Diversity, race issues confronted in campus forum

On Monday, a group of students from the Race as a Global Challenge course hosted an event focused on race and diversity on campus in Mother’s Wine Emporium. The first hour was a seminar geared toward leaders of multicultural groups on campus, which then opened up to the public for general discussion.

Prior to the event, the student group released a survey that inquired about student opinions on topics like the administration and faculty encouragement of diversity on campus, the frequency of race-related discussions in the classroom, and the presence of multicultural clubs at Rensselaer. The survey ended with a free response question that asked for the participant’s thoughts on the state of current race relations at RPI.

Of the 233 people that took the survey, approximately 100 people used that section to elaborate on their thoughts and experiences. Responses spanned all across the spectrum, ranging from people who thought of race relations as “absolutely a non-issue” to people who, citing the “white nationalistic propaganda postered around campus,” referred to RPI as “a hostile environment for students of color.”

Some people used the question to reflect on the limits of their experiences and their disconnect to the issue, as with one response that said, “I think [race relations] are pretty good. Then again, I’m a white male and am probably out of touch.” Another response included comments on how race relations should not be, and are not, an issue on campus. “One of the best parts of this school is the lack of [political activism]. People are here to get things done and actually [change the world],” continued the participant.

The survey results were shared during the open discussion portion of the night, and they garnered comments about how some people simply don’t see that there are issues, and how others can be generally apathetic to matters that don’t directly affect them. “People forget that we are people, but I still have a culture and a life outside of studying and being an engineer,” commented one student.

The discussion included undergraduate and graduate students, and even a few professors. Ria Shroff ’19, a student organizing the event, had reached out to members of faculty, encouraging them to join the discussion about race on campus and possibly get more involved. While doing this, she received a one-page email response from a professor that detailed why events about race and diversity on campus are unnecessary and irrelevant.

One of the faculty members present was Steven Tysoe, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at RPI. He spoke about how the major difference between people of different races is the concentration of melanin in their skin. He stressed that it is “just a biochemical difference,” and that people should “be American first, and their culture second,” regardless of how they identify themselves.

“America was built on my oppression, so I’m not going to put America first,” responded one student, who continued by stating that “everything [she] grew up to be was rooted in being a black woman.” Later in the discussion, another student added that “being an American and celebrating [one’s] culture are not mutually exclusive.”

Eddie Knowles, a professor in the Department of the Arts, also spoke during the discussion. Knowles teaches a course focused on the 1960s, where he works to connect the dots between what was happening then and what is happening now. He urged everyone in the room to develop a full understanding of what happened in that time period and how people tried to address similar issues, and to use it as a guide.

“It’s troubling to me that we’re discussing the same thing we did 40 years ago,” commented Knowles. He then continued, and addressed the room by saying, “but, I’m hopeful, because look at all you young people here.” He urged the people in the room to “speak to [their] truth,” and to “think outside the boxes of [their] disciplines and have a broader view of the world.”