By 8:53 p.m, Orton Conference Center was standing-room only. Extra chairs from the back were brought out to accommodate the large turnout of students, faculty, and alumni for the Open Forum on Diversity and Race Relations on Wednesday, November 18th. The excitement was palpable, as was the uncertainty, as everyone waited for the event to commence. It was immediately clear that this would be a historic night for the University of Redlands. With an approximate turnout of 600+ people, Chaplain John Walsh said this was the largest forum to have ever been held on this campus.
Recent events regarding racial discrimination and oppression in both U.S. and local news have emphasized the need for college campuses to engage in dialogue with its students and faculty about diversity and inclusion. Diversity and race issues have hit much closer to home with incidents at Occidental College, Claremont McKenna, and even on our own campus, which led to groups on campus working to include a wider audience in this discussion, culminating in this forum.
At 9:05 p.m, Keith Osajima, the director of Race and Ethnic Studies department and the facilitator of this event, took to the center of the room with a microphone. He began by thanking everyone for coming out, and thanking President Ralph Kuncl for convening the forum. President Kuncl briefly took the mic to speak of his own experiences and to reaffirm his commitment to racial diversity on campus, a commitment that includes forming a “diversity council” of students, faculty and administrators. Osajima also spoke on the format of the forum, instating a rule that students of color would have priority to speak, and thanked the students, whose “commitment to racial justice lead you to courageously break the silence that often surrounds matters of race.”
This courage was on full display over the course of the evening as 53 students of color shared their experiences at the University of Redlands. Story after story was told of the dehumanization, isolation, and loneliness that students of color have to face day in and day out both on and off campus. While telling their stories, some spoke with anger and others shed tears, and as the evening went on, several themes started to emerge.
Many students stated that they feel they are attending a university that advertises itself as being more diverse than it actually is. University of Redlands junior Emma Wade expressed her frustration at the phrase “but we’re 47% students of color” being thrown around as proof of diversity (a statistic that refers to the freshman class of 2019). This statistic doesn’t mean much when the black population is 3%, and the Native Americans and Pacific Islanders have less than 1% each. It means even less for one Latina student – whose people make up the largest proportion of the student-of-color population at the University – who remarked that she finds the custodial staff more relatable than her professors.
Multiple students expressed their excitement about attending such a diverse school after witnessing the celebration of different cultures during the Multicultural Festival that was conveniently held on the day of their tours. But what the students found when they arrived is that different cultures are celebrated only on that one day of the year; any other day, different cultures are shunned.
University of Redlands senior Jasmine Sturr confessed that she “wanted to erase [her] culture,” because she was “constantly surrounded by [white people’s] culture.” In a similar vein, senior Jordan Ward said, “the culture here is one of cultural assimilation.”
Students of color are hurt and angry because they feel the university doesn’t care about their well-being as much as their white peers’, despite paying the same tuition. University of Redlands junior Devin Appleton explained that he found it “interesting” that the university would ask him to be in promotional videos and photos to advertise for the school (again, advertising diversity), but wouldn’t help him when he lacked a co-signer for his loan package.
Many students also said they do not feel safe on campus, except in the Campus Diversity and Inclusion center (CDI), or with people of the same race or cultural background. Many described feeling like “complete outcasts,” or feeling like they “can’t be [them]selves.” This disconnect from the community has caused the withdrawal of students of color from the wider student body into smaller, more inclusive groups.
A question that kept emerging was “Why?” As University of Redlands sophomore April Hong asked regarding CDI, why is it that diversity is only centralized to one office on campus? Why is history taught differently in the History and Race & Ethnics Studies departments? Why do some students of color only feel comfortable talking with certain members of the faculty? Why can’t students feel comfortable talking about diversity, their ethnicities and cultural backgrounds in an environment meant to foster free exchange of ideas?
“And why,” University of Redlands sophomore Marcus Garcia asks, “should I want to do great things for a community I don’t feel a part of?”
While these students of color spoke of their struggles and grievances, they also spoke of specific ways white students, faculty, and the administration can help to make students of color feel more comfortable on campus. The point of the forum was to have a space for amplifying students’ voices because, as Osajima mentioned in his opening remarks, racism silences.
However, University of Redlands freshman Lidya Stamper made sure to emphasize that “it’s not just for you to listen, it’s for you to incorporate into [your] daily lives.”
“White people should educate themselves,” University of Redlands junior Elana Rapp stated. The students believe it is essential for Race & Ethnic studies and Gender & Sexuality studies to be part of every student’s liberal arts education.
To emphasize the need for this subject matter to be mandatory for all, Wade shared a story. She went into the library, where a large white board was set up asking: “What’s needed on campus to make sure all of us feel like we’re included?” In response, someone wrote: “Maybe we could stop playing the victim. You are not opressed [sic].” “But they spelled ‘oppressed’ wrong,” said Wade, who was met with laughter and applause. Wade went on, expressing her embarrassment at the prospect of telling people that she graduated with peers who didn’t know “how to spell oppression or what oppression is.”
Furthermore, students are tired of hearing that racial discrimination and oppression “is a black person’s issue.” University of Redlands freshman Lauren Gabourel expressed her frustration, saying “it’s everyone’s job” to make this campus a safe and diverse space.
University of Redlands freshman Daniel Yu pointed out that the problem is that “a lot of us are not willing to integrate culture.” Because it’s an inconvenience to call out other people’s ignorance or to research to understand issues, many white students play a passive role in bettering students of color’s experiences on campus.
Sturr suggested that students take the time to ask and learn about each other’s cultures: “Teach me about your culture, cook me your food. Let me learn about me and let me teach you about me.”
But the voices inside the forum weren’t the only ones being heard that night. “The conversation we’re having now is great, but the conversation on Yik Yak (…) is an even better representation of what I deal with every single day,” said Wade.
Yik Yak is a social media app that acts as like a local, anonymous bulletin board. Wade was referring to posts that complained, among other things, that this forum was unnecessary and that Greek Life was being attacked for not being inclusive.
This last sentiment also came up during the forum itself, when University of Redlands senior Alma Lopez, a Latina member of the sorority Delta Kappa Psi, commented that she felt very accepted in Greek Life, and that she felt that the students of color sharing their experiences at the forum were themselves being racist.
Some of the posts on Yik Yak were even harsher. One called for an “all-white meeting” outside Orton at 9.30pm.
Among other concerns, the council for diversity was stressed the most. President Kuncl is in the process of creating a council comprised of a group of appointed faculty, administrators, and students that will discuss how to engage diversity and inclusion issues. Students explained that the council would need to be completely transparent and would need to be put together immediately.
“We are tired of waiting” was memorably repeated by Wade at the end of the evening. Again and again, complaints of being uncomfortable on campus, of facing discrimination on both interpersonal and systemic levels, have been met with “wait” and “it’s being taken care of” and “involve yourselves.” In response, she pointed out that the black students, along with other students of color, “have been involved from the beginning,” both in clubs and organizations on campus and in this dialogue.
In many ways, the council for diversity already exists. A group of dedicated students have met every night this week in the Multicultural Center to discuss their grievances and suggestions for what can be done on campus, and they have begun compiling a list of demands for the university to take into consideration, fulfill, and be held accountable for. Now the University of Redlands needs to recognize the council and engage with it so that real change can be enacted.
“This is the time for action. We’ve talked long enough,” Wade said, as she took the mic for the last time, to deliver a powerful address about the conviction of which she and her fellow students of color, many of whom were standing with her, feel for their cause. The address brought everyone in the room to a standing ovation.
After all was said and the sound of applause fell back into silence, Osajima took to the center again, his voice soft: “I think we are infinitely more equipped than we were two hours ago. The words were sometimes hard to hear, but they speak to a truth that we need to face[.] We cannot rely on the few to always carry the load.”
“I want everybody to be great,” Osajima continued, referring to something junior Cassidy Mason said earlier in the evening: “let us students of color be great with you.” His voice choked up as he affirmed, “you were great tonight.”
[Images courtesy of Sky Ung and Joseph Serrano, Redlands Bulldog photographers]