Students discuss race issues at ‘Mixed Heritage’ forum

Around 50 students crowded into the Goodrich Hall Great Room last Thursday to discuss race relations on campus. The event, entitled, “Students of Mixed Heritage: Choosing Communities on a Racially Separate Campus?” was sponsored by the Black Student Union (BSU) and VISTA and mediated by Royce Smith ’01, Chairperson of the BSU.

Some of the students present simply recounted personal stories, while others suggested plans for more effective racial integration on campus. The overall message was clear—race relations continues to be a vital issue at Williams, and public dialogue is the first step toward generating solutions.

After requesting that each student present describe his or her racial, cultural or ethnic background, Smith posed an initial question: “Is this campus so racially fragmented that students of mixed heritage are actually forced to choose one community or another?”

Renee Robinson ’02 responded, “I think it depends on what your mix is. It depends on how varied you are as to whether you feel comfortable [in multiple groups].” She hypothesized that a student with a mix of traditionally disparate racial heritages, such as Jewish and African-American, might have particular difficulty feeling comfortable in any single heritage-based organization on campus.

Jose Fernandez ’01, co-coordinator of VISTA, then cited a widespread problem of bipolar racial groupings, which results in inadequate acknowledgement of the subtle degrees of differentiation within those groups which students of mixed heritage embody. “There is segregation [on campus] between whiteness and otherness. My problem is that we fail to see stratification within the groups. There are different types of whiteness and blackness.”

The conversation quickly turned, however, to a more general discussion of racial fragmentation, often revolving around the idea of “comfort zones,” or isolated groups of friends of similar heritage into which minorities often migrate upon entrance to Williams. Opinion was mixed as to whether these “zones” are positive or negative phenomena.

One student explained that it was unsurprising how, having grown up around mostly other African-Americans, he chooses to spend his time at Williams mostly with other African-Americans: “I don’t think I can change in four years what I’ve learned in 18 years, at least not completely.” Several students agreed and pointed out that their arrivals at Williams presented them with their first real experiences as minorities in a large community.

Others spoke of the need to break down “comfort zones,” to reach out across racial lines in order to build understanding and community. Matt Wessler ’01 said, “A certain amount of work needs to be done for a dialogue to occur. You need to put work into finding out what each individual is about, talk to the person, learn from them.”

Smith, speaking after the meeting, seemed to agree with Wessler’s assessment, and explained that there is a particular need for outreach from white students: “Being the majority lends so many privileges, and with respect to race relations, whites rarely have to be concerned with race, and that is an attitude that needs to be destroyed if this campus is going to move anywhere.”

While he was pleased with the positive exchange of ideas that took place, Smith noted that much of the dialogue was framed in an “us-versus-them” fashion, wherein “majority” and “minority” stood as the two major oppositional groups. Recalling the actual intent of the forum, he wondered, “Where does a student of mixed heritage fit in an ‘us and them’ conversation?”

For Smith, the discussion’s path was indicative of a problem within the national discourse on race, in which there is “a predominance of bipolar concepts even when the topic of discussion inherently challenges and refutes that very same notion.”

His ideas on how to address the problem: more public discourse, and hopefully a resurrection of Students of Mixed Heritage, a campus group that disbanded last year.