Student group says racism, bias the norm for blacks on campus

In early December 2006, six students co-wrote a letter and dropped it in the mailboxes of several administrators. The letter said that members of the African-American community at Geneseo had "recently experienced many acts of racial injustice" and had decided to "come together and fight the issues that have put us in a very depressed and academically unmotivated state."

The students, who include juniors Cortez Jones, Tarik Kitson, Maurice Brown and Donté Ray, and sophomores Christopher Neels and Scott Snowden, had been deliberating over the campus-wide problem of violent and verbal acts of racial injustice, and decided to take it upon themselves to initiate change. Their letter expressed interest in meeting with College officials to discuss their perceptions pertaining to bias related acts, the student disciplinary process, and the recruitment of African-American students.

As a group, the six students call themselves FARI (Fighting Against Racial Injustice), and said they represent not only themselves, but the black student community as a whole. "We want to be the spokespeople, the voice of those who are too intimidated to speak out," said Jones. "People are heard through us. We're the liaison between minority students and the people that will help us make the necessary changes."

Oppressive forces hinder success

Members of FARI point out that, while battling the larger issue of racism is the main motivator, the day-to-day suffering they witness and experience is just as debilitating. "When you first come to Geneseo, you think it's not so bad," said Ray. "In your first semester, you encounter maybe a couple acts of racism, either directly or indirectly. Your second semester, it's the same thing - not a big deal. But then it just continues. Racist comments and jokes are passed and racist actions are made left and right, and without consequence," Ray said.

Several of the members explained a scenario in which they find themselves far too often: being the only black student in an entire class. "You feel out-of-place, like you don't belong there, because everyone else is white," Jones said. "Your professors and the other students in the class see you as a representative of the general black community, which isn't true," he said. FARI agreed that they have each personally been asked to describe - to a class - different aspects of "being black," or to explain situations or literature that involve or relate to black people.

"You basically wake up every morning wondering what you'll have to deal with for the rest of the day," Ray said. "Am I going to have to defend myself? Am I going to have to hear a derogatory term, discriminative toward black people, in a joking manner? Are people going to stare or frown at me?"

"As a bi-racial student," Neels added, "I feel like I don't know where I belong. I don't fit in with the black kids, but I don't fit in with the white kids."

Members of FARI feel supported by the administration, and claim that officials have generally been helpful and encouraging. Simultaneously, however, they feel as though Geneseo perpetuates discrimination against minorities through systematic racism. "I understand why Humanities is a part of our core requirement," Jones said, "and it's great - I love it. But eight credits? Eight? Why don't we have to learn about Latino Humanities, or Asian Humanities, or African Humanities?" he questioned. "We would like to see a more comprehensive, thorough collection of courses offered about African-Americans and black people," Kitson said. "In a history course that focuses on white achievements and white accomplishments, you aren't motivated. You aren't interested. We want to be able to take courses that focus on the black person instead of on the white person - that would keep my attention."

The students also feel that Geneseo as a community is not very welcoming. "White kids think we don't like to hang out with them, but it's not that," said Ray. "It's just that, when you arrive at a college where you'll be spending the next four years of your life and where the majority of the campus is white, you migrate toward people that are similar to you."

"You need to feel like you belong somewhere," added Jones. "So you spend time with people who understand you and with whom you can connect. But there are so few of us that you end up staying home on Friday nights. I go home to Rochester almost every weekend, just so that I can feel comfortable."

An anonymous friend of FARI said being here is "very depressing. You feel like there's nothing for you to do, and you feel like there's nothing that you want to do. So you end up being anti-social just because nothing feels right."

"We just don't feel like this is a place we can call home," Kitson said. "We don't feel safe here. It's a stressful situation because you're worrying about school and about what other people are saying about you because of your color. It doesn't leave much energy left to want to do much of anything." Several of the students said they feel threatened going off-campus because of what they see as the ignorance and racist nature of the greater Geneseo community as a whole. "It's especially hard for people who come from the city," Brown added. "Some of us can go home whenever we want, when we need that sense of belonging and community, but some of us are stuck here. And it's hard because you're not only lonely but you can't even leave."

Members of FARI mentioned innumerable occasions where they themselves or friends of theirs had been harassed, physically or verbally, by white people. "I was walking home really late one night," Snowden said, "when I saw a girl who was obviously very inebriated. She was alone and I was worried for her well-being, so I walked over and asked if she needed someone to walk her home." Snowden described how the incident quickly turned. "I was only doing what I thought was best, but soon three white guys came up to me and started yelling at me, telling me to get away. They assumed I was putting her in danger, simply because of the color of my skin. I swore from that moment on to make sure that something would change."