Thursday, December 17, 2015

Memoirs of a Black Princetonian

As a Black alumnus of Princeton University, I'm dismayed at the quality of the debate over last month's "Occupy Nassau" sit-in and the demands made by the Black Justice League (BJL). The BJL and many of its supporters have painted a rather gloomy portrait of a Black and Latino student body crushed under the boot of an unfeeling administration and uniformly seething with racial resentment. I, for one, don't buy this dismal caricature of race relations at my alma mater. My experience as a Black Princeton student in the 2000s suggests that while many minority students there do experience racism and feel alienated from the school's cultural mainstream, a great many others don't.

Mind you, I'm glad that the BJL has succeeded in prompting Old Nassau to confront the issue of race relations on campus. In my day, I heard more than a few Black students express dissatisfaction with Princeton life due to the occasional racial slur, feeling out of place or unwelcome at parties at Princeton’s eating clubs, obnoxious racial attitudes expressed in campus publications, etc. Yet I knew at least as many Black students who felt entirely at home at Princeton; and even those who felt alienated had a number of campus institutions to which they could turn for cultural succor. The Princeton that I attended was not the racial dystopia that many participants in the current clash make it out to be. Furthermore, I doubt that the problems that do afflict the “Orange Bubble” would likely be remedied by the implementation of most of the BJL’s demands.

In 2006, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) gave Princeton its third-highest ranking among the 26 most selective U.S. universities—and its highest Ivy League ranking—for its record of attracting African-American students and professors. That same year, Hispanic magazine rated Princeton America’s second-best university for Latinos. One African-American freshman, Cameron White ’09, told The Daily Princetonian, "I think the fact that I don’t notice anything negative is a sign that University policies in promoting diversity are effective. I feel like my race isn’t even an issue when making friends." He wasn’t alone.  

I arrived at Princeton expecting to struggle to find my Afro-Caribbean culture represented on campus. Instead, my very first day, a personable Bahamian sophomore promptly introduced me to the Princeton Caribbean Connection (PCC), where I couldn’t swing my arm without smacking a fellow West Indian. That spring semester, I performed on my brand new steelpan at the PCC’s annual “A Little Taste of Carnival” festival. I routinely broke bread with students from throughout the Caribbean Islands and Diaspora; I met two budding dancehall queens and had a classmate who was a veteran of Spike Lee's films; I saw reggae veteran Wayne Wonder perform at Princeton's Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding for free.

Such offerings of non-Caucasian culture were not in short supply. There was the “Black and Brown Barbecue” that kicked off the school year; the “Soul Meets Seoul” dinner that united African-American and Korean-American students (and cuisine); the Blacklight Party at the Campus Club (which had a membership commonly described as consisting of “Band people and Black people”) where I celebrated my very first Dean’s Date. The Black Student Union’s Leadership and Mentoring Program (LAMP) paired Black freshmen with veterans who showed us the ropes, helping us navigate the often choppy waters of the Princeton experience. Among my favorite social events by far were the Black Men’s and Women’s Appreciation Dinners each spring, in which gentlemen would treat ladies to a sumptuous formal banquet and vice versa; send off graduating seniors in style; and and salute one another for the roles we had played in each other’s lives.

Beneath the surface, of course, all was not copacetic; I never personally experienced any ascertainable bigotry, but many of my fellow Black students reported not being so lucky. My first inkling of their discontent came during my freshman fall, when my academic advisor asked me bluntly—at the administration's instruction—whether I felt comfortable on Prospect Avenue (the location of the eating clubs). Taken aback, I told her that I felt fine on the drag colloquially known to students as "the Street;" but it soon dawned on me that my experience was not universal.

I learned more about the alienation of many of my fellow Black students after joining the Black Men’s Awareness Group (BMAG) and Princeton’s “Sustained Dialogue” (SD) chapter. One of my SD discussion group leaders once stated that she’d been called a nigger on campus in the past. In online conversations between BMAG members, I heard tales of rejection from parties on the Street. One member told us of the time he’d been accosted by an enraged, drunk white student who accused him of “wanting to screw our [i.e. white] girls.”

Anecdotal or not, such claims of racism shouldn’t be cavalierly dismissed. Casually peruse the comments section of virtually any Daily Princetonian article about racial issues, and you’ll find comments exhibiting contempt for African-Americans and other racial minority groups. It’s not hard to imagine that at least some of that demonstrable prejudice occasionally manifests itself in face-to-face encounters between students or in interactions with faculty and staff.  

Nonetheless, the totality of the circumstances doesn’t clearly support the narrative advanced by the BJL and its supporters. Based on my experiences and those of other Black and Latino alumni whom I’ve consulted on this issue, I strongly suspect that a great many minority students have not found Princeton to be such an “oppressive environment.”   

So it should come as no surprise that I don’t agree with the BJL’s entire reform agenda. I’m not opposed to renaming University institutions named after Woodrow Wilson, though apparently, the exact extent and significance of his undeniable racism is debatable. Yet I can’t support this demand strongly, either, because I can’t see what good it would do. November 2015 was the first time I ever heard a Black student or alumnus voice a grievance having anything to do with Princeton’s thirteenth president. It figures, because Wilsonian nomenclature has no practical impact on any students’ daily lives; it doesn’t directly affect anyone’s grades, job prospects, work loads, or classroom and social experiences.

I'm much more sympathetic to the designation of a room in the Carl Fields Center for Black students than I originally was. When I was an undergraduate, Fields had already provided Black Princetonians with “a place where [they] can have dignity and comfort and engage in self-healing with those who have had similar experiences” (in the BJL's words) ever since its foundation in 1971. Yet it's been claimed that since Fields' relocation six years ago, it has ceased cater to minority students the way it used to. At a campus colloquium last December, Yina Moore '79 stated that Fields is no longer "the cultural center for African-American students," according to the Daily Princetonian. It this is true, then I can see how it made sense for the administration to agree to this demand.

I just can't get behind the BJL’s call for the establishment of cultural affinity housing. The implication that “students interested in Black culture” currently have nowhere to go boggles my mind, for I was never at a loss for exposure to Black culture at Princeton. The Black Arts Company (BAC) regularly enthralled students with African-American dance and theatre; I thrilled to the acrobatic moves of the B-boy crew Sympoh; I remember Black students flocking in droves to Friday night “Black Box” parties (in the insidiously named Wilson College, no less!). I got to see Jurassic 5 and Rihanna perform for free (though I’ve always kicked myself for missing George Clinton’s show); I even got to shoot the breeze briefly with human beatbox Rahzel after one of his two performances at Princeton during my freshman year. I got to see Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter, speak. Not once during my Princeton days did I ever feel “pushed to assimilate into the dominant community by hiding important aspects of [my] identity.”

I also partook of countless other multicultural offerings, from the traditional Mexican dance of Ballet Folklorico to the South Asian dance of Naacho to Raks Odalisque's Middle Eastern dance. The Afrobeat All-Stars, Sensemaya, were perennial crowd favorites at my own Terrace Club, and the springtime "Souk" bazaar brought Jewish and Arab students together to share Middle Eastern customs and cuisine with the campus. I doubt that all those cultural opportunities (and many more) have completely vanished from Princeton in the years since I graduated. I don't see why non-white current students need to be able to live in racially dedicated dorms in order to feel at home on campus.

There's one more dimension to my disagreement with this particular demand. I strongly support African descendants' efforts to build our own spaces, but the more we can provide such spaces for ourselves, without having to depend on white authorities like governments or university administrations to provide them for us, the better. Intriguingly, the Black alumni statement proclaiming solidarity with the BJL seemingly echoed this sentiment: "You should be able to create your own safe spaces and not have [them] ascribed to you." But the BJL is demanding precisely what its alumni allies seem to be inveighing against: the ascription of campus spaces to them by the administration. How can the alumni's laudable appeal for Black collective self-reliance and independence possibly be reconciled with the BJL's demand on its face?

It’s partly because of my belief in open-minded and respectful discourse that I actually support the addition of a diversity category to the undergraduate distribution requirements. I learned a great deal about many lesser-known dimensions of institutional racism in America through my freshman seminar on “The Ghetto As a Socio-Historical Problem” and my writing seminar on “The Race Debate in the Modern U.S.” My classmates came from diverse political and cultural backgrounds, and my professors taught in an ideologically neutral and intellectually tolerant manner, conveying documented facts and allowing us to draw our own conclusions from them. As long as the proposed courses are implemented as impartially and open-mindedly as my past courses were taught, I’m confident that the calibre and tenor of discussion of race relations at Princeton will benefit from them.

Yet that benefit won’t materialize as long as Princeton students continue to denigrate the value of free speech or to cast aspersions on its advocates' motives; to refuse to debate the BJL’s demands on the merits or to substantiate their claims of bigotry on campus; to dismiss arguments against the BJL’s agenda with facile accusations of racism and race treachery; to scorn critiques of the BJL’s tactics as “tone policing” and “respectability politics;” or to lump all darker-complected Princetonians into the same monolithically aggrieved category. I’m not convinced that Princeton is the bubbling cauldron of racial antagonism that the BJL’s rhetoric suggests, or that it is a systematically “oppressive” environment where only white students can get a fair shake. This more nuanced perspective, too, must be be a part of the discourse on the BJL’s demands if Old Nassau is to emerge from the current controversy a better place.

One thing that can certainly be said for the BJL’s ballsy maneuver is that it has prodded Princeton to face up to the race question in an unprecedented way. For that achievement, they deserve their props. Now that that phase of the mission has been accomplished and the debate is afoot, however, I hope that cooler heads and more open minds will prevail from here on in.   


MadeleineR said...

Great read, Akil!

Rumata702 said...

Absolutely loved it. Thank you.