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African-American student writes about 'the race problem' at Emerson, sparks online debate

Posted by Your Town  February 28, 2013 12:51 PM

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An article published this week by an African-American student at Emerson College that alleges Emerson has a “race problem,” is sparking a debate online about the issue of racism.

An editor-in-chief of Isis Magazine, a lifestyle magazine at Emerson, said that the article has generated more than 17,000 hits and 250 comments.

"We are the type of magazine where we want un-sugar coated, honest posts with lots of feelings," said Mehak Anwar, one of the editor-in-chiefs for the magazine, said today in a phone interview. "And I thought this was coming from a place of un-sugarcoated, honest, real passion and emotion. It was the exact type of thing we were searching for."

The author of the article, Willie Burnley, writes that when he enrolled at Emerson, he hoped to find “a liberal institution with a diverse and tolerant student body.” The reality, he writes, is that a lot of Emerson students are “pompous white students who only seem to base their left-leaning status off of their acceptance of the LGBTQ community.”

He writes “I don’t mean that many of the white students at Emerson do have racist assumptions, prejudices, and behaviors,” later explaining that the issue is “there are many white students who, intentionally or not, are perpetuating many racist ideas that have remained in our culture from the days of Jim Crow all the way back to the days of American slavery without public reprimand.”

In the article he also criticizes Emerson’s response to an act of vandalism in an Emerson building on Feb. 9, when the “N-word” was found written on the outside of an elevator. Although he acknowledged that university officials referred to the vandalism as a “racial slur,” they did not call the act racist or mention “anything having to do with race in reference to the incident.”

“This de-racialization of the vandalism almost allows the reader to forget what was actually written and further downplays the historical and social context that makes this kind of act racist,” Burnley writes. “Thus, it does not actually get to the root causes of why the act was wrong and why the administration won't allow it to happen again.”

Burnley also writes of a time when a white roommate use the racially derogatory term to describe him and his black roommate and said it should not offend them because they were never slaves. He has also heard a white student describe a black Emerson female as “basically a white girl.” And he overheard a white student describing another white student as “‘the white guy who everybody thought was black because he sounded so black.’”

Burnley later refers to a time when he was told that he was "basically white.''

“Just like many other black Americans, I was told that my intelligence meant that, according to one white male, I wasn’t black and ‘was basically white,’” he writes. “When I was told it, it meant was meant as a compliment. But what he was saying was that sounding black meant sounding stupid or ignorant or ghetto (another favorite word of many white Emersonians) and that, by contrast, white was intelligent and all things good.”

President Pelton, in an email to the editor of the magazine, praised the writer for his courage in describing his feelings.

"I have read the article and the comments, as has Dr. Spears. Diversity - in its many dimensions - is a core aspect of what it means to be excellent,'' Pelton wrote.

"Clearly, we do not live in a post-racial society. Nor is Emerson post-racial just because I am its president. I'm pleased that the author had the courage to write the article. I'm also pleased that it has engendered discussion and warm debate, though, of course, our hope is that disagreements will be carried out with active listening and respect for different points of view. Dr. Spears has an ambitious plan to strengthen diversity and inclusion at Emerson, an issue that is complex, nuanced and multi-layered. Diversity is not something to be fixed. Rather, it is a continuous process of improvement, understanding and acceptance. Clearly, we have a lot of work to do in this regard. Neither Dr. Spears nor I are on campus this week, but we have pledged to set aside some time to discuss how best to move forward.''

A debate on racism plays out in the comments section of the article, with some criticizing the author and others defending him.

One person writes, “this article is horrific and I feel like this is an attempt to create a mountain out of a mole hill.”

Another person commends Burnley, writing, “I've never seen such blatant adversity faced with such poise and articulation. The author is not creating a divide between blacks and whites, he is clearly pointing to the prejudices both on Emerson's campus and in the United States as a whole.”

Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@globe.com. For campus news updates, follow her on Twitter @klandergan.

Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

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