On several campuses around the country, students of African-American, Latino, Asian, and other racial/ethnic backgrounds, joined by those from low-income backgrounds, are raising issues about the culture of their universities both inside and outside the classroom. Georgetown is among these. Through social media, we have been able to hear the words of those affected (on Twitter #BBGU, #BAGU, #BLGU, among others).
Reading through the tweets from Georgetown and other students, sadly, brought back memories of decades-old issues. It is true that the numbers of students of color have increased over the years at Georgetown. It’s true that Georgetown’s need-blind, “meet full need” admissions increases wealth diversity among students. But greater diversity in numbers does not magically or immediately change the inter-group experiences of those who come to Georgetown.
Georgetown seeks to educate leaders in the global, racially-, ethnically-, culturally-, linguistically-diverse world. They cannot be “men and women for others” if they cannot take on the position of the “other.” I’ve written on this in the past (See: Diversity is the One Thing We All Have in Common with insightful comments). But what we’re doing on this score is clearly not working well enough.
The 140-character stories told in the tweets are instantly clear: Questions posed to students of color that assume they are poor, less well-prepared for Georgetown, or less serious scholars. Perceptions that faculty value the comments of majority students in classes more than those of others. Asking a student of color to speak on behalf of all students of color, depersonalizing him/her in the process. Assumptions of homogeneity of experiences of all students of the same race or ethnic group.
Some observations in the tweets seem to report the actions of naïve, clumsy attempts to communicate across color lines. Some behaviors seem to lack self-awareness when making assumptions about privilege. Some comments appear to be insults stemming from ignorance of the speaker. Others are easily labeled directly offensive to almost all hearers.
While race/ethnicity is often visible, class is often less so. Georgetown strives for wealth diversity, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that students understand what it’s like to be born into a different economic status. For poorer students there are feelings of isolation when discussions among students reveal the privileges and benefits of those students coming from wealth. The stigma of not having discretionary money for the social scene is real.
However, the tweets also have positive, prideful aspects: The confidence of academic abilities. The assurance that one is here at Georgetown to absorb the best education possible (and that these issues are an impediment to that aspiration). Deep attachment to Georgetown, commitment to cura personalis and “women and men for others.”
In short, the tweets and actions of these engaged students have illuminated a feature of the Georgetown culture that is a weakness. We’re stumbling on race and class, failing to take advantage of the diversity we have built at Georgetown.
We need to do more to bring issues of engaging differences to the foreground of our educational community, curricular and co-curricular. Many of our students of color and some of our students from low-income backgrounds have had years of experience dealing with those different from themselves. Some of our students, however, have grown up in environments more isolated on race/ethnicity and class. Georgetown needs to provide experiences that give them understanding and skills to thrive in a multicultural environment. We can’t assume that diversity in numbers automatically produces rich inter-cultural, inter-racial, and inter-class interactions.
Our “Designing the Future(s) of the University” effort is a wonderful opportunity to ask ourselves about new models for building a culture with an inter-class, inter-culture environment. I suspect that success on this requires real engagement from faculty, students, and alumni. We all have a race, a culture, and an ethnicity. We are all part of the solution.
Getting better on this issue requires all of our attentions. A set of student leaders on this issue has been identified; a set of administrators and faculty has pledged their energy to work on the issues. Engaging alumni needs to happen. When Georgetown people work together toward a common goal, wonderful things can happen. This is a time to do so.