Lack of Open Conversation Leads to Lack of Diversity at MC

While we as humans have a duty to remain globally aware, it is not our responsibility as students of a college that claims to offer a global education to initiate campus-wide conversation about diversity.

It is the administration’s obligation to provide opportunities for such discussion.

Change in global awareness on this campus will not present itself unless the top-tier of this school makes a conscious effort to do so.

“I’ll take the African-American community for example, since I’m African-American. In schools that normally have black students, there’s normally a place where, if you choose, African-American students can go and talk and get to know each other,” said Deonta Wortham, a junior international studies and philosophy major. “It provides a sense of community. It helps people transition but that’s not here and that’s partially due to the fact that I don’t think there’s been an initiative to start it.

“There isn’t really, at least from administration, an effort to make sure that does happen. I’ve thought about starting it but I just don’t feel like I have enough time to do it,” Wortham said.

One of the ways administration can consciously administer conversation about diversity on campus is hiring faculty members who can attract students of various ethnicities. This type of cohesiveness within ethnicities cannot take place, however, unless more faculty of color is hired.

“I was shocked even when I came to visit [in 2012] that there was no faculty member of color in the religious studies department or really in the school of arts,” Dr. Jawanza Clark, an assistant religious studies professor, said.

“I don’t have a solution for [increasing diversity] except to be more intentional about trying to attract students of color. For example, if you know that Jawanza Clark or whoever is at Manhattan’s institution, that’s one way to get Manhattan as a sort of destination,” Clark continued.

What does it say to prospective students and faculty members when they see a sea of white milling around the quad during a visit? On the surface, it makes MC appear as static; frozen in the whirlwind of culture and diversity found right in our backyard of The Bronx and New York City.

Manhattan College identifies itself as a Lasallian, liberal arts institution which implies that students are offered global perspectives in their studies. However, how can our global education be fully scoped without diverse voices in the school’s top leadership?

When voices are kept from the table of discussion, ideas and considerations fall through the cracks, no matter how conscious an institution may be of outside beliefs. For example, if the topic of maternity leave is being discussed between one woman and nine men, the woman will naturally raise concerns that the men simply will not. This type of inclusion prevents generalizations and ensures specific ideas and opinions from various walks of life.

The same goes for educational institutions. Only in this case, the majority of board members on MC’s Board of Trustees are white men. This is not to say that our chairmen, board members and emeriti are not highly qualified and experienced, but the lack of racial diversity, not to mention gender diversity, is concerning.

As a sophomore in the School of Arts, the vast majority of my professors have been white. I challenge my fellow students to count how many professors of color they’ve had and consider the reflection this makes on our liberal arts school.

Diversity does not simply consist of various Anglo ethnicities. MC checks off all the boxes in that area. We have students and faculty who are Jewish, Irish-American, European international students and more, who all contribute to campus diversity through their own backgrounds and cultures.

However, MC student diversity will never expand unless the faculty does as well, which means that these changes need to come from the top.

“I think the administration also has a responsibility to be more intentional about hiring people of color as faculty and I don’t know if we are—if Manhattan has always been that way,” Clark said.

There may also be a more historical correlation as to why MC isn’t more racially diverse, at least considering the African-American population. Historically, blacks who are Christian have tended to be Protestant rather than Catholic.

“It stems back to when evangelical revival movements during the Great Awakening were sweeping around the country during slavery,” Clark said. “They would come to places in the south and have these revival meetings and there were a lot of conversation narratives and stories going on, when people were feeling the spirit and being converted to Christianity.”

African Americans resonated more with protestant denominations because they resembled an emphasis on the spirit, similar to African religions and deities. Catholicism, on the other hand, focuses largely on liturgy and knowing the sacraments. There are definitely African American who are Catholic, however historically, they tend to be Protestant.

Could there be some kind of correlation between MC’s emphasis on Catholic faith and the history of the black community?

“I’ve wondered if that [Catholic] designation—to what extent that keeps African-Americans away,” Clark said. “I know the school has to make a more concerted effort to attract African Americans than it does but I have concerns if it’s something about the fact that we self-identify as Catholic, that doesn’t make this place sort of attractive as a diverse sort of location or institution.”

Even our emphasis on Lasallian education includes the idea of teaching those who may not be as fortunate financially. Would John Baptist De la Salle teach at an institution where the tuition hovers around $50,000?

“I kind of have this conversation with myself but I think sometimes Catholic can be used as a way to say, ‘Well, we like to have diversity but sometimes it just doesn’t happen,’” Dr. Clark said.

Because of our liberal arts background, there are obviously required courses in global studies that students must take. Every student in the School of Arts, for example, must take two global/nonwestern courses.

This semester, the School of Arts has 17 courses under the global/nonwestern program, with topics spanning from Chinese and Japanese philosophies to Afro-Caribbean Religions and to Theologies of Liberation, which is taught by Dr. Clark.

These classes are designed to provide global perspectives and are taught by a diverse group of professors, however a theme of eurocentrism still overwhelmingly remains at this school.

“As far as in the classroom, there tends to be, I take a lot of international classes since that’s my major and I’ll speak for them; there’s a lot more focus on Eurocentric topics than elsewhere,” Wortham said. “I feel like that’s just the nature of American culture but at the same time, I feel like we as a liberal arts college should be a little more open-minded in that sense.”

Conversations about race, diversity and global culture should filter into classes that aren’t just required for students. Can we really claim ourselves as a liberal arts school if we’re simply checking off boxes, fulfilling requirements and continuing on our way?

“I think conversations about race are not happening as often as they should,” Clark said when asked about his course.

Students in Clark’s Theologies of Liberation class are assigned to read a black theology of liberation by James Cone, who challenges the meaning of whiteness. He asks whether whiteness’ only value is to exclude other people, which can obviously be an uncomfortable topic considering the white population at MC.

“My experience has been that, having difficult conversations like those around race, the students don’t seem familiar with having to have that kind of conversation,” said Clark.

I believe there is an inadvertent form of exclusion occurring on our campus because we do not extend further into conversation about racial diversity. I don’t believe our administration is purposefully excluding minority students from our school and they may in fact have diversity as a top priority. However, these efforts have not translated into tangible results on campus yet.

Conversation about various cultures also needs to seep into the student body. One way to do this is to continue inviting notable speakers but also improving on an emphasis of continued dialogue and discussion in these events.

This year for Black History Month, the Diversity Committee hosted J.A.B. (Just Another Band) to perform in Smith Auditorium and also held an open-mic night. Last year, Emmy award-winning actor Keith David performed and spoke to students in honor of the month.

“There was no sort of engaged discussion of black history or its significance or its importance,” Clark said. “It was more of a ‘let’s let the celebrity do whatever he wants to do’ kind of thing. There was no sustained dialogue and maybe that wasn’t the purpose, but I can imagine that with this musical [this year], something similar happened here.”

Instead of recognizing or simply celebrating diversity, let’s dive into the uncomfortable conversations and ask each other about our backgrounds, our cultures and our knowledge of other ethnicities around us.

While the administration has their work cut out for them, in the meantime we as students need to fill in the gaps. Our awareness of racial diversity on campus is integral to its improvement.

“If we truly thought that [diversity] was a problem, then students would have solved it in whatever way that it was,” Wortham said. “We just kind of sit back and we’re going with the flow, and that’s student-wide, it’s not coming from one segment. It’s everywhere.”

A sustained dialogue—that is what MC is lacking. We need a continual, engaged conversation about the importance of racial diversity and the ways in which we as members of the MC community and citizens of this diverse country can continually improve on it.

I invite and encourage the MC community to voice their opinions on this topic. If you even feel so inclined, I invite you to voice them here, in this Opinions and Editorials section of The Quadrangle.