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Here's what students really think about race on campus

After a series of protests on campus, Ithaca College students open up about racial dialogue – and how it can get better

ITHACA, New York – The students who became the faces of a national movement against racism on campus this fall are most often shown as angry, combative, in the heat of the moment, yelling for change.

But at the many schools where students say they struggle with an unwelcoming environment, talking about race — or not — is an everyday fight, one that’s sometimes quiet and almost always tense and uncomfortable, students say.

In classes, clubs and late-night parties off campus, college students are struggling with the same questions as they look at the protests on their own campus or others:

Who is talking about race, or not, and why?

Do I feel safe contributing to the conversation? 

Do I know how?

How does this affect me? 

What needs to change?   

As part of our coverage of the protests at Ithaca College, we asked students on campus about how race and diversity are discussed, in classroom settings and outside of them. Here’s what some of them had to say.

Students describe the atmosphere on Ithaca College's campus as "tense."
America Tonight

Talking about race is awkward — and tense

A lot of people on campus get uncomfortable when race or diversity is brought up in conversation, students said.

“People don’t quite realize what they’re saying,” said freshman Sebastian Ben-Dayan. “You’ve got to be careful about what you’re posting online and just what you’re doing.”  

A lot of people don’t know how to talk about race at all. 

“Until you welcome the fact that you don’t know how to talk about something, I think it’s not going to happen," sophomore Gabrielle Bridger said. 

Professors are hesitant to talk about race, too

“Sometimes, professors are reluctant to initiate these conversations,” sophomore Maya Howard said. “It’s one of those things that’s always been difficult to talk about, so professors kind of push it back and put it on the back burner.”

Sophomore Maya Howard says conversations about race can be volatile.
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There isn’t enough conversation about structural racism, what privilege is — and what those with privilege do with it

“People sometimes understand their privilege, but it’s not enough to understand it,” said sophomore Ryan Opila. “You have to do something about it.”

Rose, a sophomore, says she considers herself privileged because she didn’t have to think about what the racial environment might look like before she arrived as a freshman. Since she’s been on campus, she’s become more “unsettled” about the way students of color have been treated and how those incidents have been handled, thanks to classes and the protests. But not all students are getting that, she says.   

“I think there’s still bit of that complacency inherent just in the way the student population acts or does not act on these sorts of issues,” she said.

Some people hesitate to talk about race for fear of doing or saying something that would offend other people

“There’s a fear of saying something that would cause you to be targeted,” Opila said.

People can also get defensive.

“[People will say], ‘Well, I’m trying,’” sophomore Jordan Shoemaker said. “It’s like, I’m not saying you aren’t trying. I’m saying you have to try a little more…there’s more work to be done.”

One positive outcome of protests on campus: more conversation, students say.
America Tonight

One thing protests have done is start more conversation

“In one way, it’s made a lot of people talk about it,” freshman Lawrence Bierra said.

But it’s also made a lot of people shut down and get angry.

“There’s definitely more conversations now than there were,” Bierra said. "When you have 1,000 people filling the street," as the college did during a recent “die-in” protest, “people are definitely going to talk about that,” he said.

Senior Namarah McCall echoed those feelings.

“I know that my experience and students who also align themselves with our collective experiences feel a certain kind of way. And things need to change,” she said. “And either you’re going to sit by and let it happen or you’re going to do something about it. So we’re doing something about it.”

Video shot by Fletcher Johnson, produced by Erica R. Hendry. Music by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons.  

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