Welcome to Bridging the Gap, a commentary on discrimination, marginalization, race and identity at Duke.
This series hopes to shed light on the Duke experience in its entirety. This institution for some of us is like a second home during our four or so years here. For others, it can act at times as a reminder of struggle, oppression, belittlement, the helpless feelings that many BIPOC students and students of diverse identity face in the real world, the adult world.
Duke both historically and today is imperfect. We only hope that in hearing from students how they've experienced their identity on campus, we can move toward a more open dialogue about some of these issues.
There is a power in diversity in a student body made up of unique experiences and differences that has been made all the stronger with the recent Black Lives Matter protests, the movement for systemic change in the U.S. spreading to countries around the world.
And so today, we talk about diversity and what diversity also means emotionally for those students on campus who have dealt with the sort of discrimination or marginalization we often like to think doesn't happen at Duke.
Before we get started, we want to start off with a land acknowledgement. This will be the Bridging the Gap tradition. If we will be discussing Duke in both its grandeur and its flaws we must recognize the traditional owners of this space. We here at Bridging the Gap want to take a moment to acknowledge the land that the greater University occupies, as the ancestral lands of the Shakori, Eno, and Catawba Indian peoples. If you're not currently on campus, we encourage you to take a moment to recognize the traditional owners in your area.
So diving right in, what is discrimination? The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex? That's the definition that pops up when you Google that question. But discrimination is also a feeling of demoralization. As college students we are in this liminal space between childhood and adulthood, a space where we're trying to get a sense for ourselves, our passions, our identities. Discrimination on a college campus can make people feel unwanted, unvalued, or insignificant.
We spoke with Dr. Sarah Gaither assistant professor in the department of Psychology and Neuroscience about this. Her research focuses on social identities and interracial interactions. Let's take a listen.
Dr. Sarah Gaither
So anytime anyone experiences a form of discrimination or prejudice, it's of course completely demoralizing. It makes you feel not worthy, it makes you feel undervalued, it makes your entire existence feel questioned, and there's no magical solution or band-aid that you can put on an instance of discrimination. And what we know from a lot of psychology research is that the more discrimination someone faces—let's take this within the race and ethnicity context—usually that equates to how minority you look. So the more phenotypically black, you might look, this tends to correlate pretty strongly with facing more discrimination in your everyday life. And all of this combines together, circles back on to you as a target, and now you end up identifying significantly more with your racial identity. So in other words, the blacker you look, the more black you identify, because you're treated with more discrimination across your life. So these three things end up piling on each other and reinforcing your identity, making you proud about your identity in some ways, and also causing you to question your identity and our ways. And that's why so much of the work focusing on racial and ethnic minority experiences is really highlighting this notion of wanting to belong. Everyone just wants to belong in a space and a society within a friend group. And when you are an underrepresented group or a group that's considered lower status in our society, it can be really hard to find your place, it can be really hard to find your worth and your value, especially when you're in a society that favors the white high status group so much.
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A February 2019 survey reported on by inside higher ed showed that of 69 Equal Opportunity professionals, that's university staff members, 82% had encountered some sort of hate crime. 84% of these staffers worked at PWI's, predominantly white institutions. The National Center for Education Statistics in August of last year, noted a 40% increase in campus hate crimes from 2011 to 2016. They said "Beyond the physical danger that the resurgence of white nationalism imposes, incidents like these are also traumatic and undermine affected students' mental health." They were citing the white nationalist protests that took place on the University of Virginia's campus just two years earlier. There were over 1000 campus hate crimes reported in 2016 alone. Higher education today, a blog by the American Council of Education, said the following in 2018, "Students of color can experience a variety of difficult situations, contributing to experiencing greater psychological distress than white students: being victims of microaggressions and racism, Islamophobia, cyberbullying, encountering culture related extreme expectations, and experiencing isolation and loneliness from the often vast differences between home culture and environment and that of school."
I've just thrown a lot of statistics at you. What does this have to do with Duke? In August of last year, the Chronicle published a guest column discussing the white supremacist underpinnings of Duke University. Professor Don Taylor, Sanford director of the Social Science Research Institute said this, "White supremacy need not be noisy, and its essence is the quiet default that white America is the ideal, making everyone else other, who must strive to belong."
I remember my sophomore year when someone wrote the N word on the Mary Lou Williams center for black cultures wall. At one point someone hung a noose from a campus tree, a swastika was painted on the East Campus bridge. Racism and discrimination are very much present at Duke.
Duke senior and co-president of the Black Student Alliance, Toby Akinyelu told us how he's experienced discrimination as an African American man, and how that impacted his sense of self and his sense of the university.
I, well, I have had an experience because I'm a black man: I'm relatively tall, relatively big, it's always just like, I've definitely experiencing some microaggressions in terms of I don't belong on this campus, because I don't fit in to what someone might think of as a Duke students because of their own discrimination, discriminatory ideas. I know that this was around my sophomore year, where I was coming back from, I think, the library to my dorm, and I've been stopped, asked, you know, are you a student? Do you go here? Let me see your ID all types of stuff, On campus, and off campus, it's just like, with every that's going on this country and the experiences that I've had all cumulated together, it's just, this feeling in with like, I just don't feel like I belong.
It's almost like the world around me just doesn't want me to succeed. The world around me is actually working, actively working against me, and my peers, and it's just making it harder and making our lives more difficult as we, you know, seek and move forward towards our goals. So that I feel like that can be said, for like, a lot of students too But um, yeah, so it feels a lot more difficult to really feel like I belong where I am now, just in this country, in general, and on this campus. I just kind of feel like a stranger.
When we spoke to students about their experiences with discrimination, we started off by asking, when did you first realize that your Duke experience was different from that of some of your white peers? Cynthia Dong is an Asian American identifying sophomore who shared her experience with us.
I mean, I think I've always realized that like, the white experience in any space is different than my experience, just because when I grew up, I grew up in a very white community. So like, that made me very aware of the differences between racial experiences from like a really young age. You know, I think for me, being Asian, racism doesn't manifest as overtly for me, it's a lot more micro-aggressive, for the most part, at least. So, you know, this kind of comes in the form of, I do notice sometimes professors, they will compliment other people for sharing insights or doing something. But um, when I do something like to the same degree, they just kind of gloss over it almost like they're expecting it from me. Um, that also isn't super common at Duke at least. It has happened a couple times where I do feel like because I'm Asian I'm kind of being held to a higher standard almost, which kind of plays into like a small minority myth that I feel like I experienced here sometimes.
I think the real problem with like, at least what I've experienced here is like, when there is overt racism, like Asian culture is very much like, if there's a problem, you, you don't talk about it, you ignore it, you push it under the rug, and you move on, you know, there's like this culture of not talking about your problems, and there's this culture of like, pride, almost like don't let anyone see that they got to you, don't let anyone see that, you know, for her. Um, so especially with when Coronavirus hit, you know, there was a lot more overt racism than I think when that happened, I remember there was like a, there was some vandalism on a building kind of, you know, targeting Asians and, you know, I didn't really hear any of my Asian peers talk about actually.
The incident of vandalism that Cynthia is referring to, was when the words F*** Rona were spray painted along one Chinese students mural outside the Levine Science Research Center earlier this year. Dean Toddi Steelman of the Nicholas School for the Environment, responded with an email to students acknowledging Xenophobic and racist incidents against the Asian community throughout the United States. She said, "I want our Asian community members to know that we stand as allies to support you unconditionally through these challenging times. What hurts you hurts us all."
Prejudice instances against Asian students and international students were not unheard of before this mural defacement. If you all recall, Duke made national headlines in 2019, when the former head of the master's program for biostatistics told Chinese students not to speak in their native language while in public.
Sophomore, Ayesham Khan discussed her truth as a Pakistani student at Duke, and how discrimination can be felt across identities and nationalities.
The start of my first semester here, which was last year, and I came to Duke knowing that I would have a very different experience from white two students, rich Duke students and American Duke students, you know, and, and when that started being a little bit more apparent, I think, is just in classes when, sort of whiteness, and Americanness would come together to produce sort of a very one dimensional worldview that a lot of my classmates had, um, or even one of my professors. You know, I think, I think intellectually, I definitely experienced a big difference. You know, obviously, I know that, because of my visa status, and because of my, if somebody perceives that I might be Muslim, you know, those will create a little bit of a cultural barrier. Right. And that would definitely be apparent when, in O-Week, we would all introduce ourselves, and, you know, there would be a group of white people and they would bond over how they're all from, like, the Bay Area, or, you know, XYZ state, and I would just be like, "Hi, I'm from Pakistan." And they'd be like, like, they don't know what to make of that, you know. And, and that happened much more with white people, but it also happened, just writ large at Duke.
Let's also take a moment to hear from Alyah Baker, a grad student pursuing an MFA in Dance and who graduated from Duke as an undergrad in 2003.
So, let's see, for my undergrad experience, I maybe was still kind of coming into my understanding of what micro-agressions were, and the kind of day in day out discrimination that happens. And so I don't know if I was like, as aware of it, as I, you know, am now kind of being back at the institution now. But I do remember really vividly that the black folks on campus, were really trying to kind of form alliances and to have places to kind of talk about what it was, you know, to be sort of this minority group on campus. And I remember I want to say it might have been like sophomore or junior year where there were a couple of racist incidents that happened on campus. And we had a like a city and a gathering to kind of protest these instances and that you know, it's was like reported to the Chronicle and things like that. And I can't say that I was surprised. But it definitely was sort of something that kind of like popped that bubble, the illusion of sort of like everyone kind of gets along and you can you know, you're in this little bubble.
While you're on campus, it definitely sort of like, really opened my eyes to the fact that, you know, even though we were all students together and learning together that there were definitely people who maybe did not want me to be there didn't think I belonged on campus, or, you know, at an institution like Duke.
Those sorts of calls for equality on campus had been occurring at Duke since they first allowed black students to attend in 1963. You all may have heard of the 1969 Allen building takeover, which brought together between 50 to 75 students who wanted to bring attention to the needs of African American students on campus. Similar notable incidents: students demanding that the university work to end racism and discrimination on campus, took place in 1975, 1979, 1985, 1989 and 1997. If one goes back through the Chronicle archives, in 2001, when Alyah would have been an undergraduate student at Duke, it was reported many faculty members of color were at the time leaving the university, citing an unpleasant racial climate and discrimination. And in the same year, three days of protests and sit-ins took place on the quad outside the Duke Chronicle offices after the newspaper printed an ad arguing against reparations.
Alyah talks about the popping of the proverbial bubble, the moment as a student of color or of diverse identity that it really hits, how your Duke experience will be a bit different, perhaps a bit more difficult than it is for your peers. I know personally, the when of my realization came a bit later than I would like to admit. It was after a few bad roommate experiences: the first my freshman fall semester lasted a couple weeks before they decided, with little notice, they wanted to move out. In the interim, we didn't talk, she refused to make eye contact with me. She always seemed scared to look me in the face. And then she disappeared.
The second was my junior fall semester. This girl lasted maybe two days before I was notified she'd been moving out. I found out that in the two days since I moved in, she told our resident coordinator that she was "in fear for her life", and "didn't feel safe" rooming with me. Now that one hit a bit different, it's hard to tell yourself "Good riddance, they probably would have been a terrible roommate anyway", when it feels like such a personal attack on your character. We at Bridging the Gap wanted to understand why these interactions go so poorly. What barrier needs overcoming to reach a point of civility, if not comfort, with each other in these situations? Why do these interactions go bad? Let's hear from Dr. Gaither again. As she shed some light on the nature of interracial interactions.
Dr. Sarah Gaither
Every social interaction is very complicated, because obviously there's multiple people involved, which means there's multiple identities also involved in any given moment. So what makes interracial interactions or cross race interactions particularly stressful for people, especially on a college campus is usually a white person is entering an interracial interaction, and they're really nervous about being perceived as a racist, horrible person. And at the same time, a black student in that same interaction is also nervous, but they're nervous for a very different reason, right? They're nervous about experiencing discrimination or prejudice. Again, if neither of these things are not necessarily going to happen, but when a white student is expecting one thing to happen, a black student is worried about a different thing happening these conflicting expectations end up butting heads. And that's actually what leads to so many negative cross race interaction outcomes is these conflicting expectations of how well or how horribly wrong we think a cross race interaction is going to go. Then we end up overthinking what we're saying overthinking what we're doing, and ends up making those interactions not very great for anyone.
So what next? How do we overcome? That's a difficult question, one, which we will touch on in part two of this episode. But before we end today, we want to dive a bit deeper into these experiences. One point that has come up in our conversations with the Duke community is the concept of self-segregation. Tribalism, if you will, this is the categorization and subsequent self isolation of like groups: people who look like you talk like you grew up like you did. This isn't necessarily bad all the time. Sometimes we need that time with people who are like us who have similar experiences, and can thus empathize with our lives and struggles. But to some Duke propagates self segregation to an unhealthy level, one that negatively impacts those on the outside, the other, and usually the non-white. Here's Ayesham with her opinion,
Just this social culture at Duke is built on segregation. A lot of it on racial lines are sort of, you know, identity. But just in general, you know, we have so many people, like a majority of Duke students that are either Greek affiliated or in SLG's, and that kind of thing. Just it prevents people from wanting to talk to anyone new, you know, or outside of their immediate sort of comfort zone and social circle. So that's one huge issue. And I honestly think, you know, like, if I were, if I were like dictator of Duke, I think I would just do away with that.
Dr. Gaither expressed something similar.
Dr. Sarah Gaither
As a university, we can't randomly assign all same race roommates to live together and not think about the other identities that also lead to various forms of discrimination in the dorms, race, you have to think about as LGBTQ identities, first generation, limited income, student identities, all of these things actually intersect with each other and can create a lot of forms of discrimination. So it's not just across race experience that can lead to bad roommate outcomes want to make sure that's clear to everyone. We all have a tendency to self segregate. And it's because we like people who are like us, that's just a natural human tendency. We like people who think like us, we like people who look like us. And for underrepresented individuals, it's really important to still have those safe spaces and those circles of friends and support systems, so that you can properly deal with the different forms of discrimination that you might be facing on our college campus or elsewhere. Once you leave college, you're not always going to be in an environment surrounded by people who think exactly like you do in college really is one of those rare chances where I think students really need to take advantage of learning how to thrive and how to survive and different diverse contexts.
It feels as though we're in a crucial moment for clarity right now. The Black Lives Matter protests this summer have brought to light in a new way the experience of the BIPOC individual. And we see newsrooms offices and institutions across the country scrambling to address their own internal and justices. President Vincent Price recently came out with a statement of anti racism, a stance on the part of the university and a statement of purpose around actionable next steps. His statement attempts to address systemic racism at all levels, and from a student perspective, the university has begun work around a new Foundations of Equity orientation program, more work to actively diversify the student body, and the creation of an undergraduate Hate and Bias Working Group for greater transparency. These conversations around equity, inclusion and biases are popping up in departments across the university. And so in the least, we want to take a moment to acknowledge that the university also acknowledges the problems within its own walls.
We've thrown a lot of facts and statistics at you. We want to end today with a poem. This spoken word poem is by Danez Smith, read at the Rust Belt 2014 in Detroit. This is "Dear White America."
Danez Smith | Dear White America
Dear white America, I’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole. I've left in search of a new God. I do not trust the God you have given us. My grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. Take your God back. Though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent. I want the fate of Lazarus for Renisha, want Chucky, Bo, Meech, Trayvon, Sean & Jonylah risen three days after their entombing, their ghost re-gifted flesh & blood, their flesh & blood re-gifted their children. I’ve left Earth, I am equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & I just don’t see race. Neither did the poplar tree. we did not build your boats (though we did leave a trail of kin to guide us home). We did not build your prisons (though we did & we fill them too). We did not ask to be part of your America (though are we not America? her joints brittle & dragging a ripped gown through Oakland?). I can’t stand your ground. I'm sick of calling your recklessness the law. Each night, I count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, I count the holes they leave. I reach for black folks & touch only air. your master magic trick, America. now he’s breathing, now he doesn't. abra-cadaver. white bread voodoo. sorcery you claim not to practice, hand my cousin a pistol to do your work. I tried, white people. I tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones. you took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after girl after sweet boi & ask why does it always have to be about race? because you made it that way! because you put an asterisk on my sister’s gorgeous face! call her pretty (for a black girl)! because black girls go missing without so much as a whisper of where?! because there are no amber alerts for amber-skinned girls! because Jordan boomed. because Emmett whistled. because Huey P. spoke. because Martin preached. because black boys can always be too loud to live. because it’s taken my papa’s & my grandma’s time, my father’s time, my mother’s time, my aunt’s time, my uncle’s time, my brother’s & my sister’s time . . . how much time do you want for your progress? I've left Earth to find a place where my kin can be safe, where black people ain’t but people the same color as the good, wet earth, until that means something, until then i bid you well, i bid you war, I bid you our lives to gamble with no more. I've left Earth & I am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you. I'm giving the stars their right names. & this life, this new story & history you cannot steal or sell or cast overboard or hang or beat or drown or own or redline or shackle or silence or cheat or choke or cover up or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or ruin this, if only this one, is ours.
We hope you enjoyed our first episode of Bridging the Gap. I want to reiterate the purpose of this series: it is to highlight, to share the truth of Duke's diverse student body. It is not to attack, it is not to shame. And we look forward to having more conversations with you all as the year continues. Join us for part two, where we discuss the interracial nature of discrimination and thoughts on how Duke and Duke students can be better and do better to end the cycle of prejudice.