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'They're sitting right next to us'

On college campuses, students continue to struggle with ethnic tensions and racist attitudes

Email|Print| Text size + By Vanessa E. Jones
Globe Staff / December 5, 2007

At a recent meeting of the Boston University student organization Latinos Unidos, club president Stephanie Abregu wanted to tackle the issue of racism. She and the group's other officers kicked off the event by asking the two dozen guests - predominantly Latinos with a few blacks, whites, and Asians - a series of questions: Have you heard someone use a stereotype? Did you confront them about it? Did you respond with words or with violence?

Then they invited students to share their experiences. Toward the end of the event, Jaime Hermonsillo talked about an incident that happened months earlier, two weeks into his freshman year. He had been sitting with friends, chatting about the colleges to which they'd applied.

"One girl said to me, 'Well, let's face it, the only reason you're here is because we need the statistics,' " he says. Hermonsillo, who attended Lake Forest Academy, a predominantly white boarding school outside his hometown of Chicago, told her he'd worked as hard as she had to get into college.

"Then she was like, 'Well, ummm,' " recalls Hermonsillo, 18. "She didn't know what to say. She didn't even apologize or anything."

The subject of racial and ethnic tensions on college campuses has become so topical that a November episode of "Without a Trace" kicked off with a white student calling his black peer an affirmative-action "charity case" during class. Tufts University's conservative student newspaper, The Primary Source, generated controversy a year ago when it published a Christmas carol titled "O Come All Ye Black Folk." Asian students at Boston College complain of drunken alumni and students who shout racial epithets as part of their football game celebrations.

In recent months, nooses, a centuries-old symbol of racial intimidation, have been found at the University of Maryland, California State University at Fullerton, Purdue, and Columbia. "Crossing the Border" and "Ghetto" parties, in which white students wear blackface or crawl under barbed-wire fences to get in, generate outcry when images from these events turn up on Facebook. The blog Vox ex Machina offers a "College Racism Roundup" of incidents on campuses nationwide.

The tensions, says Daren Graves, an assistant professor of general education at Simmons College, mirror a nationwide movement opposed to political correctness that's occurring in response to the advances of the civil-rights movement.

"There is a cycle that happens when there are large social movements in any society," Graves says. "The people in power think things are moving way too quickly. . . . What you might be seeing on campus is a reflection of what you're seeing in society in general: 'Let's slow down with this PC stuff. It's taking people out of their comfort zones. I have to watch my words and that's not what America's about.' "

Campuses mobilize events around clearly offensive incidents. But Asian, Latino, and black students often suffer from "microaggressions," says Graves: "subtle, almost unintentional indignities students of color have to face every day that are hard for them to deal with."

One example Graves gives is of professors who call on African-American students whenever the classroom subject turns to black culture, something several black students at BC complained about. "You become the representative of all blackness," Graves says, "which is an unfair position to be in."

Microaggressions are also difficult to report.

BC junior Irene Jeon says her friends have often heard fellow students shouting, "Oh my God, that [stuff] smells so bad," when they eat ethnic food behind the closed doors of their rooms. "Obviously for something like that," says Jeon, 20, "you can't call the police and say, 'They're complaining about [my] food.' That's why it's so dangerous - there's no legal recourse."

Many whites don't recognize that these challenges remain, says Graves, because they believe the civil-rights movement ended tensions. "A lot of things are looked at as jokes or pranks," says Ashley Edwards, 20, a black BC sophomore.

A Pew Research Center study released last month revealed the divided perceptions: 46 percent of blacks, but only 18 percent of whites, believed blacks are frequently discriminated against when applying for a job. Last month the FBI reported that the number of hate crimes, of which half included incidents of racial prejudice, rose last year by almost 8 percent.

Grace Choi, a BC senior, says she and her friends don't go out on nights where there will be plenty of public drinking on campus to avoid the possibility of getting called a racial slur. The college atmosphere makes her uneasy. .

"These people who are the perpetrators of hate crimes or racist attitudes - they're students in our classrooms," says Choi, 21. "They're sitting right next to us. And it's hard to tell [who it is] when it's dark, late at night, they're saying things at you and you're outnumbered. How do you know if the guy next to you has all this hate toward you and you don't even know it?"

During a recent meeting of BC's Black Student Forum, Maryann Odusanya and Hewette Moore, 21-year-old seniors, described an incident from two years ago. They, along with two black female students and four white students, tried to enter an off-campus student house party to which they had been invited. When the black students arrived at the door, says Odusanya, "the white female . . . she's looking at us like, 'What are you doing here? Are you selling stuff?' She didn't say that, but that was the vibe we got."

The white doorperson refused to let the black women in but allowed white students to enter, including the four white friends with whom the black women had arrived. The situation devolved, says Moore, until the white woman at the door called Moore a racial slur.

The girls complained to the office of residential life, only to discover that the student who allegedly uttered the slur had given a different version of events. "They said that . . . all they told us was that we couldn't come to the party," says Moore, "and after that we had attacked them and abused them physically and emotionally. All and all, completely ridiculous."

BC's students of color hope the hate-crime protocol, a student-led initiative that will soon appear on BC's Office for Institutional Diversity's website, will make a difference. The protocol defines a hate crime and consolidates bias policies for departments including residential life and the dean of students to make making it easier for students to address a problem, says Sheilah Shaw Horton, interim vice president for the office of student affairs. The OID also began collecting reports of bias incidents about a year ago, says Richard Jefferson, the department's executive director, and is in the process of creating a database of these reports as part of the hate crime protocol.

This fall, freshman orientation at Tufts included talks about race by two professors and a group exercise that unveils bias - both of which were introduced during a school town hall meeting last February, spurred by the Christmas carol in The Primary Source. Tufts' Bias Education Awareness Team, a student group in the dean of student affairs' office that creates programming around bigotry and guides students on how to report bias incidents, has allowed online reporting of bias incidents for years, says Elise von Dohlen, a Tufts senior. This spring the group began providing students access to a compilation of these reports.

"It's the everyday incidents that go unnoticed or unreported," says von Dohlen, 22, a former member of the bias team, called BEATbias, who recently gathered with three other Asian students at Tufts to discuss campus racism. "With BEATbias we tried to get more reporting. . . . If you don't have those numbers, it's hard to say there's a problem."

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story about racism on college campuses in today's Living/Arts section, which is printed in advance, misspelled the surname of Boston University student Jaime Hermosillo.

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