The experiences of students within one or more of Tufts’ minority communities offer a perspective on diversity on the Hill that an outsider — or perhaps even individuals within the Tufts bubble -— may not easily understand or even bother to observe. Members of the African and African American communities on campus often fall into conflicting dual roles as both Tufts students and students of color on campus.
The black community at Tufts is represented through various student groups — including Pan-African Alliance (PAA), African Student Organization (ASO) and many others ranging across academic, social and cultural realms — and is grounded in the Africana Center.
Established in 1969, the Africana Center has been an institution of support and a resource for all students on campus in promoting African history and traditions and recognizing the contributions of students of African descent on campus.
The Peer Advisor Program, one of many at the Africana Center to further its initiative in supporting black students on campus, provides incoming freshmen with an upperclassman leader who will offer a sense of community, in addition to advice in getting through the first and following years at Tufts.
“We’re there as a resource to those students, and we provide them with knowledge on how to navigate Tufts, as a student at the base level and then as a student of African descent, telling them some of the things they’ll have to deal with and how they’ll overcome it,” senior Keli Young, a Peer Advisor at the Africana Center, said.
In addition to traditional issues that incoming freshmen may encounter at college for the first time, though, many black students at Tufts have experienced other difficulties that make for a challenging adjustment.
“At times, it can be hard to be a minority student, be a black student, at Tufts University. That’s just a given, especially if you come from a majority black background, where you grew up in a black community or went to an all black high school,” sophomore Peer Advisor Lori-Ann Clementson said.
Because of his experiences in high school, sophomore Kendrick Terrell Evans found his transition to a predominantly white university to be a smooth one, but he was still surprised to see less diversity than Tufts had boasted about.
“I’ve had a very easy time, I guess, getting used to being a minority here at Tufts because I did go to a private high school, so I kind of had four years to adjust to being the minority,” Evans said. “It’s very interesting because Tufts kind of paints this picture that there is a lot more diversity than there actually is, so at first I was a little shocked. But having my previous experience in high school, it was pretty easy to settle in.”
Others were similarly shocked. The purpose of the Peer Advisor Program is to assist freshmen — especially those who may come from predominantly black schools and communities — in getting used to the stark contrasts they will find , academically, socially and culturally at Tufts.
“As a black student in class, it’s not rare to be the only one, and so for a student who comes from a predominantly black or minority school, it can be a shock,” Young said. “Like for myself, that’s something I had to deal with, and me dealing with that experience allows me to help other students deal with it.”
This situation is not uncommon. Many black students find that they are one of few representatives of the Africana community within the classroom or a particular group on campus.
“If you look around the classroom and you feel like you might be one of the only people of a particular demographic, that can be particularly troublesome,” junior Joshua Reed-Diawuoh said. “That happens very frequently in my personal experience, but that’s an example of kind of a day-to-day challenge.”
Other obstacles have impacted black students on a much larger scale. One issue that has not been forgotten was considered by many students at the time to be a bias incident, fueling controversy among them.
According to Clementson, a student reported to Tufts University Police Department (TUPD) that a black man was carrying a gun on campus. As a member of the Tufts community, this man had seen the alert that TUPD sent and called TUPD to clarify that he had been holding a wrench. After that story checked out, an additional alert was sent just hours later to falsify the original.
“That became a very huge issue where different people were saying that it was a race incident,” Clementson said. “Because he was a black man, everyone thought it was a gun versus if he were white, they would’ve just seen it as a wrench.”
Reed-Diawuoh added that the influence that it had on students of color was significant; the “wrench incident” caused a substantial divide between the Africana community and the greater Tufts community.
“There were all of these different stigmas and stereotypes flying around,” he said. “That was one particular instance where I felt that students of color were being targeted.”
Many students of color also find that various articles in student publications affect their experience at Tufts and lead to the realization that the people at the university may not always take minority viewpoints into consideration.
The March 14 op-ed in the Daily by sophomore Samuel Daniel entitled “No one at this school is racist” did not resonate with many members of the Africana community.
“You’ll get an article that racism doesn’t exist, and as a student of the black community, you know that that’s not the case, but its something that your peers believe — strongly,” Young said. “And so it makes the space that you have to operate in for four years an uncomfortable one, and sometimes a hostile one. It’s those things that can make the experiences at Tufts for people of color very difficult.”
According to Clementson, another student article published in the Tufts Observer last semester discussed the self-segregation of the different communities of the Group of Six. This, too, led to much dismay among black students who did not agree with the judgments made.
“I feel like there’s a stigma on campus that by being involved, you’re automatically isolating yourself. There’s always that idea that minorities are trying to separate themselves from the majority,” she said. “I feel that, personally, the houses aren’t meant to isolate, even though I could understand how it comes off that way. They really are a support system.”
Senior Kristen Johnson has been very involved in the Africana Center, as well as groups such as the ASO, PAA and ENVY, Tufts’ all-female step team. She agreed that the stereotype of the Africana community isolating itself is not reasonable.
“I involved myself in the Africana community because I feel passionate about serving my community and giving back and being a part of that, not because I’m trying to self-segregate,” she said. “So I think there’s that issue of when people see minorities together, then it’s automatically assumed or stereotyped that they’re all hanging out together.”
The issue that many students of color have with this assumption is that other students are not as willing to visit the Centers as a result. Despite the misconception that each Center is meant only for that particular community, the students of the Africana community emphasize that this is not the case.
“I feel like there are a lot of people at Tufts who kind of get intimated by coming in, because they feel like they won’t feel welcome there,” Evans said. “People who don’t have any ties to the Africana Center would think twice about coming in, because they would think that it’s just a black club where only black people can come, but really anyone can come and feel accepted.”
Rather, there is an expectation for discourse and integration not only among students but also with the administration.
“I feel like Tufts doesn’t address issues until they come up,” Clementson said. “I feel like it always takes an incident to happen before race gets talked about, and in the meantime, when race is talked about, it’s not campus wide.”
According to junior Tabias Wilson, the current President of PAA, the administration is lagging behind the student body in terms of engagement.
“Unless there’s a lot of student activism, the administration is not very quick to act upon students’ requests or student demands,” he said. “We saw that with Africana Studies … To say that we’re open, we’re open to an extent. We’ll listen, I think, for the first time someone says something, but when it comes time to implement change, it doesn’t really happen.”
Students have long fought for an Africana Studies program. The lack of one in a liberal arts university such as Tufts is a concern to many students on campus — particularly those of color.
“That was something that started among students … The heartbeat of what pushed it to this point — of now [working on] some kind of race and identity program — was students getting together at Capen [to discuss] issues,” Johnson said. “A lot of it was wanting to feel affirmed and wanting to feel validated in the curriculum … and not being able to have the opportunity to do that with a mostly Eurocentric curriculum.”
Wilson added that the PAA is collaborating with many other groups on campus to work toward bringing about actual changes at Tufts.
“I’ve really been organizing with Jumbo Janitor Alliance, ALAS [Association of Latin American Students], QSA [Queer Student Alliance], Tufts Occupiers, Occupy the Hood, Asian American Alliance, Korean Student Alliance, and we’ve been organizing and advocating for more gender and racial equality in curriculum and in our campus [environment],” he said. “So since November, we’ve done teach-ins, we’ve organized sit-ins, we’ve had rallies, we had Black Solidarity Day where we petitioned our demands to the administration, and so we’ve been doing a multitude of things.”
Despite his strong activism now, Wilson had not been particularly involved in the Africana community until the end of his sophomore year. It took a conversation with the then-president and vice president of PAA and a rather unsettling incident for Wilson to realize that he had to do something about the issues surrounding racial diversity on campus.
According to Wilson, he had been working in Eaton for the overnight shift and left to go back home to his fraternity, Theta Chi, at around 2 a.m. As he was walking away from Eaton Hall, a TUPD officer stopped him and asked where he was going and why he was out so late.
“I said, ‘Well, I just got off work in Eaton’ … and he [responded], ‘Let me see your ID, I don’t believe you’re a student here,’” Wilson said. “That took me off guard, and I just [thought] ‘He just saw me walk out of this building … Why don’t you think I’m a student here?’”
Wilson obliged, providing the officer with a Tufts ID, which the officer did not believe belonged to him. According to Wilson, he had to give the officer his campus driver’s license and was allowed to continue walking home only after about five minutes of questioning.
“It was just moments like that that you really question how welcome you are on this campus,” he said.
Of significant concern to Wilson are thework-study program and the black student retention rate. But he also observes substantial difficulty for those that are a “super minority.”
“What gets problematic is when you have more than one identity … Over my three years at Tufts, what’s been harder ... is being a queer student of color. It’s really hard to try to create a … community with everyone in those groups [that you identify with] and be understood all the time because there’s always something different about you,” Wilson said. “And that is really what I’d like to see Tufts go deeper into understanding … how do we make sure — as really a super minority on campus — that their issues are being addressed and their experiences being heard and their voices are not silenced.”
Regardless of whether they represent multiple identities, though, students of color have found that Tufts’ vision of diversity may fall short in reality.
“You can claim diversity as much as you want, but I feel like [Tufts] doesn’t truly address its diverse community … It’s more like, ‘Yeah, we’re here, we’re diverse, but how are you supporting besides giving us a center?’” Clementson said. “The center can only do so much if it’s not incorporated into the campus.”
Clementson noted that during Orientation Week, freshmen went around to each of the six centers and were entered in a raffle to win prizes. The number of students who actually came by, though, was quite low, showing an unexpected lack of involvement even among incoming students.
The engagement of students in the Africana Center would allow for an increase in education and awareness of black history and traditions. Without this understanding, common stereotypes and stigmas portrayed in the media permeate the greater Tufts community even though the university attempts to broaden student perspectives with the Group of Six.
“There’s such a divide between the Africana communities and other communities here at Tufts,” Evans said. “There’s a lot of ignorance here at Tufts. It gets frustrating and tiresome to have to explain your situation and that most stereotypes aren’t true about the black community.”
The Africana Center, though, ensures that students of color have a haven to feel safe and comfortable on campus as well as an opportunity to discuss issues that arise throughout an individual’s Tufts career.
“There’s [a] mutual support system, and we’re always trying to find ways to support each other, knowing that — being in the small subset of Tufts — we need to have strength in our own [community] body,” Johnson said.
Student-run groups, as well as the Africana Center, contribute to the creation of a community for black students on campus that is appreciated by many students of color.
“I would definitely say that the student groups which comprise the Africana community have been integral in addressing a lot of [the] issues,” Reed-Diawuoh said. “I think that those student groups have really played an important role, and the Africana Center as well, in supporting students of color here at Tufts.”
According to Wilson, these groups are taking support even further than they have gone before, joining forces to create a super-group of sorts. PAA, Emerging Black Leaders, ASO and the Caribbean Club are collaborating to create the Black Student Union for all members of the community to respond to issues arising at Tufts, Wilson said.
Wilson added that diversity on campus should be much more than just differentiation of color among students.
“I think that Tufts has this belief that the presence of diversity is enough. But they don’t understand — Tufts students, Tufts administrators and lots of faculty — don’t understand that there’s a cost to diversity, that someone has to provide diversity,” he said. “I think that we have to realize that just because you have people that are not from the same background on the same campus, that’s not enough. Diversity should provide an understanding — and not just a surface level, cultural understanding — but an understanding of the power dynamics that have shaped our social [and] economic positions to what they are today.”