The Civil Rights movement may be associated with the 1960s, but racism in the United States is very much still a reality, no matter what is said about the developing acceptance of skin color. What is even more unsettling is that there is a color consciousness on the Principia College campus.
However that is not to say it is done in a malicious or callous way. Sociology professor Billy Miller said he believes that the “unintentional racism” that occurs on the Principia campus is based on “ignorance,” not on an intentional attempt to discriminate against African students. Miller believes that many domestic students, “don’t have a clue about Africa,” but that it is not their fault. He therefore does not blame the students, but rather American educational institutions. Miller advocated an “objective and reasoned view of Africa.”
Miller said that since the African students form a critical mass of the student body at 12 percent, there should be an orientation for the whole campus similar to the one given to international students when they first arrive. This would be about Africa, so students could identify the “right and wrong preconceptions” about Africa.
Miller referenced the recent Emmanuel Jal talk, which he believes to have been a great idea, although he said that some information that Jal shared made him very uncomfortable. He felt that some domestic students, because of their stereotypical imagery of Africa, would feel that some aspects in Jal’s talk represented the whole of Africa. He felt that some aspects of the talk would encourage stereotypes about the whole of Africa, such as the cannibalism and method of excretion disposal that Jal mentioned.
Freshman Patrick Muthee from Kenya explained that he “noted elements of exaggeration” in Jal’s speech. Although it is only speculation, Muthee said he believes that Jal was not being completely honest in his talk. In particular, Muthee explained that cannibalism was obsolete in Africa as in other parts of the world. Although the case that Jal described was an extreme one, both Miller and Muthee were keen to defend any misconception that this is a commonality in Africa.
Similarly, domestic sophomore Tim Drysdale said that the talk focused on an “extremity” of Africa, but he did consider that other students might think it was a norm in Africa.
Miller also believes that the campus owes a huge “debt of gratitude” to all the international students for the “patience, grace, love, and tolerance” they bring to the college community, and that the campus should do more for the African students. In particular, he said domestic students should be more welcoming and engaging to them.
This lack of welcome for African students is very much linked to the segregation between international and domestic students in the dining room. Miller gave a talk at the International Students Orientation (ISO) about the general relations between international and domestic students on campus, with particular reference to the dining room. Miller explained that, “as a result of our ignorance about Africa and Africans, there is often a discomfort in engaging African students.
“Too often we [Americans] are afraid of saying something culturally insensitive or politically incorrect,” Miller said. This often comes across as purposefully segregating ourselves based on stereotypical fears about race and/or ethnic identity.”
He did stress that although African students often sit in the corner of the dining room away from domestic students, domestic students sit together as well. Why is it that domestic students do not go and sit with the African students? Domestic senior Gwyn Ochs believes that for both sides of this divide, “people will stick with what they know,” which very much summarizes general human instinct, but is not, according to Ochs, correct.
In Miller’s talk to the ISO, when referring to the classroom, Muthee thought at first that Miller was being “sarcastic” when he mentioned students being loud. Then he realized in his classes what Miller was getting at; an American classroom is quite different from a Kenyan classroom, particularly in reference to volume.
Miller said he believes that there are many misconceptions about African students having bad grammar, when in fact their grammar and spelling are very good. They are used to British English instead of American English, which accounts for differences in word spelling like “color” from “colour” and the chemical elements “sulfur” from “sulphur.”
Miller said that race relations and misunderstandings like these have not changed much since he was a student at Principia. This leads to the question of whether these relations will ever change, either here or throughout the U.S. For African students like Muthee, it is the responsibility of domestic students to break down these boundaries, and for all students to do so fearlessly.