Racism built upon insensitivity

By Markos Moulitsas

Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series on racism at NIU. Today’s analysis looks at the African-American experience at NIU.

It is essential for a college student to feel comfortable in his or her academic environment in order to be able to properly succeed.

For an African-American student to have to see “Kill all Niggers” written with shoe polish on fresh snow outside the residence halls, is not conductive to a positive academic environment.

Read the following story:

An African-American female student is walking by Village Commons Bookstore heading towards Lincoln Hall with her eight-year-old brother and six-year-old sister. Suddenly, a pick-up truck carrying about seven or eight white males pulls up along side the three and showers them with eggs while shouting ethnic slurs. And although the student isn’t hit, her brother and sister are.

How is a person supposed to deal with such a situation? How does a person remain at ease after experiencing such a painful racial attack?

Thankfully, events like these are not an everyday occurrence on this campus. NIU has a relatively low amount of overt racism, and racial violence shows up on campus only once every couple of years.

Still, African-Americans do feel quite a bit of quiet racism built upon the ignorance and insensitivity of people unable to understand the differences in cultures and the pressures of being a minority.

“It’s very subtle,” said Paula Thomas, president of the NIU Black Choir. “Sometimes people are unaware that they are offending you. Most of it is just ignorance.”

Collin Halliman, minority relations advisor to the Student Association, said, “No one really trusts each other. Each group is suspicious of each other’s motives and there is a lack of willingness to cooperate.”

Many African-Americans feel as though they are not seen as normal people by others. April McLaughlin, vice president of the Black Student Union, said, “Whites make more mention of race than blacks. I’ll hear two white guys saying ‘This black guy came up to me and said …'”

This sense of being on the outside frustrates many African-Americans.

“I don’t understand how it could be so easy to become friends with individuals from other races, yet be so difficult to have large groups get along,” said Erika Summers, vice-president of the NIU chapter of the NAACP.

African-Americans make up only 7.9 percent of the student body, making them a vast minority in some classes, and many whites cannot understand the pressures of being the only African-Americans in a large group such as a gen-ed class.

“A student complained in a class I was in, saying that ‘They (African-Americans) segregate themselves’ by having a Black Student Union and other such groups. I said, ‘Well why don’t you try to become involved with some of these groups,’ and he said, ‘I would feel uncomfortable (due to the overwhelming African-American make-up of these groups),'” Thomas explained. “Well, how do you think I feel in a classroom?”

Michelle Ivy, a pre-business sophomore, said, “Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable in class, where we’re sometimes outnumbered nine to one or so. For example, in a COMS class I took we had to give speeches that had to relate to everyone in the classroom.

“People did speeches on suntan lotion or catholic schools. I don’t get sunburned and not everyone is catholic, yet if I did something that affected only blacks, she (the teacher) would’ve been upset.”

Many African-American students are also upset by what they see to be lack of effort by the administration to bring in more African-Americans and other minority faculty. African-Americans make up only 2 percent of the university’s total faculty.

McLaughlin said, “I’ve only had two African-American teachers. In all fairness there should be a proportionate amount of teachers to students.”

African-American students were quick to point out reasons why they desired more minority faculty.

“In certain classes you get one view and you don’t get the perspective that a minority professor would have,” said Melodie Howard, a business management sophomore.

“If I had a problem I couldn’t go to a white professor, since he wouldn’t know anything about being a minority in a white-dominated society,” she added.

McLaughlin said, “I’m a U.S. history major, and in addition to seven classes of U.S. history I also have to take three other history classes. There are huge amounts of classes on Asian history, but no upper-level African history classes, and the reason is that we have no one to teach these courses.”

No one said the administration was neglecting minorities, but most said it could do more.

Halliman said, “The administration is doing an adequate job to meet the basic needs of minorities. Still, they are a long way from making any significant progress. They could do a better job in recruiting and retaining (minority) faculty.”

One important issue in the minds of many African-Americans was the use of the label used to describe them. Much as the Latinos preferred “Latino/a” over “Hispanic,” “African-American” is usually preferred to “black.”

“I would prefer to be called ‘African-American’ because ‘black’ is always considered bad, such as in good and evil,” explained Summers. “African-American shows a lot of ethnicity, a lot of pride.”

Halliman further explained, “Every name we’ve had has been a label given to us by white men, from ‘Negro’ to ‘Colored.’ ‘African-American’ is actually a name chosen by us. That’s who we are. African first, and American second.”

Still, it is important to realize that not every black person is an African-American.

“I would consider myself ‘black,’ said Duane Meighan, an English major senior, “I’m Caribbean, and I’ve always known myself as black. African-Americans consider themselves blacks who were born and raised in North America as opposed to where I’m from.”

The problems in bringing the different races together are many and defy easy solutions. Still, most agreed on one solution they thought to be the best weapon against racism.

“Education,” said Summers. “(Perhaps), a class that would educate you on all the different races. Everyone should be viewed as equally human, and hopefully we’ll grow to understand and accept each other.”

Anthony Van Amos, director of programing at the Center for Black Studies, said, “We, as a species, have to learn a lot about each other.”

Thomas concurred, “It shouldn’t be about being uncomfortable, it should be about learning. The more they shy away from it, the more ignorant they become. It’s just a cop-out.”

Despite it all, hope for a better, more understanding and diverse world burns fiercely among many African-Americans.

“I look at everything, the way people look, the cultural pluralism, and take pride of who I am and still take pride in what other people are. The Salad Bowl Theory as opposed to the Melting Pot Theory—everyone contributes,” Thomas said.

Summers also was optimistic. “I look forward to the day it can all change. The day is coming where we can focus on other important problems rather than racism.”

Tomorrow: Hate-groups and their activities at NIU.