Letter to the Editor 4

Letter+to+the+Editor+4

 

Dear President Bravman:

Thank you in advance for taking the time to read this letter. I am writing for two reasons: to respond to your remarks at yesterday’s Weis Center Forum and to offer my perspective as a person of color in this community.

For quite some time, I have had little faith in your (or anyone else’s) ability to truly affect even a fraction of change on this campus. Just last week, a close friend of mine who attends Connecticut College returned from a campus-wide discussion on race, respect, and inclusion. The day before, the word “nigger” had been found written on the walls of several bathrooms on campus and it was determined that some communal discourse was necessary. After the meeting, she called me enthusiastically hopeful about the future of her community and she couldn’t understand why I didn’t share her optimism. I explained to her that I cannot expect an institution to follow through on its promises nor, as a person of color, do I have the patience to engage in the song & dance that administrations like to perform in response to crises before quickly neglecting their charge. I now realize that my feelings on your ability to spark meaningful dialogue were coming from a place of learned helplessness.

Why even bother? No one will take me seriously anyway. It’s not like Bucknell is actually going to change the culture on this campus.

Over the last four years, this thought has crossed my mind more times than I can count. But it came from more than just learned helplessness. My resignation came from my pride. I couldn’t understand why the burden was on me to change this community. I couldn’t understand why I had to be the one (as a person of color) to confront the ignorance that I faced and didn’t ask for and didn’t cause. I didn’t understand why I had to clean up someone else’s mess; why it was my job to help fix those who seemed to have a problem with me over things I could not change. Surely, this is my time to grow, not to carry the burden of confronting ignorance, I thought. I didn’t want my time here to be wasted on frustration so I, like many others on this campus, tried my best to ignore the looming sense of alienation and the continuous stream of both subtle and blatant racism.

My pessimism momentarily subsided two days ago; first when I read an encouraging email from Student Government President Alex Rosen, and later on when you stated that racism exists in our community–a very brave and honorable statement in my opinion. I barely slept two nights ago, anxious for what yesterday’s discussion might produce. I left work early today to make sure that I got a good seat. And as I watched dozens and dozens of my fellow students stream into the Weis Center, I became energized in a way that I have never experienced in my four years at Bucknell. I was nearly certain that yesterday would be different. Yesterday I thought that there would be some progress or, at least, some honest discussion amongst peers. Unfortunately, the entire event was a missed opportunity and, even worse, a confirmation of my resignation and cynicism.

A few minutes into your remarks I realized that you were not speaking to me. As an ethnic minority, I of course understood that you were speaking about me. But, I must say that almost nothing of what you had to say yesterday was profound or anything even resembling a first step towards justice. I appreciated to hear about how much you were affected by this racist nonsense. But, in my opinion, your perspective as a powerful, wealthy, white man can only go so far in expressing our outrage. You went on to give the entire room a stern talking to, which failed to address the fact that this dilemma we find ourselves in is simply about what’s right; nothing else. Today was not about Bucknell social cohesion or Bucknell’s reputation or Bucknell values. As far as I am concerned, treating people with respect and not with threats or ignorance is a human value, not one that originates in Bucknell’s mission statement. I am glad that your “spirit” and your “heart” were broken by what was said on the radio. I would be alarmed if you didn’t have this reaction. But, how about letting others say why their hearts were broken? Maybe the average and too often apathetic Bucknellian needs to see a fellow black student recount his or her experience or even break down and cry at an open-mic in order to see that living in this community takes a toll on many people. Maybe it would have been helpful to hear how a black person felt after hearing someone in his or her community say “Nigger. Black people should be dead. Lynch ’em.” How does not having a dialogue yesterday, encourage a future dialogue?  By delivering a speech rather than encouraging discussion, you declared yourself the voice of the community. White, black, or brown–you thought it best to call a school-wide meeting (that wasn’t compulsory so only 1/3 of the student body was actually there) with the purpose of bringing about change and then not a single person, other than you, was able to express themselves. I understand that no one is perfect and there is certainly no perfect response to a crisis like the one we are facing. But the least you could have done yesterday was to encourage some honest discussion. Had students been encouraged to speak openly and honestly, I have no doubt that my peers would have risen to the challenge. If you had given us the chance to speak, I might have told you about some of my experiences. In the absence of that opportunity, I’ll relate them to you here:

I have met some incredible people at this school; people that have changed my life. Still, I sometimes wonder if it was all worth it? Could I have gone to another school, had life-affirming experiences, and not had to deal with the ignorance and stupidity that has colored much of my experience over the last four years? The sad truth is that most of the time I know that coming to Bucknell wasn’t worth it, unless my presence here is simply meant to expose the less-cosmopolitan Bucknellians to a Hispanic.

The first encounter I had with racism at Bucknell occurred while I was being recruited for the baseball team in August of 2010. It was my official visit and I was due to sit down and have a conversation with a baseball coach (he is no longer at Bucknell). As the awkward chit-chat slowly died down, he started to say all the right things that any eager student-athlete dreams of hearing: this is the place for you, I think you can be instrumental in our program, etc.

Then, he paused and said: “Don’t worry about your grades or SAT scores. I know your scores are a little lower than Bucknell’s requirement, but I think we can get you in.”

I’m ashamed to say that I was too blinded by the opportunity of playing college baseball to realize that even the quickest glance at my academic record would show that my SAT score was nowhere near subpar. In fact, my score was better than most of those students accepted. Why then, did he assume my scores to be subpar? Why did he feel the need to reassure me that he could “get me in” to a school that I could have gotten into myself? There have been many days since matriculation that I’ve wished I hadn’t ignored such an obviously prejudiced remark. I might have saved myself from witnessing things at this school that I am quite literally too ashamed to do anything about.

During one semester at Bucknell, I had a Professor that I absolutely loved. I remember liking everything about the teaching style and the Professor and I shared a few fascinating conversations during office hours. But then we ran into each other one afternoon at Mercado Burrito down on Market Street. I was thinking about what to order when I saw my Professor, made eye contact, and walked over. The conversation’s closing remark was: “Hey, you would be a good person to ask, let me know if the burritos here are truly authentic.” I thought it was a joke but, then again, we weren’t that close and the tone of the comment seemed sincere. I never addressed the situation and never went to office hours again, and I don’t think that a 19 year-old should have the burden of explaining the complex cultural and historical differences between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans to an adult with a Ph.D. In other words, I don’t think this was a teachable moment. I’m sad to say that I’ve failed to avoid similarly annoying moments (because that’s what it really is to me at this point). A staff member recently saw a t-shirt that I wore to class that was decorated with the phrase “Homeland Security.” The full design is actually a picture of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and a few other Native American leaders followed by the punch-line: “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” It’s exactly the sort of t-shirt that one might expect a history major to own. The staff member asked if I had any relatives working for the Dept. of Homeland Security and when it became clear that the t-shirt design was intended as a joke, the next comment was: “Oh, I thought you knew someone working for Homeland. Because I have a cousin down in Texas who works for them. You know, trying to keep out all the goddamn Mexicans.” The saddest part about this encounter was that I didn’t know if the comment was meant as a personal insult because I’m Hispanic or, perhaps more disheartening, that the staff member wasn’t aware of my ethnicity and felt comfortable making the comment because there weren’t any Mexicans around.

These are the few incidents that came to mind in the hours after I left the Weis Center and do not come close to translating the day-to-day ignorance, which include: the fact that one of my professors lauded my papers as being exceptionally articulate and eloquent, only to have him tell me that he had assumed English was my second language; the fact that I’ve never heard the words nigger and faggot used more frequently than I have over the last four years here; the fact that approved themes for parties at this school have been homelessness, Bloods & Crips, and “interchangeable noun + Hoes.” I’ve been too embarrassed to bring up most of my concerns to my parents, especially those concerning my ethnicity. I don’t want them to know that they have sent me to mature in a community that is less inclusive and more ignorant than what they would have hoped for their child.

My time here has ultimately left me disillusioned and several times since matriculation I have returned home to talk to student-athletes about the college process and their options. I must admit that I answer honestly when kids ask me whether they should look into Bucknell. I always tell them no. When they happen to be children of color, I tell them that college is a time for personal growth and intellectual curiosity; it’s not about being around to help catch up ignorant classmates. I tell them that it isn’t their job to educate others with their presence and to periodically remind them of what’s offensive or of what’s hateful or of what’s threatening to say. And while my discomfort is by no means continuous or unending, I have grown accustomed to simply trying to get through the semester and survive until graduation. President Bravman, I do not wake up in the morning and think about how I can make the Bucknell community a more welcoming place for people like me. It is insulting to be spoken to as if I have some hand in fixing a problem that apparently my ethnicity created.

In some sense, your remarks yesterday exemplify everything that is insufficient in our national discourse on race. Apparently, “Nigger. Black people should be dead. Lynch ’em,” is the threshold for an admission that racism exists on this campus. That such racism is a reality here is something that I could have told you four years ago, and is something that you would have been made aware of had you allowed people to speak yesterday. Moreover, based on your Howard University comment, you also seem to misunderstand why black and brown people often feel alienated on this campus. I’m Puerto Rican. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I am from a racially diverse, but by no means minority neighborhood. I attended Poly Prep Country Day for high school. Poly Prep happens to be predominantly white. The vast majority of my close friends are white. In fact, I have never lived in a place or gone to a school where most people looked like me. Furthermore, I have two adopted brothers–one of whom is black. So not even all of the people in my household looked like me growing up. Minorities on campus are not uncomfortable because they are surrounded by white people. In some perverse way, this seems to suggest that we have a defeatist attitude from the start; that we are so weak-minded and provincial and so wanting of racial comfort that merely being around this many white people makes us uncomfortable. This sentiment–which I must stress was the implication of your Howard University comparison–could not be more simplistic nor could it be further from the truth. We are often uncomfortable because of the views that some people on this campus have expressed and the atmosphere (tolerated by this administration) that allows these views to fester. “Nigger. Black people should be dead. Lynch ’em,” is just the latest and most obvious example of deep cultural failings. I hate to disagree with you, but I don’t want my white friends here to have to imagine themselves at Howard University to “put themselves in my shoes.” For one, I don’t want to be pitied for not just being around people who look like me. Secondly, my friends shouldn’t have a problem living in an overwhelmingly black community so long as they weren’t reciprocally confronted with ignorance. My happiness and comfort are not dictated by how many brown and black people surround me. To suggest that such is the case is not only insulting but also seeks to devalue the life-long friends that I have made with those who just so happen to be white. I think many of your false assumptions would have been clarified or corrected had you allowed students to speak.

I also don’t think the vast majority of students, and obviously not the black students, needed to sit in silence for five minutes to figure out why saying: “Nigger. Black people should be dead. Lynch ’em,” is wrong. And perhaps even more ridiculous, I don’t think that they need to sit for five minutes to think about what steps they are going to take to make Bucknell a place more accepting of them. President Bravman, I hope that you see what’s odd–and slightly masochistic–about asking minorities to commit themselves–in addition to their school work, athletics, and extracurricular activities–to be solution to the problem that others have with them.

President Bravman, yesterday you said that when you came to Bucknell you thought that this institution might last 1,000 years. Yesterday you suggested that somehow we as a community have lost the Bucknell ethos of inclusion, respect, etc. But I have been here nearly as long as you have, so we must have existed on different campuses for these past four years. I do not agree that the question we need to ask ourselves is “How did we get here?” Some of us feel that this is the way Bucknell has been. We didn’t get here. We should instead be asking “How do we finally end this nonsense for good?” And perhaps this is a good time to agree with you that I also do not presume to know how to end racism. For one, I don’t think such a thing is truly possible. But I think it is within our grasp to aspire to just having isolated incidents. In other words, we can do more than we are currently doing, which seems to be almost nothing. As evidenced by the remarks made by some of my fellow Bucknellians on the local news, some think that the moral of this story is to be careful what you say because it might affect your future. Nonetheless, it is abundantly clear that this community has a long and arduous road to travel when some of our students don’t even know how to be properly outraged.

This letter, and the change I hope it motivates you to pursue, is not change that I’ll ever see. My four years at Bucknell have come and gone. But, there are no doubt others that will experience that which I have recounted for you in this honest appeal. Please encourage dialogue in the future and please make the healing of Bucknell’s wounds a mandatory event.

Although I do not know you well, I can tell that you are a good man who wants what’s best for his students. Please do more for us.

-Marcus A. Hernandez

 

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