Diverse Crowd Discusses HRC

Sarah Finn

On Wednesday March 10, an event titled “Segregation at the ‘Gate? HRC and the Rhetoric of White Privilege” featured three professors and their respective feelings about Colgate’s racial structure. The African, Latin, Asian and Native American Cultural Center (ALANA) was filled with a diverse crowd of students and professors interested in the luncheon discussion about an important, but often silenced, issue on campus.

Professor of Sociology Rhonda Levine spoke first, outlining the history of the Harlem Renaissance Center (HRC). According to Levine, the HRC began in 1982 as one of many theme houses that were meant to link departments and programming with living arrangements.

“The HRC was unique because there was not a fully developed African American studies program,” Levine said.

In the first few years of its existence, there was a connection between programming and the living space, where the HRC would host a reception for relevant speakers. Over time, according to Levine, this dynamic has changed, and the HRC was seen more and more as simply housing for African American students.

Levine suggested that, over the years, Colgate as an institution has switched gears from talking about race to talking about diversity. This framing of racial issues in terms of diversity may have caused people to question the existence of the HRC and believe that it was a barrier to issues of diversity on campus. Levine explained that the HRC was put into place to create a safe space for African Americans because Colgate’s racial makeup was defined by extreme class differences in the 1980s.

“The HRC began with programming to correct past social injustices from Colgate, so that African American students felt comfortable,” Levine said. “There are still vast inequalities between whites and African Americans at Colgate, so I think you do whatever it takes to make sure African Americans have a positive experience.”

Levine finished by posing a question to the Colgate community regarding diversity and race issues.

“For what reason do we want diversity?” Levine asked. “Is it for the benefit of white students, or is it for people who have historically been blocked from institutions like Colgate?”

Next to speak was Associate Professor of Educational Studies John Palmer, who interspersed his portion of the talk with quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Cornel West. He focused on empowering the audience to take charge of the reality of racial segregation at Colgate, and also raised the issue of white privilege and entitlement at Colgate.

“Students of color are constantly on the defensive to prove their work,” Palmer said. “They are always trying to overcome the stigma of affirmative action, or sports psychology.”

Palmer seemed to feel that since white students are most prevalent at Colgate, they are constantly forcing people of color to become multicultural, while white people can remain the same and do not have to change their identity.

“Our students of color have turned invisible,” Palmer said. “The best way to survive on a predominantly white campus is to assimilate, become just like white people.”

Palmer closed his discussion by encouraging the attendees to engage in discussing the racial issues on Colgate’s campus.

“It is not a black student’s problem, it is Colgate’s problem, it is our problem,” Palmer said, encouraging students to push the administration and faculty to change Colgate’s attitude about race.

The final presenter was Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric and Coordinator of African-American Studies Kermit Campbell, who spoke about the conception of the HRC on campus and about self-segregation. He felt that there is an assumption that the HRC is the problem, and that other places and houses at Colgate do not need to change.

“Why don’t students, when they think of self-segregation, think of the predominantly white spaces on campus who have no or very few people of color?” Campbell asked.

According to Campbell, this notion stems from white privilege at Colgate.

“If this white privilege is the rhetoric on which we operate, it becomes an impenetrable force,” Campbell said.

Campbell ended by saying that Colgate should be critical of itself rather than blaming others first.

The event then turned into a conversation, with contributions from the attendees. Many members of the audience seemed to be in agreement that the issues the campus faces are not about the HRC as a housing option, but more about what it signifies.

“The problem is beyond the HRC, it is in this institution and sense of belonging in all types of spaces and in the classroom,” Assistant Professor of Sociology Louis Prisock said. “The whole institution is what creates a feeling of belonging or a feeling of alienation.”

Many students in attendance defended the HRC by saying that they felt it was a very valuable living space, raising the point again that the HRC itself is not the issue at hand for Colgate.

“Whatever one’s opinion is about issues regarding the HRC, I think it’s vital to engage in open discussion with others,” senior Max Counter said. “It is probably the only effective way to promote increased understanding.”