As a part of the diversity symposium Dr. Shaun Harper, director of the Graduate School of Education Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education of the University of Pennsylvania, spoke last Friday on his study of black male achievement at liberal arts colleges.
Swarthmore was one of 12 liberal arts colleges that participated in Professor Harper’s study. 48 percent of Swarthmore’s students of color were counted in the study.
“Even at an institution that is racially diverse like Swarthmore there is still racial stereotyping,” said Harper.
Harper argued that racial stereotyping in college often stems from early childhood misconceptions about race. Several studies have already been made that analyze how young children are socialized to think about race and the race of others.
“What is more troubling,” said Harper, “is that those children will enter a university environment having the same biases. Thus, we are complicit in sending out students into the world without having their assumptions confronted.”
At Swarthmore, Harper said there are very few structured venues designed to help students grapple with such issues.
“There’s a paradox because on the one hand some students are tired of talking about race and on the other hand other students are engaging in unstructured conversation about race,” he said.
Harper also pointed out that the students whom he had lunch with before the lecture talked about racial clustering or visible pockets of students on campus from only one background.Furthermore, the fact that Swarthmore had no permanent Latino faculty was shocking to Harper.
“This has to be something with which every person at the college [Swarthmore] responsively grapples with because the college cannot create a more affirming racial climate if you don’t even know what undermines the effort,” he said.
During the questions and answers, students agreed with Harper that Swarthmore needs more structure in order to efficiently grapple with racial issues.
“As a freshman they sit you down in a room and you’re supposed to talk about diversity. But this is not a comfortable environment, there are no tools gained, no knowledge. The college should find more ways to deal with diversity,” said a student in the audience.
Harper agreed to the student and added that work also needed to be done within the faculty so they don’t disseminate racial prejudices among students.
A necessary first step for working with the faculty would be to create an environment in which they have to grapple with their assumptions and stereotypes about students who come from different backgrounds.
“In many institutions, the faculty cannot be convinced that they should be teaching differently so there has to be a structured venue in which consciousness is raised,” said Harper.
Olivia Ensign ’12, an organizer of the Symposium said that it was great to see many administrators and faculty members in the audience.
“I thought it was very interesting discussion and I would encourage everyone to read his study,” said Ensign.
But Rachell Morillo ‘14 and Desheane Newman ’14 were not pleased with faculty and administrator participation.
“There were few [faculty or administrators] who asked questions or participated in the conversation, which I think speaks to the problem he was pointing out,” said Morillo.
“It was disappointing because I thought they would want to engage more but they didn’t,” added Newman.
But for Harper it was a good experience: “It’s good to be in a community that is much smaller and intimate. […] I met with about 50 students over lunch and […] it seems like it was therapeutic for them to be invited to talk about this issue,” he said.
For more on Swarthmore’s Diversity Symposium see Dr. Tatum’s lecture on talking about diversity.