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Beyond diversity for diversity’s sake

Amid the excitement of Admitted Students Day, there is always one word repeated by student representatives, faculty and administration: diversity. Brandeis, as a university, recognizes diversity in academia as a linchpin for intellectual growth and stimulation, but that recognition does not always translate into a climate that is safe for students of color. There exists an unwillingness to challenge the prevalence of subtle racism on campus.

As two student leaders of color, we have dealt with the repercussions of an environment that treats diversity simply as a requirement, and not in conjunction with the accountability of actually maintaining safe spaces. Students at our university are in accordance with the notion that diversity is one of the university’s crucial values, but during our four years at this university, we, and other students of color, have been subjected to casual racism. Oftentimes, it’s clear that these remarks do not stem from a place of malice, but rather ignorance. Yet this does not excuse the emotional violence or diminish the effects of these words on the wellbeing of students.

One of the ways we both seek to provide support for our respective communities and our intersecting community as well is by encouraging dialogue with students to discuss the subtle racism we face on a daily basis. Through sharing our common experiences, we heal and validate the emotional pain we feel from comments such as, “All you Asians look the same,” or “Do you eat dog?” The impact of these microaggressions is more profound than they seem. Microaggressions build upon each other and the constant bombardment of racist remarks from students and faculty create a climate in which students of color are othered and rejected.

We have heard students make comments about affirmative action being the sole reason students of color are here. These comments are made to invalidate our presences by assuming we do not deserve to be here. We hear racist slurs like the N-word and appropriation of African American Vernacular English terms like “ratchet” and “ghetto” used casually and without a real understanding of where these words come from. This is also made clear visually: People of color are made invisible or erased from faculty, administration and student leader positions outside of the Intercultural Center, which is isolated in a corner at the end of campus. It seems as though the only place we can see people who look like us is in the facilities and dining hall staff. Students of color are also complacent in creating unsafe spaces for their peers, whether because they say racist statements themselves or allow them to be said without consequence.

Regardless of the intentions of anyone complicit in these racist acts, the effects for people of color are always harmful. We don’t experience racism any differently when a person doesn’t mean it. For students of color at predominantly white institutions, racism is distracting, emotionally draining and tiring. We find it hard to find safe spaces where we can share our voices and experiences without judgment and retaliation or trustworthy people with whom we can talk to about or report racist actions. When we do speak out, we are met with tone policing and respectability politics—as though we have no right to be angry or should just be silent about these issues. Even in this piece, we feel a need to list experiences of racism as proof, and sanitize our emotions and opinions so they will be better received. At Brandeis, when we already have the responsibilities that come with being students, the added task of educating our peers about racism should not be left to us.

If we understand the need for diversity, then we need to listen to students of color, even when we are called out on racism. When our voices are ignored or silenced, we are victims to the hypocrisy of Brandeis’ commitment to social justice. We need to hold ourselves and each other accountable to make sure that anti-racist spaces where students of color feel safe exist on this campus. We must stop making excuses for racist remarks and for all-white spaces, and if we are called out, we shouldn’t get defensive. It seems like students here are more upset about accusations of being racist than the actual racist acts themselves. Students of color should also know that they can and should work together. There is also no threat in supporting each other in our endeavors and activism.

Brandeis students of color have always been working to combat hate and prejudice, and it is a crucial responsibility for all of us to continue that legacy. The preamble for the constitution of the Brandeis Asian American Students Association reads: “Established in 1971 [as a result] of anti-Asian sentiments, the Brandeis Asian American Students Association (BAASA) felt the need to create a safe place for Asians and Asian Americans to freely voice their opinions and concerns.” This is still relevant in 2015; we need to continue to value and maintain safe spaces in hopes of a better Brandeis.

As graduating seniors, we write this out of love for our Brandeis community and the love for those who have helped us create safe spaces for students of color. We have both benefitted from the Brandeis students who have worked to carve out these necessary spaces and been inspired by their work. It has been empowering and challenging to be involved in ways that allow our peers to speak freely and to learn from and support each other. We thank the Brandeis students of color before us who have done this work: creating clubs, starting conversations and engaging in direct action to ensure that their peers were supported. We hope that the students of color currently at Brandeis and those who will matriculate know that this is their school too, even when it seems like they are not represented or heard here, and that they will continue to work together and empower each other.

Esther Lee ’15 is the President of the Brandeis Asian-American Students Association. Zuri Gordon ’15 is the President of the Brandeis Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance.

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