It Takes More Than Just Being Here

It Takes More Than Just Being Here

By Guest Contributor

When I read the article by Jeanette Cortez, class of 2015 and from Los Angeles, not Philadelphia, as reported in last week’s issue, “Not Like a Fifth Class,” I had an immediate, almost visceral reaction. In her article, she criticized the negative reactions of students of color to incidents of racism and began with a reference to a quote (incorrectly attributed to Debanjan Roychoudhury ’16) from my friend, Victor Filpo ’16 that “being a student of color at Middlebury is kind of like taking a fifth class.” Jeanette directly opposed this quote, writing, “being a student of color at Middlebury means nothing more than that you are a student of color at Middlebury.” When I read this, I felt a swell of frustration spread inside my chest. First, the fifth class quote was out of context, and second, her statement dismissed the very real discrimination faced by students of color at Middlebury, and their efforts to fight against that discrimination.

After hearing from Jeanette directly this past Sunday at an African American Alliance (AAA) meeting, I understand that her intention in writing the op-ed was to express a different perspective than the one she feels usually speaks for all people of color on campus, and that to her, seems negative. I appreciate her voice and respect whatever beliefs about race and identity help her feel happy and productive at Middlebury. However, I take issue with many of the messages in her article, and even more than that, the prevalence of those sentiments within the greater Middlebury community: essentially, that the brown people on campus keep complaining about petty issues and should just be happy to be here.

When I asked Victor what he meant when he said that being a student of color at Middlebury could feel like taking a fifth class, he explained that identifying or being identified as a person of color often seemed like additional homework; he was constantly expected to teach others about issues of race and even fix deeply seated institutional racism.

For me and some of my friends, this “fifth class” feeling means having to pause conversations with white peers and tell them why it is offensive when they say “ghetto,” or touch your hair without asking, or ask what your story is and how you got to Middlebury. It means having to listen to professors when they pull you aside after class and, with sympathetic smiles, reassure you that they understand “that it’s hard to keep up with the class coming from where you’re from.” It means feeling obligated to raise your hand in class after a student explained that societal fear of young black men makes sense because “way more black guys do and sell drugs and kill people to, you know, feed their families.” It means the weight of guilt swirling around in your head when you decide that this time, you don’t want to raise your hand.

It’s okay if these kinds of moments do not make every student of color feel uncomfortable, unhappy or burdened. It’s okay if not every student of color, when faced with these interactions, feels as though it negatively affects their Middlebury experience. It does not necessarily have to. However, I’ll be damned if anyone says that a student of color who does feel this way shouldn’t.

People have a right to their own anger, frustration and exhaustion. Yes, we are at Middlebury—a school that we are constantly reminded is an “elite” institution, surrounded by a beautiful Vermont landscape and fixed with certain lifestyle privileges that many of us do not get anywhere else. Yes, we are here, but by no means do we always have to be happy about it. Because typical Middlebury descriptors like our elite status, the Vermont outdoors and a privileged lifestyle—food when we want it, cleanliness without having to clean, etc.—hold different meaning for different people.

When students of color decide to point out and change some of the structural and individual racism at our school, it is out of an effort to shape this institution into a more inclusive and safe one, both for current and future students. It is dismissive and inaccurate to describe these voices, these calls for action, as complaints or even as barriers to the success of students of color. In fact, many of the students I know who are most active around issues of race and social justice on campus are doing quite well here academically.  These students are not making “extra obstacles for themselves,” but instead trying to remove obstacles that already exist, so that other students may pass through Middlebury more freely, less burdened and with the kind of fifth class that only comes with an orange add card.

MAYA DOIG-ACUÑA ’16 is from New York, N.Y. Artwork by AMR THAMEEN.