LTE: A Letter On Institutional Racism

To the Editor:

A classmate asked me if I’d seen the recent Heights article about Eradicate Boston College Racism, a student movement whose aim is pretty self-explanatory. I hadn’t, and he remarked sarcastically, “There are some quotes in there I think you will enjoy.”

Curious, I pulled up the article and began to read. By the end my stomach was in knots, my face flushed, and my hands were literally shaking. The feeling was familiar to me, a reaction I had sometimes experienced working closely with administrators in my previous roles as FACES Co-Director and UGBC President when I was an undergraduate. As the frustration, hurt and disappointment washed over me, my mind began to race. I couldn’t concentrate the rest of the class.

In an attempt to process my complicated thoughts and visceral reaction to this article, I wrote a blog post, which I later shared on Facebook. After the overwhelming and unexpected support I received from students, alumni, faculty and administrators, and at the urging of many, I decided to share this post with the broader BC community in the form of this letter.

In his statement to The Heights, Jack Dunn, University spokesperson and director of the Office of News and Public Affairs, claims, “The supposition that BC is an institutionally racist place is a difficult argument to make… I think that’s a false assumption, an unfair assumption, and impugns the integrity of so many good people on this campus who’ve joined this community precisely because they’re people of good will who oppose all elements of bigotry.”

First, it is important to note that true allies do not dismiss the experiences of the very people they claim to support and advocate with. It is impossible to fight racism simply by saying “I fight racism,” or worse, denying that it exists. The fight against racism is reflected in our daily actions, as well as in the way we treat the communities to which we are an ally. It can be difficult to navigate allyship, but this is precisely why – first and foremost – being an ally requires that we listen to the individuals we claim to support.

It is true that not every student of color will agree on the best way to move forward. Personally, I believe it is okay to disagree as long as we acknowledge the worth and validity of every person’s experience and opinion. Unfortunately, Jack Dunn’s statements didn’t attempt even a semblance of understanding or recognition. In his efforts to delegitimize Eradicate Boston College Racism, he rejected the concerns and experiences of an entire community. Whereas former University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe remained silent, Jack Dunn has actively invalidated the experiences of many students of color on this campus. Both perpetuate institutional racism because they ignore the realities of an underrepresented population.

Second, it is clear from Dunn’s statement that he is more concerned with protecting BC’s image than acknowledging the truth, which is unsurprising given his role as the University’s spokesperson. This is epitomized by the gross misinterpretation that this institution “was founded to serve the Boston immigrant population in the mid-nineteenth century.” These words were carefully chosen to maintain an image of inclusivity, but the truth is Boston College was founded to educate white, Irish Catholic men, many of whom were born here. This “inclusion” of certain marginalized populations was built on the exclusion of others – namely, the exclusion of women and people of color. Such distorted representations of BC’s history continues to exist today, as evidenced by Dunn’s rejection of institutional racism.

For those who have never heard of or do not understand this term, I would suggest reading “Racism without Racists” by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. However, for the sake of this post I would like to clarify: institutional racism does not require individuals who openly and actively discriminate against people of color in order to thrive. All institutional racism needs to succeed is a person – or group of people – who allow their experiences and beliefs to remain unchallenged by critical thinking and personal reflection. Institutional racism is not the result of an individual decision, but a series of decisions that are made without considering how the history and representations of race impacts each and every one of us.

Institutional racism is unavoidable at Boston College because it is imbedded in the fabric and foundation of American (and global) society. Although many of us as individuals value social justice, equality and equity, being people of “good will” who “abhor racism in every form” does not imbue the community with a superpower that protects us from the real, ingrained effects of systemic racism. A perfect example of how this manifests itself at Boston College is our core curriculum. Nearly all the courses and required texts available to students to fulfill the philosophy, theology, history, literature and writing cores are eurocentric, meaning that the histories and ideas taught in these courses are mostly those of white men.

While I have heard this example cited many times over my time here at BC, the most common solution I have heard to addressing this problem is to expand the cultural diversity core. This response, in and of itself, is another example of institutional racism. By representing the voices and experiences of people of color in a separate category, the University otherizes those voices and experiences. Why not allow more courses about African, Asian, Latino and Native peoples history count towards the core? Why not include the works of Black, Asian, Latino and Native American writers, philosophers and theologians in the literature, philosophy and theology cores?

Examples of institutional racism are not limited to academics; they exist in nearly every facet of the student experience. Over the last four years I participated in and oversaw competitive mentoring programs that generally recruited a disproportionate number of white students. When it came time to pair these freshmen with upperclassmen, the overwhelming majority always selected the same two or three (white) mentors as their first pick. This is not so much a reflection of the preferred mentors’ superiority, because all the potential mentors were equally capable. Instead, this repeated occurrence demonstrates a lack of diversity within the selected freshmen class of leaders.

No matter how grateful I am that these individuals were part of the organization and part of my life, freshmen of color who are just as qualified and passionate are turned away every year because program leaders cannot relate to them the same way they do to their white counterparts. This is true of various organizations I have been part of on campus, including service trips. Examples such as these are not the fault of any one “racist” individual, but the consequence of having a student body where 70% of students identify as white, a team of high level decision-makers comprised of nearly all white (mostly male) administrators, and a faculty where less than 16% of professors identify as AHANA.

Although I have had many experiences that have made me who I am today, three of the most salient aspects of my identity are my race, my gender, and the fact that I am a cancer survivor. Yet of these three identities, only my experience with cancer is never questioned, invalidated or dismissed. I am the ultimate source of authority on what it means to me to be a cancer survivor, but as a person of mixed-race, as a woman, I am constantly reminded that people who do not claim either of these identities know better than me how to act and feel regarding race and gender. In what world does that make any sense? Who is Jack Dunn to tell me that the existence of institutional racism, to tell me that my experience at BC, is a “difficult argument to make”?

To observe the very real consequences of institutional racism, you need only look at Jack Dunn’s description of the Options-Through-Education (OTE) program, featured in a Boston Globe article this past summer. He explained that the program, which is run through the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, allows Boston College to, “accept some minority students with lower scores and invites them to a six-week summer boot camp to prepare them for college.”

This is not only grossly inaccurate, but entirely disempowering and offensive. To be clear, the OTE program is one of the only merit-based scholarship programs offered at BC, and it is open to students of all races and ethnicities. Students accepted into the program have demonstrated incredible strength and resiliency in the face of adversity, academic and extracurricular success despite these challenges, and an unrivaled commitment to their education and futures. To describe this program and these students as anything else, as anything less, is ignorant and disrespectful.

While I am certain that his words were not meant to offend anyone, his misrepresentation of OTE cannot be dismissed as a simple mistake. No matter his intentions, Jack Dunn’s lack of knowledge led him to disenfranchise a group of students who had the audacity to believe that they deserved a college education, simply because he has power at this University and they do not. And what does it say about BC when its own spokesman, a man who has been at this school for over fifteen years, gets this so wrong?

The thing is, this isn’t about Jack Dunn, or any other individual administrator at BC. It’s about an institution that normalizes and advantages whiteness in policy and in practice. Jack Dunn’s comments are not the problem – they are a symptom of the problem. Students of color on this campus should not have to be community organizers just to be heard and included at this University. As an undergraduate at Boston College, I spent four years communicating these same concerns with actionable solutions to various administrators. Now as a graduate student, I am exhausted, but I will not be silent.

So please, tell me again how institutional racism doesn’t exist.

 

Sincerely,

Nanci Fiore-Chettiar

School of Social Work ’16

Featured Image by Julia Hodgens / Heights Photo

 

  • Hagop Toghramadjian

    I think a major problem here is the definition of racism. The definition Nanci puts forth makes a lot of sense–it’s definitely wrong if individuals “allow their experiences and beliefs to remain unchallenged by critical thinking and personal reflection.” It is definitely true that inaction, not just bad intentions, lead to injustice.

    However, when most people think of racism, they don’t think of newly-formulated definitions of the term (like Bonilla-Silva’s). Instead, the word means something closer to the dictionary definition: “racial prejudice or discrimination,” based on “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

    The word is ingrained in most people’s minds as nearly synonymous with hate and explicit discrimination. This is what Jack Dunn is thinking of when he defends the University against charges of racism.

    Our first option when engaging the administration is to make it VERY clear what we mean by racism, and emphasize the fact that we’re using a different definition than people like Jack Dunn are used to. We’re not branding our school or its leadership as hateful–we’re calling for greater reflection and critical thought. Our second option is to choose not to use the word “racism.” While recognizing that Bonilla-Silva’s definition is probably correct, we can recognize that it creates a fight over a word when the real fight should be over University policies and practices.

    I think the second path makes more sense. We can hold the University and its leadership responsible for complacency, pressing for change without using a word that makes individuals feel attacked and misconstrued. The focus can then be on actual progress rather than on the politics and emotions of a particular word. Again, I think Nanci’s definition makes sense on its own, but calling the University racist is in my opinion a polarizing move rather than a tool for creating meaningful change.