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Students of color challenged in Vermont

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Posted on March 16, 2016 |
By David Fuchs



SantiagoGomez2524.jpg
SANTIAGO GOMEZ, A Colombian-American senior from Queens, N.Y., said that being singled out on campus based on racial appearance can be alienating or even threatening. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — For many students from big cities, moving to rural Vermont can be a big adjustment. For students of color, in particular, the contrast between life at home and life in the Green Mountain State, which is the second whitest state in the country according to the 2010 U.S. Census, can be especially sharp.

The difference is noticeable in everything from the limited diversity of their professors and classmates to grabbing a meal at the dining hall and getting a haircut.

Just ask Amari Simpson, an African-American senior at Middlebury College.

“(Getting a haircut) is a weekly challenge, a daily challenge, a monthly challenge,” the Chicago native said. “I frankly have given up on it because I am aware of the fact I live in Vermont and if I really wanted a haircut, I would have to trust a student barber who either has been cutting hair for a long time or might have just started cutting, and I don’t want to be an experiment.”

His solution for now has been to let his hair grow out naturally during his time at school in Middlebury and pay a visit to his barber whenever he goes home to Chicago. While Simpson feels comfortable in his decision, he acknowledged that it is frustrating not to live in an area that has the resources he needs.

“Any other student could get their haircut in town or somewhere more convenient,” he said. “That’s just one of those examples where I feel like, based on historicity, that this school wasn’t made for people who look like me, walk like me, talk like me.”

The student body of Simpson’s high school in Chicago was 25.1 percent African American and 70.2 percent students of color. By contrast, Middlebury is only 2.9 percent African American and approximately 23 percent domestic students of color, according to the college’s 2014 Fall Student Profile.

Simpson is not the only student to encounter a major demographic shift when he came to Middlebury. Steven Medina, a Mexican-American and Puerto Rican-American junior born and raised in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, recalled that he found the differences to be striking.

“My middle school and high school were actually 75 percent African-American, 25 percent Latino/Hispanic. There was zero percent Asian and zero percent white. You come to Middlebury and that’s extremely different,” he said. “(The transition) was not rough in all aspects but there are little things that you don’t really notice unless you pay really specific attention.”

One area where Medina has picked up on those subtleties is the consistent difficulty he has found in creating meaningful friendships with white students.

“Most of my friends are actually people of color and then, every now and again, I’ll find myself friends with a white person,” he said. “Language plays a large part in that. Language can build bridges and it can build walls.

“I can find myself amongst a group of Latinos and I’ll just pull out colloquial Spanish terms or I’ll find myself with white individuals and that aspect of me doesn’t exist,” Medina said. “That language makes me feel like I can be myself but when I’m around other Middlebury students, I don’t feel like I can use that language — not even because they won’t understand it but maybe because I don’t want to present myself as a Latino from Harlem because there’s a stigma associated with it.”

Beyond adapting the way he speaks, Medina has also felt pressure to change the way he dresses — leaving behind cargo pants and baggy T-shirts with colorful prints for slimmer-cut jeans and Polo shirts — a decision he said his family understands and supports.

“My mom bought me clothes because she understands that there’s stigma and she doesn’t want people to see me like that. She thinks it will limit me and hold me back academically,” Medina said. “I feel like I dress to fight the stigma as opposed to dressing to be who I am.”

For the college’s Chief Diversity Officer and Professor of Spanish Miguel Fernández, these stories are unsurprising.

“Some of them are a little difficult and hard to hear. In my role, I’m hearing much of what is being said in my day to day interactions,” he said.

As chief diversity officer, Fernández is responsible for addressing diversity on campus as well as acting as an intermediary between students, faculty, the administration and C3, a consortium of two dozen liberal arts colleges dedicated to recruiting and retaining diverse faculty members.

The position was created in 1999 on the recommendation of the Human Relations Committee. Although it then carried the title of “special assistant to the president,” the position focused on addressing diversity broadly across the campus, Fernández said.

Although he has been in his position for 14 months, Fernández’s familiarity with these issues stretches back to when he was an undergraduate student of color at Middlebury in the early 1980s.

The number of students of color on campus has increased dramatically over the last few decades but that in itself doesn’t necessarily mean that things are much better; understanding why that’s the case has to do with the differences between diversity and inclusivity, he said.

Diversity can be thought of as increasing the number of people on campus from different backgrounds and identities, Fernández explained. Inclusivity is a total commitment to ensuring that all people and perspectives are invited, accepted and supported within a broader community. It also means those values are reflected in the faculty, curriculum and the institution as a whole.

The college’s challenges with inclusivity today can be traced back, in part, to the changing geography of American cities, he said. Due to decades of widespread “white flight” to suburbia, the students at Middlebury today have grown up in a fundamentally different environment than those who attended the college in his era, Fernández said.

“Urban students are more likely to have been in environments with only students of color and white students are more likely to have only been with other white students in the suburbs,” Fernández said. “(In the United States) we are more segregated today than we were 30 years ago.”

DIVERSE TO WHOM?

The byproduct of that residential segregation is a campus with contradictory truths. While this may be the whitest environment many students of color have ever encountered, for white students, it may be the most diverse, he said.

That tension can carry over online where students can comment on anonymous social media applications like Yik Yak. Two weeks ago, Charles Rainey, an African-American first-year student and the only black senator in the college’s student government association, was publicly called a number of explicitly racial slurs on the app.

Despite the lack of inclusivity, not all students of color have such jarring transitions from high school to Middlebury. Winson Law, an Asian-American senior from Seattle, Wash., attended a private, predominately white high school prior to coming to Vermont — a background he feels helped him adjust more easily to life at the college.

Although his adjustment may have been smoother than those of his peers, Law has still found that attending a predominately white high school and a predominately white college have been distinct experiences.

“In Seattle, I at least went home and had family and connections to places that weren’t just white,” he said.  “Coming to Middlebury was different because I lived with it.”

Law grew up in a lively, multigenerational Chinese and Vietnamese household in North Seattle where arguments could shift between five different languages and every meal consisted of freshly prepared Chinese or Vietnamese cuisine. Not having that immediate connection to his family’s culture has been a big shift, he said. “At home — something that we always do and that I miss — is that we always eat with a bowl of rice and chopsticks, and you can’t find chopsticks in the dining hall.”

For Law, the lack of chopsticks reflects a broader lack of an Asian presence, a difference that has affected his relationship with that aspect of his identity. “I feel the Asian part of me more here, in a way, because there are fewer Asian-Americans and Asian people,” he said.

Being around fewer Asian-Americans has presented challenges that range from the immediate — like not having access to the foods that remind him of home or being the only Asian-American student in a classroom — to the abstract.

“Sometimes, it feels like you’re ignored or dismissed for being Asian. I don’t know if it’s something about my stature or my posture that makes me seem like I should I get off the sidewalk for people to walk,” he said. “I can’t fully describe it. It feels like I’m not seen. I don’t walk down the streets here the same way I do in Seattle where I know I’m there.”

Another issue he faces is being mistaken with other students of Asian descent. Law recalled a recent example that took place with a speaker from Brown University.

Law, who has short hair and does not wear glasses in public, asked the speaker a question following their talk. At a dinner later that night, the speaker approached a student from Hong Kong with glasses and a ponytail and complimented him on the question Law had asked.

Law and his classmate took the situation lightly but when a student at the dinner mistook him for another Asian-American student later that night, it became more difficult to ignore the deeper undertones at play, he said.

Throughout his four years at Middlebury College, Law estimates that he’s been confused for another Asian or Asian-American student roughly once a month, something that had never happened to him in Seattle, he said.

“There’s the joke that all Asians look the same. That’s what it goes back to, really, and it’s frustrating,” he said.

MORE THAN FRUSTRATING

Sometimes, however, feeling singled out based on one’s racial appearance is more than frustrating; it can be alienating or even threatening, said Santiago Gomez, a Colombian-American senior from the New York borough of Queens.

“Being a very light-skinned Latino, visually, I don’t seem very Latino,” he said.  “That’s been a benefit here at Midd because I don’t get targeted in the way that black people are targeted or Asian people are being targeted.”

As an example, he referred to an incident that took place this past fall.

Gomez and his girlfriend, Baolin Xu, were walking across the campus when they were approached by a group of intoxicated, white students. The students greeted Xu, who is Chinese-American, in broken Chinese and asked them where they were from, Gomez said. “We would say Queens and Chicago but the person would be like, ‘Where were you born or where are your parents from,’ insinuating that we’re not American.”

Xu acknowledged that “targeted” may seem like a strong word because her experience has not involved assault or violence. However, she maintained that the word describes the experience of being routinely made to feel different or that she does not belong because of her physical appearance.

“If you’re not a person of color, it’s hard to fathom what being targeted for looking different feels like,” Xu said. “We see this all the time but it’s like people don’t want to believe it. I think racism today has evolved into something much more implicit.”

Based on all the opportunities he feels Middlebury has afforded him and four years of positive interactions with administrators and faculty, Gomez finds reasons for optimism amidst the challenges.

“I think we deal with difficult situations so that kids coming in future generations don’t deal with them,” he said. “Our job now is to cultivate an inclusive space and create a better institution so that hopefully, one day, there are no longer social conditions that are stunting interactions between students of color and white students. Hopefully, we’ll break that barrier one day.”

While there is much work to be done, Fernández also remains hopeful that the college community will eventually be able to create a fully inclusive environment.

“We’re going to have to make changes in the way we do things, in what we teach and how we teach. That is going to require change in the faculty,” he said. “That can lead to equity.

“The goal (is) to make this a more fundamentally fair place for everyone.”

Editor’s note: David Fuchs is a junior at Middlebury College and an intern for the Addison Independent.

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