Increased diversity still just a number at Wash. U.

Black Anthology, the annual show put on every February, will take the Edison Theatre stage again in just a week’s time. But the recent report from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education detailing the number of black students enrolled in each year’s freshman class has our editorial board thinking of Black Anthology’s 2015 production instead.

That academic year, Michael Brown had been shot and killed in Ferguson just before school started. The production, called “The Six” in reference to the six percent of campus that identified as black, reflected the protests and outrage following that shooting. In response, racist, hateful posts were made on Yik Yak disparaging the production and the students involved.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education shows that the freshman class at Wash. U. during the year of “The Six” was 4.8 percent African-American. This year, for the class of 2020, that number is up to 12.4 percent. But has the culture that led to the discomfort and insecurity following that year’s production actually changed with the changing demographic?

Because our editorial board is primarily white, we felt it better to seek out people who have lived experiences with the racial atmosphere on campus. As a result of those conversations, it is the opinion of our editorial board that while it is commendable for Washington University to increase its numbers of black students, the administration needs to make a more proactive effort to support these students and change the culture of privilege that has been engrained in its operation.

One student we talked to, senior Taylor Bird McGuire who is participating in this year’s version of Black Anthology, felt that the demographic changes were in reaction to negative press Wash. U. received in 2014 and that no efforts toward systemic change had been made.

“Just because you increase the numbers doesn’t mean the administration has done anything to make this campus feel more comfortable or safer,” she said. “It seems like they’re doing it just to get the attention off of them for a moment.”

Bird McGuire spoke to her own experience as a black student on Wash. U.’s campus through this period of demographic transition, noting that spaces for African-American students definitely feel larger now than they did when she first arrived. However, she voiced her concern about resources on campus: as an resident advisor in her junior year, Washington University Police Department officers responding to a call she had made continually deferred to her white, male co-RA for questioning, even though he had not been present during the situation that caused her to make the call.

Bird McGuire emphasized that the University needs to institute more training for both its faculty and its assorted staff and take a proactive role in adapting to the changing demographics.

“If you’re going to increase the numbers here then you are going to increase that number of people who feel uncomfortable here if you’re not giving training to the people that are supposed to be our leaders,” she said.

Jeffrey McCune, associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies as well as African and African-American studies, echoed Bird McGuire’s concerns, speaking to the role that faculty have on the student experience.

“We have to account for diverse student experiences,” he said. “We have to open our community to make sure that we account for those folks who are not as privileged.”

McCune related a story of a distressed student who came to him because they felt that they could not possibly focus on their work knowing how their country treated people who looked like them. McCune, a black man who had attended a predominantly white institution for schooling himself, remembered being taken aback by the student’s story. He realized that the effects of race on student well-being are more wide-reaching than just what Wash. U. can control, and because of that, the school should go above and beyond to improve resources in order to lessen the impacts of national traumas.

“Imagine a professor who has not had those experiences at all, who would not even accept that as a reasoning for why a student might need an extension,” he said. “It is so important that we are attentive, that we attend to the specific needs and wellness of the students so that we can not only recruit [them], but that we can also retain them.”

The administration needs to listen to and act on the concerns of black students, of black faculty like Bird McGuire and McCune. Wash. U. cannot just point to a number in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education and be proud that we have statistically increased our diversity. Student experience does not begin and end with a number. Diversity at Wash. U. is about being accountable to those students, to their success and to their comfort and security in an increasingly uncertain world.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Black Anthology is not organized by the Association of Black Students.

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