Crossing racial lines

Christina Stavale

Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a two-day series about racial tensions on Kent State’s campus. See tomorrow’s Stater for a story about approaching and resolving these tensions.

When one of Preston Mitchum’s professors acted surprised after he made an intelligent comment in class during his freshman year, he knew he could not be angry.

The professor had just begun teaching at Kent State after teaching in an area with a very small black population. Because he knew and understood her background, Mitchum, now a senior and KSU-NAACP President, “couldn’t really get upset.”

So after class, he approached his professor, and started a conversation with her about why she thought that. He said he does not remember exactly what comment the professor made, or what the rest of the conversation involved, but he does remember that the conversation was meaningful.

“It was good to have that conversation,” he said. “I could have easily walked away and been mad.”

But every day, minority students face small differences on campus, whether it’s someone steering to the other side of the sidewalk as they pass, or friends of other races believing stereotypes generated by the media.

Emiko Omabegho, junior communications studies major, said he sees these things, and finds it sad that it takes a newsworthy event to bring these kinds of tensions to light.

“Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” he said. “I don’t look for racial tensions. I see it.”

And he said sometimes, with all the small tensions going unnoticed, they can blow up into something big.

“If you only concentrate on the bigger things, smaller things keep building up,” he said.

For example, earlier this semester, someone spray-painted the “n-word” on a university sign, and rumors stirred of a noose being hung on campus. These events have sparked discussions through the formation of an anti-racist coalition, and more student groups bonding together.

Mitchum said although he hasn’t really seen more racial tensions on campus than usual this year, everything has been more “in your face.” Also, because everything happened within a week, it may have seemed like more. But since that week, he said he’s seen things improve.

“We have to have dialogue,” Mitchum said. “I am so thrilled that organizations are getting together to do this.”

Where the tensions lie

Black and white students alike come to Kent State with some kind of baggage, said George Garrison, professor of Pan-African Studies. This baggage, coming from the media and sometimes their upbringing, generates fear.

“When students step across artificial lines of skin color and ethnicity, there’s going to be some uncomfortability about that until you get used to interracial interactions,” Garrison said.

Chelsea Fuller, treasurer of Black United Students, said one area of racial tensions she believes has gotten worse over the years is through people’s choice of language.

“People have gotten comfortable with certain words and phrases,” she said, referring to the use of the “n-word.”

She said black and white people alike throw the word around as if it means nothing – but it does.

“A majority of us do get offended,” she said.

Although no one on campus has ever made a racial comment directly to her, she said she senses a discomfort and tenseness between races on campus.

“I’ve blocked a lot of it out,” she said, “but there’s an anger there.”

She said she sees this when people move to the other side of the street or sidewalk as she walks by.

Mitchum said he’s dealt with similar instances; for example, when he walks behind someone, girls sometimes clutch their purses and others turn around every few seconds.

“When that happens,” he said, “I yell, ‘I’m not gonna hurt you.'”

He said he’s seen tensions in the classroom, too, when professors unintentionally make remarks that may be prejudiced. For example, a professor once said to him, ‘Wow, you’re really articulate.’

“There may be one black person who doesn’t articulate, so people assume all don’t,” Mitchum said.

Garrison said he has also heard of instances where black students receive lower grades than they expect, and are treated noticeably different than their white peers.

When things like this happen, he said students should be aware of their rights to communicate the instance to a higher authority.

Pete Goldsmith, vice president for enrollment, management and student affairs, oversees policy for such matters.

Some of the complaints he said the office hears are personal disputes, concerns about how someone was treated and sometimes misunderstandings.

“It’s very uniquely handled,” he said. “It can be an informal conversation or a change in policy or practice.”

Omabegho said he also sees prejudices within his circle of friends. For example, a friend of his once asked what he should do differently if he wanted to date a black girl.

“People need to stop looking at it as a color thing and start looking at it as a people thing,” he said.

Around campus, he said he usually sees white people hanging out with other whites, and black people hanging out with other blacks.

Steve Michael, vice provost for diversity, said neither whites nor blacks should be blamed for tensions between races – everyone is equally responsible.

“The first thing to know is that individually and collectively, we are all responsible for the climates we have created,” he said.

To get past this, he said people should look at the broader issue of humanity, rather than race or religious and cultural beliefs, to see that “we all have the same blood running through our veins.”

Contact minority affairs reporter Christina Stavale at [email protected]