The Elephant in the Classroom: Addressing the Issue of Ethnic Diversity at Naropa

During my time at Naropa I’ve become increasingly aware of how incredibly tolerant everyone wants to be.  It’s almost impossible to find someone who will adamantly disagree with you on a touchy subject; instead, most of them will respectfully allow space for both of your respective views to coexist simultaneously, even if they seem to contradict each other.  While this is a Buddhist-inspired university, there are members of a variety of religious backgrounds here, and long classroom discussions about worldview and religion often occur with minimal conflict.  However, there seems to be one issue that will always be touchy at Naropa: the issue of ethnic diversity and racism.

Bear in mind, Naropa tries very hard to address this issue.  Both undergraduate and graduate students are required to take courses relating to diversity and multiculturalism, and instructors often try to include the topic of racial discrimination in classroom discussions.  But somehow, when all is said and done, there’s not enough that anyone can say or do.  I’m sure there are a lot of people with varying opinions on this issue, but I’m going to go ahead and state my thoughts on why this seems to be the case.

Naropa, like many private universities, is predominantly white.

According to Naropa’s “Facts at a Glance Page,” the breakdown is as follows:

  • Caucasian: 60%
  • Hispanic/Latino: 7%
  • Asian American: 1%
  • Black/African American: 2%
  • Native American/Alaska Native: 0%
  • Multiracial: 4%
  • Other: 24%

This data is particularly interesting, because it isn’t representative of the United States as a whole.  The U.S. Census Bureau lists the 2011 U.S. demographics as follows:

  • White Persons: 78.1%
  • Black Persons: 13.1%
  • American Indian/Alaska Native persons: 1.2%
  • Asian Persons: 5.0%
  • Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders: 0.2%
  • Multiracial: 2.3%
  • Hispanic/Latino: 16.7%

Boulder is also Predominantly white.  While it’s impossible to know how the 24% “other” Naropa students identify, it’s easy to see that the representation of the African American, Asian American, and Hispanic/Latino populations of this country are incredibly underrepresented here.  And while these numbers are uncomfortable on paper, they’re even more uncomfortable in person.  Because let’s face it.  Being a white person, enrolled in a predominately white university, in a predominately white city, allows people to turn a “colorblind” eye to issues of diversity.  And while I cannot understand what individuals of minority ethnic backgrounds experience, because I myself am white, I have heard a great deal of frustration from some of them.

It seems like Naropa students get this idea that because they are open and accepting of others, race and ethnicity no longer matter.  I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve heard people here claim that they don’t see any difference between themselves and minority groups, that they see everyone as equal.  And honestly, in some ways it would be nice if that’s how the world worked.  But it doesn’t.  Racial prejudice is ingrained in our culture, our government, our educational system–basically anything regulated or accepted on an institutional or majority level.  The fact that “racism” is a word is a testament to its existence.  But, more importantly, we know it exists because individuals of minority backgrounds  feel it.  They experience it on a day-to-day basis, in many different forms.

I know that it’s hard for us white folk to hear that racism still runs rampant, that it’s ingrained into our society, and that our privilege blinds us.  I know it’s simpler, more comfortable, and seems more “fair” to think that because we try to actively include non-white individuals in our lives that we are, in fact, not racist.  But, to use the old adage, “the proof is in the pudding.”  The above statistics alone indicate that.  What are a few things about Naropa that could contribute to this?

It’s expensive to attend a private school.  It’s expensive to live in Boulder.  When you consider the statistical correlation between race and poverty in light of the high cost of attending Naropa and living in Boulder, it’s not that surprising that Naropa is so whitewashed.  But it’s also more than that.  While I cannot speak for the ethnic minority students here, they can speak for themselves, and most of the ones that I have spoken to have mentioned being decidedly uncomfortable here.  Somehow, many Naropa students haven’t been exposed to that much ethnic diversity.  I’ve heard white students claim that they’ve only “seen black people on TV.”  I’ve heard African American students say that they’ve been labeled “sassy” or “sexy” by individuals who had barely spoken to them.  I’ve heard of ethnically diverse students being ignored in classrooms, of people cutting in front of them in lines, and then claiming that they hadn’t even seen them there.  Time after time, I’ve heard wealthy, white students cite “reverse racism” as a counteraction to claims of racist experiences.  I’ve even heard of students being called liars, or being laughed at, when they shed light on the racist experiences that they’ve encountered.

These aren’t isolated incidents.  They’re also not exclusive to Naropa.  This is an international problem, and when we ignore it, we only perpetuate its effects.

Sounds like a pretty impossible issue, doesn’t it?  Well, I’m a fan of “thinking globally, acting locally.”  If you are a non-white student or interested applicant, please know this: we need you here.  It is not your job to educate us and point out our prejudice, but it is so much harder for us to see and address these issues when we are lost in a sea of white.  I myself am nervous about even posting this, because I’m very much expecting both white and non-white individuals to jump down my throat about what I’ve said here.

But at least I’m saying it.  I’m getting it out in the open.  This is what I think of racism and ethnic diversity at Naropa.  This is how it looks to me, through my skewed white perception of the world.  Am I racist?  Probably; I don’t think anyone can help being racist on some level.  It’s ingrained in our language, our customs, and just about everything else.  By sharing a commonality with a particular group, it seems like we often exclude others by default.  I don’t claim to be an exception to this.  But I hope I can be involved in making positive strides towards changing it.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Martha
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 11:51:35

    Mari, I think you’re being a little hard on yourself. Being ignorant of other races because of a lack of exposure and knowledge is different than being a racist. Could some white privilege guilt be coloring your outlook? At least in this blog? A racist, to me, is someone who acts aggressively and holds aggressive views toward a person or people of another race. People of other races besides “white” can also be racist, and are. I agree that racism is a problem in our country. But perhaps it’s ignorance that is the problem you speak of at Naropa, unless you’ve witnessed or heard of the aggressive quality I’ve mentioned. Maybe that’s what you were saying in your blog and I misunderstood, that those incidents with the students happened at Naropa.

    I like your insight, to think about what it would be like to walk down the street to get a candy bar and have someone think you’re “on the prowl” or “up to no good”, as a young black youth might be, especially if the youth is “male”. But this is impossible, really. Unless you’ve ever been in fear for your life, just because of who you are, you’ll never know what this is like. But, you can have empathy. You, being a woman, could experience, and maybe have, aggressive behavior turned toward you, just for walking down the street to get a candy bar. It could be a “look” you get that makes you shudder to your bones. I think you have to go to that level of understanding to begin to get this, when you could be truly fearing for your safety, or your life.

    I know your blog is about race, but in terms of culture, what I’ve said about being a woman might be your inroad to a better understanding. Did you know that it’s only recently that women could obtain loans? Without a father or husband as the co-signer? Or that women couldn’t have a department store card on their own until some time in the 70s? My mother was only allowed to have a credit card in the 70s because my father had died. It was a big concession by the department store to give it to her, she had to appeal being turned down originally. And this wasn’t a fancy-dancy kind of place. Maybe thinking of the struggles women have had can be bridged to the race issue. It isn’t the same, but I’m talking “empathy”.

    I saw a comment related to your blog about Jewish people never being included in the statistics. I fall into this category, and though technically Jews aren’t a separate race, the prejudices are very clear. Even here in America. If you’re interested, sometime watch the movie “A Gentleman’s Agreement”. I’d like to hear your thoughts about it.

    Reply

  2. Mari
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 22:53:44

    Thanks for your comment Martha! I think what you’re saying brings up an interesting point. There is a difference between the classical definition of racism, and the current multicultural definition of racism. The classic definition is “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” (as listed in the Webster’s Dictionary online). However, the problem with this definition is that it only addresses overt, intentional racism on an individual level.

    The newer multicultural model holds that the influence of classic racism permeates our culture, and that as white people, we benefit from the fallout of those influences, while individuals of color are harmed by it. In this model, there are several different types of racism, including institutional and structural racism. For example, neighborhoods with higher African American populations generally have inferior education (in the form of educational institutions) available to them. There are other things at work here (such as socioeconomic status), but the ultimate result is that the way our education system is designed makes it more likely that African Americans will not have access to quality education. This can lead to decreased economic opportunities for African Americans, which can continue the cycle. Things like this are not accidents…they’re symptoms. Something in our education system is designed in such a way (whether intentionally or unintentionally…that’s a whole different discussion…) that white people receive better education than people of color.

    This issue is tied in very closely with white privilege. On one side of the coin is the effect of racism (African Americans are more likely to receive inferior education) and on the other side is white privilege (white Americans are more likely to receive superior education). Statistically speaking, we receive more benefit from the American educational system than African Americans do. That’s an example of white privilege.

    As far as guilt goes…guilt is inevitable. It’s the way we’ve been socialized to respond to issues of race. But if we ignore the guilt, and pretend that it’s not there, or pretend that we are somehow exempt from it, we bury the very real existence of racism in this country, and we prevent change from happening.

    In closing, I recommend this video:

    It’s a bit long, but it’s an amazing talk about the problems of race in America, the way we view it, and why there’s so much trouble talking about it. If you choose to watch it, or have any other thoughts on this post, let me know what you think!

    Reply

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