Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Let’s stop allowing niceties to prevent meaningful discussions about diversity

To what end are we filling out the Campus Climate Survey? The stunningly non-communicative email accompanying the survey link gave no hints as to what the Mosaic Project’s Assessment and Benchmarking Group hopes to learn from the data collected, or how said data will be applied. I’m not a member of that working group so I can’t say this with certainty, but if they intended to capture the experiences of historically marginalized students on campus, I can identify at least one major problem with the language and construction of the survey: it was too nice.

After a few general demographic questions, the survey asks how “satisfied” the respondent is with the “sense of community” on campus. The question supposes Wash. U. has a cohesive community to begin with, thereby failing to address the nuanced possibility of feeling “satisfied” with a certain subset of peers and “dissatisfied” with Wash. U. generally. Although space is provided to expand on most answers, the survey often misses the point altogether by asking questions about the frequency of distinct, identifiable events rather than impressions, perceptions or otherwise less tangible factors in a student’s experience. For example, at one point the survey asks how “fairly” the respondent has been treated. Which is fine. We want to know when something is overtly unfair or unjust, but asking if I’ve been treated fairly by other students doesn’t address whether or not I’ve been treated equally. My predominantly white freshman floormates weren’t “unfair” to me; they just never asked if I wanted to hang out in the common room or addressed me in public. Similarly, the survey asks whether or not the respondent ever considered leaving Wash. U. as a result of bias or discrimination. When I wanted to drop out, it wasn’t because someone called me a racial slur. It was because when my grades and mental health started to suffer, it served as reminder of my unfitness for a university that caters to upper-class white students. Wash. U.’s culture excludes implicitly and insidiously by relying on the invisibility of students with subordinate identities until it’s time to highlight diversity on campus and our presence suddenly becomes convenient.

But no one wants to hear that. As a campus, we are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, hurting someone’s feelings or becoming implicated that we take every opportunity to distance ourselves by disengaging in conversations that get at the heart of diversity issues. I’m guilty of this too and even hesitated to write this because I didn’t want to upset people whom I like and respect that work really hard on diversity-geared campus initiatives. But the Mosaic Project, especially when it engages the student body, needs to be as direct as possible.

The peculiarity of niceness on campus has been painfully obvious at various times in the last few months (take for example the habit of referring to instances of racism, sexism, etc. as “incidents”), but never more dangerously than with this survey. The survey is supposed to be the opportunity for students to articulate their experiences so that the problems can be corrected but asks questions so vaguely that we can’t possibly target what makes Wash. U. such an uncomfortable place sometimes. With precious few forums to talk about our experiences, it’s disappointing when the Mosaic Project unveils initiatives that only serve to make the dominant group feel better about the subtle patronization of their non-attention. So, I ask again: to what end are we filling out the Campus Climate Survey?

If it’s to make Wash. U. better, then actually do that. Let’s make Wash. U. a model for diversity and inclusion by getting serious about asking tough questions and welcoming answers we probably don’t want to hear. Let’s lean into the discomfort and stop congratulating ourselves for doing the bare minimum. But most importantly, let’s remain critical of our efforts because thus far we’ve allowed ourselves to confuse posturing and pandering for meaningful, productive conversation. And let’s stop allowing niceness stand in the way of that.

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  • quietstudent says:

    Kierstan, I know you personally and although I applaud your ability to bring up this common incidence of subtle exclusions on campus, often time it is your judgmental and abrasive demeanor that keeps me from being able to connect with you-and I’m assuming others on your floor last year felt the same way. I admire you as a leader but please keep in mind as a minority on this campus I am able to transcend different groups on campus, maybe because I don’t dismiss certain groups of people as vapid and keep an open mind about these different groups. What may seem funny to you can create an unsafe space for others.

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  • Anon says:

    “My predominantly white freshman floormates weren’t “unfair” to me; they just never asked if I wanted to hang out in the common room or addressed me in public”

    From my experiences at washu as a non-white guy here what I can say about this:

    A lot of people at washu, especially as freshmen are shy…people here dont just ask others to “hang out” if they dont know them (sucks but true). I don’t know the dynamics of your floor, but perhaps it should have been you who was the aggressor in trying to build a relationship with these people. I always found that people respected me more if I was the outgoing one because it sended the message that I valued the people who I was trying to befriend, almost like a compliment. It shouldn’t be expected that people ask you to hang out if not a lot of effort is made on your part either. I understand that at times minorities can be put on the fringes at this university, but at the same time I feel as if it’s not white people’s jobs to go out of their way and make us feel as equals if many minorities aren’t willing to reciprocate this same effort. And BTW while everyone should say hi to everyone on their hall, I know that there are many people who I never got to know on my hall last year and I don’t always say hi to them…its not because they are minorities though, its because I don’t know them (think about it)

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  • Anonymous says:

    This article is correct. People don’t want to hear objective commentary on the racial climate at Wash U. People want to hear that every white student is overwhelmingly racist and should be ashamed of themselves. Has anyone stopped to wonder why they’re so eager to believe this?

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  • D flip says:

    I think that if someone writes an article like this, the first move should not be an attempt to debunk what is said. Obviously, if the author is identifying an issue that has clearly brought her some discomfort, pain, and potentially anger, and it is one that resonates with students of color across the country, shouldn’t everyone listen and hold the narrative a bit more sensitively and with care? To address those who labeled Kierston as “rude” and “cold”, thereby justifying their failed invitation and mistreatment, it is micro-aggressions like this that add up to complicated campus relationships and terrains, and you are no help in this conversation. Not because you can’t be, but because you refuse to acknowledge the ways that you are indeed implicated in the systems and ways of seeing that, albeit “invisible” to you- are oppressive and discriminatory. But perhaps tipping the hegemony iceburg isn’t fruitful as it relates to what Kierston ultimately seems to be getting at; that is, that we must create spaces where we can engage more critically and honestly about diversity and inclusion. Thank you for sharing this, Kierston- and attempting to begin conversations along these lines.

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    • Anonymous says:

      Your argument implies that if you find someone unfriendly or don’t like them, it must be because of his or her race. There is, according to you, no other explanation for disliking a minority student than racism.

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  • Anonymous says:

    Of course we can continue with all sorts of vague, white-shaming rhetoric. It’s easy to make sweeping generalizations and blame everything on the “predominately white students”. That’s what we do best at Wash U. No one wants to have a constructive dialogue about race, they just want to suppress other perspectives.

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    • Kierstan Magna Carter says:

      I really do want to have constructive dialogue about race. Let’s get dinner sometime. Add me on Facebook and we can talk!

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  • willy says:

    I’ve thought about transferring because I’m unfit for a university that caters to upper-middle class white students, as well.
    I’m also a middle class white male. Works a few ways.

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  • anonymous (for obvious reasons) says:

    “My predominantly white freshman floormates weren’t “unfair” to me; they just never asked if I wanted to hang out in the common room or addressed me in public.” This hurts to read.

    1. Kierstan, the reason why your freshman floormates (not just the “white” ones) did not ask you to hang out in the common room or address you in public is because you were indifferent and rude to members of the floor community. I can speak from personal experience that every time at the beginning of the year I greeted you in the hallway, held the door open for you, tried to grab your attention while we were sitting in the common room, you looked the other way. You were not friendly to most of the floor and didn’t seem to try to relate to anybody. So basically we gave up after a while. You closed yourself off to an entire support system, perhaps due to social anxiety, issues of race (what have you) but some of us perceived it as arrogance and disinterest.

    2. Our floor may have “looked” predominantly white, but we had a lot more socioeconomic and ethnic diversity than you give us credit, especially for the floor’s size. Maybe if you got to know your floor better, you would know that.

    This struck a chord with me and I wish you were a bit more careful about writing this article and including that account. I do think the rest of your thoughts on campus discussions of diversity are pretty valid, and you bring up some important points about the survey.

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    • Are you serious? says:

      Nothing hurt more to read than the unjustified and uncalled for attack you just unleashed on this woman, who was obviously hurt by previous interactions. Maybe your differing perspective makes it difficult to see where she is coming from, but you have no right to take your lack of understanding and attribute that to her being “indifferent and rude.”

      Speaking from personal knowledge, Kierstan’s observations are a common experience among students of color on WashU’s campus. It is not easy being the only one who looks like you in a room, and for students of color it is a painful experience to call home a place where no one else has had similar social and cultural experiences to your own. If in the beginning she was dealing with that very difficult transition in her own way, that does not give you the excuse to isolate and exclude her for the rest of the year.

      By minimizing Kierstan’s experiences you are going on to prove exactly what she said. It isn’t the overt instances of racism that are most painful to most students of color. It is the accumulation of “small” instances of bias and exclusion that go unnoticed or are ignored by our peers and administrators that are the most painful. This is not an attack on you as a person, because I obviously don’t know who you are. Whether or not you and your floormates intended to hurt Kierstan is beyond the point. She was hurt, how can we prevent student like her from being hurt like this in the future? Belittling the author and her experiences is the least helpful method of allowing us to move forward.

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      • are YOU serious? says:

        An unjustified and uncalled for attack? How about her accusation that her predominantly white floormates didn’t address her in public or invite her to hang out in the common room? Maybe YOUR differing perspective makes it difficult to see where I’M coming from. I might lack the understanding of what it is like to be another ethnicity or of how Kierstan was feeling, but do not discount other people’s experiences to serve your own narrative. I was merely suggesting that she was perceived as rude and cold. I did not assert I knew exactly what she was going through.

        We all go through some pretty tough s—. It’s hard to learn as a child that 6 million of your people were systematically murdered and that hatred of you for being Jewish still lingers today, even in our own nation, but I guess that doesn’t qualify me to be any other label than “white,” does it? Context can be difficult, but I don’t expect Christians or Muslims to treat me differently because I’m Jewish, no matter where I am (yes, WashU has a large Jewish population). If they do, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

        Considering there were other students of color on her floor last year, she was DEFINITELY not the only one who looked like her. Don’t generalize, because that’s self-defeating for your own argument. I am outright telling you that her floormates tried to be friendly to her and they were mostly shut down. That was our experience. Don’t minimize it.

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        • Kierstan Magna Carter says:

          Hi. This is Kierstan. It is never my intention to come off as “rude” or “cold”. I like to think that I’m actually pretty personable when given the chance. I’m sure we’re Facebook friends, so if you would like and would feel comfortable, let’s get dinner sometime soon and talk.

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          • good says:

            Kierstan I think it means a lot that you’re willing to step up and have uncomfortable conversations with other students about race, even though I did find some parts of your article worrying. Kudos

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          • Oxy_Moron says:

            Kierstan, what you should really do is apologize to this poster and any of the other people from the floor who have been offended by your publicly accusing them of being racist.

            Did you not once stop to think that it might have been something you did, not something you are? If you can substantiate your claim a little more I’m all ears.

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    • Anonymous says:

      I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what Kierstan was getting at when she asked that we be less “nice” in our conversations about diversity. Personal attacks like this are what make comments sections unreadable and unproductive.

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      • jon says:

        I believe Ms. Carter was making a rather personal attack in her article to those living on her floor

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        • Keith_Stone says:

          Seriously, her blanket statement was not only insulting but almost libelous in its shameless accusation of racism. I understand the point the author’s attempting to make, but that sentence could and should have been excised from this article. Utterly pointless and inflammatory.

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          • Anon says:

            Where did she accuse anyone of being racist? She may have felt as if she experienced some microaggressions but that’s a far cry from calling people racists.
            I believe that point of that brief example is not to condem her floormates but to recognize a campus climate that may not be the most welcoming to POC is not made up of large instances of racism but rather often unnoticed instances of feeling isolated

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          • Chance_the_Wrighton says:

            To Anon:

            By claiming that her “predominantly white freshman floormates” shunned her because she is black––and if we loosely define “racist” as being discriminatory/antagonistic/prejudicial toward someone based on his/her race–it logically follows that the author was accusing those floormates of being racist, at least at that time or in those scenarios.

            You’re right she doesn’t explicitly say it––and you might also be right that she didn’t mean to condemn the floormates––but intentionally or not, her words implicitly suggest they consciously and collectively exhibited racist and discriminatory behavior. Now you may quibble and perhaps rightly say that’s not the same thing as calling someone racist outright, but it’s pretty close.

            At best it’s a misconstrued reading of what really happened and a rather unfortunate choice of words to have published; at worst it’s a scapegoating of her floormates for no other reason than their being white and her being black.

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        • Anonymous says:

          Clearly you don’t understand what constitutes a ‘personal’ attack. Kierstan purposefully made her comments impersonal by referencing her floor abstractly and giving only as much information as was necessary to share her experience. That is a far cry from the above commenter calling her a rude and indifferent person. And she has responded rather maturely to those personal attacks by responding nicely on this thread under her own name. That speaks volumes, in my opinion.

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  • Jason says:

    What you’re saying is, “let’s not be Macklemore” and I agree.

    We are in a white focused society where systemic problems of race and sex and identity all converge to implicitly oppress minorities. Hurting people isn’t necessary, but to be hurt by the revelation that privilege assists the majority in tangible ways is to recognize the problem. When people can see how they benefit at the expense of others and feel disgusted by it, that’s when change can happen. The hurt feelings of the majority are less of a problem in the oppressed reality of the minority.

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  • anom says:

    *snaps* x infinity

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  • Anonymous says:

    I also want to say that I am in no way trying to invalidate your experiences with these girls or at Wash U in general. This is just how it came off to me as someone with similar experiences.

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  • Anonymous says:

    I want to preface this by saying that I, too, am a minority student. As a multiracial student, when I face the reality of my situation, it’s highly likely that no single other person shares the shares my ethnicity on this campus. While I can get behind the basic premise of the article (that we are too nice while talking about diversity; that we shy away from difficult topics; that we rarely have meaningful discussions about diversity on this campus), I take issue with some of the points brought up here. This article implies that the REASON the freshman girls avoided this author was because they were white, and the REASON the author was at one point unfit for Wash U was because the university caters to upper-class white students. I think every issue is more complex than this. People are not defined by the color of their skin or the money in their wallet, and it is unfair to have the blame go in either direction. By pigeonholing the blame of one’s problems onto factors outside their control – race, SES, etc – they lose control of them. Part of combating these issues on an individual basis is fighting back and proving to the small group of people around you that you are bigger than the color of your skin or the money in your wallet. Yes, it is frustrating that we are the ones that have to constantly be fighting against stereotypes…but complaining about it doesn’t get us anywhere, either. I really believe this type of personal experience is the only way to open people’s minds. However, I am also unclear about the mission of the Mosaic Project so it would be useful to know what type of large-scale projects they (hopefully) have in mind to combat microaggressions on this campus.

    Overall, thanks for the article. It made me think and you bring up some excellent points.

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    • Anonymous says:

      I think your critique here misses the point of the examples you cite: Carter is pointing out that the survey doesn’t encourage or provide the appropriate space for respondents to share experiences of implicit bias (rather than explicit bias). You may not agree with Carter about the reasons she felt excluded, but a survey that is attempting to assess the campus climate needs to make space for those experiences to be shared. To reduce Carter’s argument to merely “complaining about it” is a pretty gross misreading.

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  • Anonymous says:

    *snaps*

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