This past weekend, I attended the graduation ceremony of a private university. And parents sitting in the row behind me made repeated racially-motivated comments over the course of the ceremony.
This wasn’t anything I expected to hear. Coming from Seattle, I don’t encounter much undisguised, in-your-face racism. In a stereotypically liberal city like mine, racially-based prejudice is usually much more subtle, veiled, and hidden from view. (No one thinks about why all the people of color mostly live in South Seattle. That’s just kind of how it is. No one really mentioned that non-white individuals were forbidden by law from purchasing property in most Seattle and Bellevue neighborhoods until a generation or two ago. The racism ingrained in our culture is more subtle.)
But back to the ceremony. Every graduation has a student speaker, chosen by his or her peers. At this university, the class of 2016 chose an African American man as their class speaker. To me, the students’ choice wasn’t surprising. This graduate has chosen to pursue nonprofit work in underprivileged communities. Not only was he incredibly charismatic and eloquent, but he’s chosen the type of career college students often value — giving up the allure of financial security in order to help empower and equip those less fortunate. It’s very admirable, and a bit idealistic, exactly (in my mind) what I’d hope a college graduate could be.
But this student clearly offended the parents sitting behind me. At one point, after he quoted Beyoncé and made use of a culturally African-American phrase, the woman behind me made exasperated sounds of annoyance. Clearly, a college student quoting Beyoncé when speaking to his peers bothered her.
Later in the ceremony, we heard from a woman of color — and leader of a local nonprofit — who the university chose as its graduation speaker. Granted, this woman spoke a bit too much about how wonderful her nonprofit is for my tastes (personally, I felt more like I was at a fundraiser than a college graduation). But what slightly bothered me clearly pushed the parents sitting behind me over the edge. They made multiple comments of dislike and annoyance throughout her speech. At one point, the mother prefaced her comment with, “Now, it’s just my opinion, but…” and then listed another reason for her disproval.
Hearing two people of color speak at the ceremony seemed to make the white family sitting behind me feel offended by what appeared to be a ‘diversity agenda’ being forced on them. When the female speaker was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university, the were clearly miffed.
The feeling implied was: “What did she do to deserve an honorary doctorate? She’s only here to make this school seem like it values diversity, anyway.”
Well, a quick Google search revealed that this longtime nonprofit president/CEO actually holds a Master’s degree, so it’s not as if she’s a stranger to academia. And perhaps the parents sitting behind me also both hold Master’s degrees and are CEOs of multi-million dollar nonprofits. But on the chance they’re not, I don’t particularly think it’s their place to disparage someone who is.
Before you accuse me of being WAY too sensitive and reading too far into the situation, I should mention that when it came time to present the students with their degrees, these parents laughed and giggled on at least three separate occasions when the speaker read culturally Asian or African names. They actually laughed. Because haha, doesn’t that little Asian name just sound so dang funny?
Is this normal? Maybe I’ve been living under a rock in my liberal, politically correct city. But to me, this is not a polite, socially acceptable way for adults to act in public.
But what I found most interesting — and, for the record, my alma mater is structured exactly the same way — is that though this university had two persons of color speak at graduation, its president, and most of its faculty and leadership team visible during the ceremony, were white men.
I wasn’t offended by the presence of two nonwhite speakers. But I did notice that the university was being very intentional about an appearance of diversity, when the individuals in leadership — who hold the decision making power — still appeared to be white men. (And the same can be said for nearly any private university in the United States. My alma mater, which I adore, and which informed my worldview and beliefs in a powerful way, is examining these exact realities right now. Much of higher education is. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s absolutely critical, and I am so glad universities are beginning to wrestle with this issue in earnest.)
I believe this university is trying to do a great thing. It is trying to grow beyond its white, upper-middle class roots and become more representative of the ethnic composition of our communities and nation. This is an amazing thing to be pursuing. But I hope they don’t stop at just a surface level appearance of diversity. Because lip service is lip service. Actual inclusion and equality require a lot more than two speakers at graduation. And people can sniff out lip service and a PR spin faster than you can say “Beyoncé.”
So this is a wonderful start. But, as a nation, in our quest for true equity and inclusion, we’ve still got a ways to go. Because if:
- non-white names still sound funny enough to someone in your community’s ears to make them laugh out loud
- listening to two non-white individuals speak over the course of a 3-hour time period feels like reverse racism
- your president and leadership team are all white
- honoring a Master’s degree-educated CEO and community leader is going to be dismissed as pushing a social agenda
… then I think our society still has quite a long way to go before racism is a thing of the past.
Congratulations to the Class of 2016. I wish you all the best in your lives and careers to come. And, in a quarter century from now, when you are sitting in the stands at your children’s college graduation ceremonies, I hope no parents are snickering when they hear an Asian name read through the loudspeaker.