Section: News

Sitting-in for solidarity

Sitting-in for  solidarity

Photo by Henri Gendreau

They sat for an hour. Some looked straight ahead. Some held signs reading “Protect Black Students” and “We Stand with Mizzou.”

Roughly a hundred students, faculty and administrators staged a sit-in Wednesday at Peirce Hall, following a sit-in Monday and campus-wide discussions over the weekend about racial intolerance and insensitivity at the University of Missouri, Yale University and other schools.

“We really wanted the whole campus to join us,” said Tomas Grant ’16, president of the Black Student Union (BSU), which organized Wednesday’s sit-in. “We got who we got and that said a lot.”

President Sean Decatur and Professor of English Ted Mason, the associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion, sat on the Peirce atrium floor Monday with students. Dean of Students Hank Toutain and Meredith Harper Bonham ’92, vice president for student affairs, were also in attendance.

On Sunday, Decatur and Mason moderated a forum that Decatur said later was aimed at getting “a chance to listen to what students are thinking here on campus” in response to events at other colleges.

The forum, sit-ins and a Project for Open Voices (POV) discussion Saturday were prompted by recent student protests against administrative inaction at the University of Missouri, which led to its president’s resignation. At Yale University, a fraternity was accused of hosting a party for “white girls only,” and students protested a faculty member’s open letter encouraging students to wear any kind of Halloween costumes, even if some would find them racially or culturally insensitive. With the recent forums and sit-ins, Kenyon joined other colleges across the country in raising awareness of racial intolerance.

In a campus-wide email, the BSU described Wednesday’s sit-in as “an expression of solidarity but also as a body displaying the necessity for there to be safe and inclusive environments for marginalized students to exist at institutions of higher learning.”

Decatur’s forum, which packed the center of Peirce Pub, focused on what concrete actions students and the administration could take: “What are things that are on your mind about Kenyon that we should be more proactive in addressing?” he asked.

Much of the start of the forum centered on how Kenyon could diversify its curricula.

“In my women’s and gender studies class, students of color are the only ones mentioning non-white authors,” Michaela Jenkins ’19 said during the discussion. “To me, this is my classroom. If I don’t see myself in it, that’s a waste of my money.”

When a student asked whether the administration could require professors to diversify the authors and artists represented in their courses, Mason noted an explicit administrative directive would infringe on professors’ academic freedom.

Decatur said he wanted the discussion to result in concrete solutions.

“Discussion is a great place to start; you have to get the issues out there,” Decatur said. “But if we just talk about things then we’ll talk about them forever and nothing will happen from it. Eventually, we should be getting to a point where we’ve got some concrete sense of, ‘Here are some thoughts and ideas about what we can do to make campus better’ and then actually do them.”

Some students suggested holding a teach-in about multiculturalism, or mandated cultural sensitivity training for all members of student organizations.

Decatur joined more than 30 students Saturday at a forum held by POV, a coalition that seeks to promote diverse student narratives. While personal narratives were not central to this particular discussion, attendees discussed how to address racial intolerance and promote dialogue about race.

Several students voiced opposition to Kenyon’s “political correctness,” saying it was “poisonous” and prevented people from engaging with others from different backgrounds because they were “afraid of their words being misconstrued,” Dani De Andrade ’19 said. Others questioned how to create dialogue among students who were disinterested in talking about race.

Sonia Prabhu ’16, a POV member, presented a message that was posted on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak that read, “Forget Mizzou. I stand with Paris against a legitimate threat that actually matters,” pointing to the lack of face-to-face dialogue addressing racial intolerance.

After the discussion, Brandonlee Cruz ’19, president of the Council for Diversity and Social Justice (CDSJ), told the Collegian the conversation was a good starting point but that there needs to be even more opportunities for dialogue.

“Kenyon does not have any safe spaces for people of color,” Cruz said. “We go into the world and we have to talk about our race all the time and then there should be designated spaces for us to unwind and not have to think about that. We need to stop pushing Kenyon to be a safe space as a whole; we need designated safe spaces.”

After Wednesday’s sit-in, BSU held a recap in Peirce Lounge, where participants reflected on the experience. Some said the sit-in made them think about the plights of students at other colleges. Some expressed discomfort at seeing classmates who passed by hastily or took more interest in the dessert offerings for Peircegiving than in the students sitting on the floor.

De Andrade said he was encouraged when a woman who worked for AVI Foodsystems handed him a small cross with the phrase “faith moves mountains” on it.

“The cross was just such a good way of giving support,” he said.

Grant, BSU president, closed by expressing thanks to the students, faculty and administrators who proved that “the burden is not held just by us students of color.”

“To know that you guys came out and showed your support really touched me,” Grant said.

BSU is holding a vigil tonight at 7 on the steps of Rosse Hall in memory of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American shot by police in Cleveland last year while carrying a toy gun.

Emily Birnbaum and Rachel Mitchell contributed reporting.

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