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Debate flares after black college students seek a non-white roommate

Scene from Pitzer College in Southern California (courtesy Pitzer)
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In most respects, the roommate-wanted notice seemed routine. Three students at the Claremont colleges in Southern California were looking for a fourth this summer to join them in an off-campus house. They added a caveat in parentheses: “POC only,” they said, using a common abbreviation for people of color.

When a classmate challenged that condition, the Pitzer College student who posted the notice on Facebook pushed back. “It’s exclusive [because] I don’t want to live with any white folks,” wrote Karé Ureña, who is black.

The online comments touched off a debate this week over race at Pitzer and neighboring colleges, one that flared into national headlines after the Claremont Independent student magazine wrote about it.

To some, Ureña’s request was completely understandable following a racially charged year when many students of color had demanded more support from the administration. To others, it was simple racism to exclude potential roommates based on skin color.

The thread fit into the heated discussions about race, identity, culture, freedom of speech and campus “safe spaces” that have played out at colleges across the country, from Yale to Missouri and beyond.

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Pitzer President Melvin Oliver — a sociologist who is an expert on racial inequality — sent a message to the campus community Wednesday about the housing ad and the debate it sparked. It read, in part:

While Pitzer is a community of individuals passionately engaged in establishing intracultural safe spaces for marginalized groups, the Facebook post and several subsequent comments are inconsistent with our Mission and values. …
This is but another example to us that social media is not an effective platform to engage in complex dialog on seemingly intractable critical issues that have varied histories and contested understandings. They create more heat than light and invite extreme viewpoints that intentionally obfuscate the nuanced context that surrounds these issues. Pitzer offers its new 2-course Intercultural Understanding requirement and dedicates new curricular and extra curricular programming to address difficult issues of racism, diversity, community discourse and national and international political conflict.

The five Claremont colleges — Pitzer, Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd and Scripps — are a community of highly regarded schools east of Los Angeles.

As of last fall, 48 percent of the 1,067 undergraduates at Pitzer were identified as white. Fifteen percent were Hispanic, 9 percent Asian American, 9 percent multiracial and 5 percent African American. The rest were either foreign students or of unknown race or ethnicity. The demographic profiles of the other Claremont colleges are fairly similar.

Claremont McKenna was swept up last fall in the national debate over the racial climate on college campuses. Student protesters pushed for several measures focused on diversity in student affairs and academics.

Amid the protests, Claremont McKenna’s dean of students stepped down in November after writing a much-criticized email to a student about how the college could better serve “those who don’t fit our CMC mold.” But some on campus defended the dean and denounced the protests as uncivil and excessive.

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Now a roommate solicitation from three black students has become another flashpoint.

Ureña, 20, a junior at Pitzer, and one of her roommates, Sajo Jefferson, 19, a sophomore at Pomona, defended their query in a statement to The Washington Post. Ureña describes herself as Afro-Caribbean and Jefferson identifies as a multiracial black person. Minority communities on campus, they said, constantly must deal with issues that arise when they are surrounded by classmates who don’t understand where they are coming from and have little interest in finding out.

“When and if you understand this context, it becomes clear that students of color seeking a living space that is all-POC is not only reasonable, but can be necessary,” they wrote to The Post. “We live in a world where the living circumstances of POC are grounded in racist social structures that we can not opt out of. These conditions threaten the minds, bodies and souls of people of color both within and without the realms of higher education. We are fighting to exist.”

Asked if the debate that unfolded was a reflection of national events and a glimpse of what the mood on many campuses may be like this coming year, they responded: “Our people are being killed. Every which way, through every which angle. Our people are being killed. Our housing arrangements are not racist. They are not exclusive. We are simply fighting to exist and we are fighting to exist in whatever way we can.”

Ureña said Thursday she removed the query from the Pitzer College Class of 2018 Facebook page after the three students found a fourth roommate.

But several students who saw the original post described the conversation that unfolded there and shared screen shots of it; the discussion appeared civil and thoughtful, though it elicited strong emotions on both sides.

One person questioned the “POC only” condition, and wrote “housing segregation is illegal.”

A student who said she is supportive of Ureña’s preference to live with other people of color questioned the wording, wondering if it sounded restrictive to exclude other groups.

Another responded: “People of color are allowed to create safe POC only spaces. It is not reverse racism or discriminatory.” That student wrote that it comes down to self-preservation.

Later in the thread, a post read: “I think that a POC-only housing policy is about as clear-cut an example of prejudice as one could find. I completely understand the desire not to live with people who could be racist, but excluding all white people is an extremely blunt instrument to achieve that end and a harmful overgeneralization.”

Another wrote: “White people have cause[d] so much trauma on these campuses … why in the world would I want to bring that into my home? A place that is supposed to be safe for me?”

Dalia Zada, a Pitzer junior who is Kurdish Syrian, questioned an account of the debate that was published Tuesday by the Claremont Independent, calling just a report of a Facebook thread, without the context.

“If we really wanted to create something about racism and call it an ‘article,’ we could just copy and paste the comments on the Claremont Independent’s Facebook page of this article,” Zada said. “They’re horrific.”

Zada said she also was offended by the Independent’s choice of a photograph to accompany the article. It depicted a black man drinking from a fountain labeled, “FOR COLORED ONLY.”

“Their audacity to use that picture as a photo for their article is disgusting in itself.”

Elliot Dordick, who wrote the article for the Independent, stands by it. “There was absolutely no spin put into this piece,” he said. “It was made up almost entirely of my classmates’ quotes. … I can’t find a single word of the piece that was my own personal opinion.”

He said several people questioned how he, as a white person, could write objectively about racial issues. In a phone interview with The Post and subsequent email follow-up, he said that there were several resident assistants who said outright that they’re not interested in open dialogue about racial issues.

“The fact that RAs, who are selected as student leaders, admitted that they are not interested in discussion, that they want instead to simply spew their own opinions without facing any disagreement, is a disgrace to Pitzer College,” Dordick said.

Dordick said he wasn’t surprised at the debate because racial tensions have been heightened during the past year. He described last year’s protests on Claremont McKenna College: “Hundreds of students stormed through the center of Claremont McKenna College chanting ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogans. The president of the college came out to a central area of campus and was verbally attacked by many students of color whose emotions were out of control. They shrieked about their experiences on campus and demanded racially segregated ‘safe spaces.’ Two girls even went on a hunger strike.

“… The Claremont Colleges are radically liberal and ideologically monolithic.”

Paloma Aleman, who graduated this year and describes herself as Mexican-American, saw the online debate and said that with some distance from campus she can see that the community at Pitzer is a bit sheltered. She said last year there was lengthy debate about “safe spaces” on campus, with some saying they were necessary and some calling them exclusionary.

“We have a great community in terms of creating safe spaces,” she said, noting that it caught her off-guard that the housing request this week sparked such intense reaction. “I was surprised that people thought it was an extreme request, given certain incidents that happened on campus last year.”

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The fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., happened while Aleman was studying abroad in Italy. When she returned to campus she noticed “a huge cleavage between students of color and students who aren’t of color — a dramatic change.”

“Once I was back in the U.S., I definitely felt there was a huge shift in the racial climate,” she said. “I felt that racial tensions had definitely increased. Students of color were definitely feeling unsafe.”

Josue Pasillas, a senior and president of the Pitzer College Student Senate, said he was aware of the debate before the student magazine story ran and that it wasn’t shocking.

“A student of color’s preference to live with students of color only is not racist, and to call this housing segregation is wrong,” he said. “Over time, people of color have been segregated by people with privilege, not vice versa. Students of color face systemic discrimination daily and have a right to live in solidarity with other students of color in spaces where they do not have to experience judgment and racism from others.”

He continued, in an email to The Post:

“This is no different than having student organizations, such as the Latinx Student Union, the Black Student Union, the Asian Pacific American Coalition, Mixed Identities Exchange and other ethnic support groups on campus. This is not racism.”
“Several students directly notified staff of The Claremont Independent their preference to not be quoted in an article and for the publication to still go ahead and use their statements is wrong. That is not right.”

Dordick, the article’s author, responded that it was entirely appropriate for him to cite Facebook posts that were visible to the school community: “Much in the same way that Donald Trump does not need to give consent to have his public Tweets quoted, I do not need to ask for students’ consent before quoting their public statements on social media.”

Chance Kawar, a senior and the acting secretary of the student senate, said that the college encourages students to live with people with whom they feel comfortable and safe. “For some students, this may mean seeking housing arrangements with those who share a similar racial or gender identity,” Kawar said.

“Coming to live and learn at a college is a challenging proposition for many individuals, so we should be doing everything we can to make them feel empowered as students,” Kawar said. “This is especially true for students of color, who continue to face overwhelming and discriminatory obstacles within institutions of higher education.”

Ureña said she has no regrets about the Facebook posting. She and Jefferson said they take issue with people who focus on “white people and their ‘exclusion’ in this housing ad.” They said they want to “reframe” the conversation.

“This is not about white people,” they wrote. “It never has been. The insistence that it should be only reaffirms [our] understanding of how deeply we are submerged in a white-centric world. Recentering this question so it is about the well being of POC is therefore an act of resistance.”