Co-written by Adriana Belmonte and Ali Ayers
Diversity is a multi-faceted issue that has been brought to the forefront of discussion within the Marist community in recent years. However, for some students, it is not the answer to all the problems that come with it. “Diversity is important but not the end-all-be-all,” sophomore Danisha Craig said. “Marist has this idea that with a diverse classroom, those of privilege will become non-prejudicial. But in reality, if we’re not recognizing what affects who, we’re not fixing anything.”
Hakim Cunningham, the head of Student Government Multicultural Affairs Committee, urges students and administration at Marist to look past diversity as an issue of numbers and statistics and to see it as more of a mindset. Cunningham has hopes that Marist will look to local universities such as Vassar for inspiration on how to further spread cultural competency. Cunningham has personally spoken to Vassar students and feels as Vassar is also a predominantly white institution, the students there have a larger level of a cultural perspective and interest. Cunningham emphasized that although Marist is rising statistically in its diversity, it is still lacking in the overall mindset.
It is because of these feelings that Craig joined the Black Student Union (BSU) and now serves as the Treasurer of their Executive Board. Craig uses these meetings to engage members in discussion about what diversity really means. “Diversity erases certain categories of people. Lots of categories become intertwined and you lose the conversation of what affects certain races.”
Craig’s sentiment is that Marist has plenty of room for improvement which can be fixed by having African-American courses and more black faculty. “As a whole, Marist is a white space,” she explained. “The school has a way of totally ignoring black students here. But white students can become more culturally aware by paying attention to issues going on in the country outside of the Marist bubble.”
Recently, the BSU held a special discussion open to the entire Marist community to address issues of cultural insensitivity. Specific stories were brought to light, including one specific case of a professor asking to touch a young black woman’s hair to “see what it feels like.” Members attribute their biggest event, though, to the Cornel West lecture. “For the first time, it felt like our voices were being heard,” one BSU member said.
Bryanna Adams, a junior and current president of BSU, stated that she often feels singled out in her classes because of her race. “A lot of uneducated questions are directed at me,” she said. “People often assume you’re American black just because you’re brown-skinned but what they don’t realize is that there are so many nationalities that go into being black.”
While she and Craig agree on most issues regarding BSU, there is a divide between those that want BSU to be inclusive of all races and to be providing a safe space for black students to voice their concerns and opinions. Adams and faculty advisor Dr. Addrain Conyers are aiming towards gaining members from all different backgrounds but Craig’s belief is a bit different. “BSU should only be for black students,” she said. “By having white students there, black students are often uncomfortable talking about more serious issues.”
Some of those issues include instances of racism and racial profiling on campus. One specific instance is that of Dominique Alexandre ‘15, a black student and the school mascot known as Shooter Fox. On his way to class in daylight, Alexandre was stopped by security while passing the Lowell Thomas Communications Center and asked to show his student ID. They did not think that he was a Marist student. Alexandre spoke about the incident at a BSU meeting but could not be reached for further comment on the matter.
John Gildard, Director of the Office of Safety and Security, defended security protocol at Marist, stating that people getting stopped on campus simply depends on the circumstances. “We look for people that seem to be lost or unfamiliar with their surroundings,” he said. “Our job is to make sure everyone feels safe.” Gildard would not respond to accusations of racial profiling by security, stating that since it was the first time he was hearing of it, it would be an injustice to his security guards if he strictly spoke based on rumors. He insists that incidents like these are a “two-way street” and encourages people to see him if they feel that there is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Dr. Conyers is a professor of Criminal Justice at Marist. He teaches a Race and Crime course that has sparked class discussions about cultural insensitivities and a lack of cultural awareness that students have experienced not just at Marist, but also from personal experience in the outside world. Like other professors, Dr. Conyers comments on the benefits of studying abroad and the awareness students who have studied abroad develop about the other cultural practices around the world.
Dr. Conyers attributes the lack of this cultural awareness to just a simple lack of experience in this area. He recommends that Marist implement a type of seminar at orientation that emphasizes not diversity per se, but to accept and acknowledge the unique differences in each individual for he believes we should not get wrapped up in the numbers of diversity or cultural diversity. Instead, Dr. Conyers promotes an inclusive culture and keeping an open mind to how each person may identify themselves. In this sense, it is more about finding a common ground while embracing one’s own ethnic identity.
Colin McCann, Professor of Communication at Marist, emphasizes the importance of starting those difficult conversations. “It seems like people are afraid to express their opinions,” he said. “It’s similar to an Orwellian book even though we’re a free society.” As someone who teaches an Intercultural Communication course, he has developed presentations rooted in cultural competency. “Through all of our history, we haven’t changed much as a society,” he explained. “What does it mean to celebrate diversity? Each human being is so unique in its own way.” He urges others to see outside of themselves because no matter what we are experiencing, it is from our own worldview.
The Diwali event at Marist was a prime example of the kind of event that brings a sense of cultural competency and awareness to students. Jennifer Robinette, a Professor in Communications at Marist, worked to promote and run the Diwali event. Diwali is an extremely important holiday in the Indian culture and as Marist now has a strong presence of approximately 200 Indian students on campus, this event was of high interest. “The best outcome of the event was it was such a lively, memorable week in the Lowell Thomas lobby. It brought so many people into this building that you normally wouldn’t see,” Professor Robinette said about the event. The event included henna tattoos and bindis, a decorative mark worn by Indian women on their forehead. Professor Robinette commented on the non-Indian students and professors proudly displaying their bindis and henna tattoos stating, “On the outside of Marist you would expect people to look at you oddly, but here it was just perfectly natural.” Professor Robinette pointed out that more events like this would improve the perception of diversity at Marist and overall cultural competency. Professor Robinette defined diversity as being surrounded, interested in, and educated about cultures that are not necessarily the one you define with.
Dinesh Mendhe, a computer science graduate student at Marist, felt that the Diwali event provided him and other Indian students with cultural attention that made them feel more comfortable and at home. “It’s one of the biggest festivals we celebrate,” he explained. “It’s like Americans and Christmas.” While he and most other Indian students mainly stick together on campus, Mendhe also enjoys meeting others and claims he has more American friends than Indian friends. “I have met people here and become friends with people from Italy, Czech Republic, and Dubai,” he said. “Coming to Marist has provided me the opportunity to meet people from other cultures.” Despite being of a minority race, Mendhe says that he has always felt comfortable during his time at Marist. To him, every culture has their own positive and negative sides.
In a sense, a part of the diversity at Marist begins at enrollment. Julio Torres is Director of Multicultural Enrollment at Marist and is also an alumnus. Torres emphasized that diversity is a multi-faceted issue that cannot be encapsulated by culture alone. Gender, sexuality and socioeconomic background are all pertinent aspects of diversity, Torres pointed out. Admissions works as a team to recruit students from backgrounds that encapsulate those aspects. As an institution, Marist has grown greatly in terms of statistics since Torres was a student himself, but this progress is a continual effort. Events like Diwali are indicative of the kind of diversity that is growing at Marist. Furthermore, programs at Marist such as Upper Bound and HEOP provide opportunity for students with financial and social disadvantages. Torres urges the student body to drive the conversation about diversity and inclusiveness. Students are talking and voicing their concerns as seen in social media. Torres points out what it means to be culturally competent stating, “Being aware of your own perspective when you deal with people of a different culture.” Torres stated that this is part of the mission at Marist. Marist wants to make sure that students can go forward with opportunities in the global community.
Is there any one definition of diversity? Dr. Tim Mirabito, Professor of Communication, believes that diversity is the inclusionary process of a number of different represented groups in our society. Does Marist have diversity? In Mirabito’s opinion, Marist’s numbers are “embarrassingly low.” He does not think of it as a failure on Marist’s part but rather a systematic shortcoming. “It has been continually addressed,” he said. “At the end of the day, though, it’s on us.”
He attributes the lack of diversity to Marist being an institution of higher education and the cost of tuition. The resources that many minorities have, he says, makes it difficult for some of them to afford a school like Marist. Once they are at Marist, there is no one specific major that many of them turn to. Mirabito mainly teaches Sports Communication classes and admits that there are hardly any minorities in his classes. He could not think of a single reason of why that is.
To Mirabito, diversity is more than just race. He makes an argument that people with disabilities are part of a diverse group of people. This includes not just those with physical disabilities but also those with learning disabilities, such as ADHD and dyslexia. “They make up our biggest minority group,” he said, which was confirmed by the 2010 census.
Desmond Murray is the Co-Chair of Diversity Council at Marist. His role is meant to educate others about race and his work with the Affirmative Action Advisory Committee and Diversity Works Magazine aims to teach others about diversity and affirmative action. He does this by bringing in guest speakers, organizing lectures, etc.
Murray believes the lack of diversity at the college goes deeper than just the students; there is also a lack of diversity among the faculty. While he does believe that Marist tries to recruit faculty of color, many issues still come into play. He believes that faces of color are so underrepresented among the staff because Marist is not able to offer salaries that they would be open to taking. In turn, they accept jobs at other places that offer them more. Additionally, he believes that the area surrounding the college is a factor.
In order for there to be change at Marist, Murray believes that it needs to start with the Office of Admissions and the Office of Human Resources. “Affirmative action is a law,” he said. “Diversity is a way of thinking. You do it because you think it’s good, not because you’re forced to.” While there are many who believe that affirmative action is counterproductive to gaining true equality, Murray disagrees with that idea, saying that people should only get jobs if they are qualified for the position. He believes that it balances the playing field by giving minorities the opportunity to be interviewed. “There are discrimination and nepotism that occurs when it comes to hiring,” Murray said. “We can eliminate it once everyone believes that all people are created equal.”