1 of 4
Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao addresses a standing-room-only crowd of about 500 students, faculty, alumni and others on Wednesday, Nov. 18, to discuss demands among black students that the university hire, retain and promote more black faculty and make cultural competency training for staff mandatory. (Photo courtesy of VCU)
2 of 4
Students address VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of the Commonwealth Times)
3 of 4
Nearly 400 attended the Presidential Forum on Diversity and Inclusion, according to VCU's website. (Photo courtesy of the Commonwealth Times)
4 of 4
A student speaking during the forum. (Photo courtesy of the Commonwealth Times)
I keep thinking about one moment in last week’s discussion between Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao and students and faculty about race and representation, and who is heard and who is not.
A student — I did not catch her name — said that a week earlier, she’d decided to read the online comments following news stories about two dozen black VCU students who staged a protest in the president’s office. The protesters issued demands that included the hiring of more black faculty and mandatory cultural competency training for all faculty and staff.
I’d read the comments, too. Those in the Richmond Times-Dispatch were laced with sarcasm and vitriol. Not directed toward the university, which has acknowledged its failure to hire, retain and promote a teaching staff that is more representative of and responsive to its nonwhite students. But toward the students who had the temerity to say out loud and with defiance what is obvious and what the Faculty Senate said itself back in January.
The senate unanimously passed a resolution then, pointing out that black teaching and research faculty at the school had decreased from 6 percent in 2007 to 4.7 percent. (It had risen to 5 percent by the fall semester.)
The decline, the resolution said, “is having a negative effect throughout the university and compromises its mission.” The senate asked Rao and top administration officials to “immediately” establish the issue as a “major university-wide priority,” to develop strategies to recruit and retain black faculty and to begin putting that strategy into effect by the start of the 2015-2016 school year. (It has.)
At the discussion with Rao, the young woman stands in a room packed with probably close to 500 people, students, faculty, staff, alumni and others. She speaks after one of the African-American student protesters notes that there is one black professor for every 45 black students, or, put another way, one black professor for every 300 students at VCU. (The ratio is closer to 1:41 and 1:275, but you get the point.) About 15 percent of VCU students are black.
She speaks after Rao tells the room that racism exists and is still a problem and then asks, “[If] we can’t deal with it at a research university, then where can we deal with it?” He says it’s necessary to have a conversation about what it is like to be black in America, and to acknowledge: “We don’t all come from the same place.”
The young woman says that the comments she read stated that VCU is not a historically black college or university, an HBCU. She does not add that the comments also say that if the protesting students want a black college, they should go to a black college. “We’re not trying to turn VCU into an HBCU,” she says. “You,” and she indicates the room, “want a staff with diverse perspectives. This is not just for black VCU. This is for all of VCU.”
Many of the criticisms about the protest have oversimplified its goals. What’s often missing is the point this young woman makes. (Full disclosure: My husband, half-Anglo, half Hispanic, is an assistant professor at VCU. I’m not sure what categorical box he occupies.) And, yes, racial diversity is only one form of diversity and we should be talking about all forms. But race is under discussion now. It is, in some ways, a shorthand that encompasses a multitude of histories, of experiences, of perspectives, of interactions with society.
“We do not all come from the same place.” The benefit of which the young woman speaks is that diversity broadens the world. It challenges the thinker to reconsider the view from her window and gaze through another. At its best and most honest, it blows apart the boxes that separate us and grounds us in our common humanity. But it’s not easy to get there and it takes a while.
This is one of the points that E. Gaynell Sherrod, an African-American and chair of VCU’s department of dance and choreography, makes. She tells Rao that the university needs to address “two opposing polarities: unpacking oppression and unpacking privilege.” (A young student sitting next to me is so thrilled by this observation that she bounces in her seat and claps her hands.)
“I have to unpack oppression in order to survive,” Sherrod continues. “My white colleagues do not have to unpack privilege,” because the existing system “supports what they say and what they do. And that’s what we have to understand.”
Sherrod later will explain it to me this way: “Unpacking oppression requires a strategy for how to live in the world. It requires black parents telling their black sons what to do and not do when encountering police. It requires my parents telling me, ‘You have to be twice as good as everyone else.’ It requires me to code switch, speaking the King’s English when I am in white society and Ebonics, or whatever you want to call it, when I am with friends and family. It requires me to wear a mask when someone says something insulting to me. It requires me to ask myself, ‘Did they say that to me, do that to me, because I am a human being or because I am black?' Back in the Old South, black people were not supposed to look white people in the eye. That’s unpacking oppression, and you better do it, if you’re going to survive.”
And this I understand. I am a New Mexican from a long line of New Mexicans and for many of our ancestors to survive, to be accepted, to be given access, to advance, they had to deny that they were mestizo, that they were as much Indian as Spanish. And they denied it until they believed it and their children believed it and their children’s children believed it. This denial of our Mexicanness, our otherness, was, in fact, New Mexico’s price of admission to the United States.
In this bleaching, they gave something up — language or aspects of their culture or history — to gain something – jobs, protection from discrimination for themselves and their children.
The list of demands presented by defiant youth in the office of a university president was both a statement and a series of questions: Why do we have to give anything up? Why is there not room for all of us? Why is what we say, what we experience, what we do less valid, less necessary, less valued?
The answers, as they know, as the faculty knows, as Rao knows, lie not in more words, but in action.
Never miss a Sunday Story: sign up for the newsletter and we'll drop a fresh read into your inbox at the start of each week. To keep up with the latest from Tina Griego, search for the hashtag #SundayStory on Twitter and Facebook.