionally initiated forums, symposia, debates, discussion groups, or similar platforms that are structured to facilitate an analysis of the causes and effects of race relations in America, few colleges and universities have demonstrated the kinds of creativity or leadership that has been displayed with other socially controversial topics. For example, there is a clear distinction between the range of academic and co-curricular activities that have been developed by postsecondary institutions to examine issues related to racism as compared to those devoted to environmental concerns. On another front, anxiety about excessive alcohol consumption among students has risen to the point that one of the nation's leading universities has developed a course called "Alcohol 101" and offered to make it available to any other accredited postsecondary institution in the country.

As far as the topic of race is concerned, a small number of students may explore it within the context of class readings or discussions in courses such as anthropology, biology, or sociology. In such situations, they are exploring the major biological divisions of mankind, distinguished by color and texture of hair, color of skin and eyes, stature, and / or bodily proportions. (Webster, 1966) While studying this particular subject can be enlightening, it is not the same as analyzing racism, which focuses on the effects of discrimination and prejudice practiced by one group against another. On the whole, there has been a deafening silence from postsecondary institutions in this critical area of concern (Harvey, 1991), just as there has been in the nation's economic, judicial, legislative, and religious institutions. Within each of these arenas, it seems that a sensational incident along the lines of the O.J. Simpson murder trial or the Rodney King beating by the Los Angeles police has to occur in order for frank discussion about the existence and practice of racism to take place.

The campuses of colleges and universities would seem to be among the most fitting locations for conversations on race and racism to take place. These are, after all, institutions that are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge (Harvey, 1981). …