This Week in the Archive: The Search for True Equality

by Julia Marcellino 

Julia Marcellino is a senior from Berwyn, Pennsylvania, majoring in Rhetoric and Communication Studies and Dance, and minoring in Business Administration. She believes that this project has been a great opportunity for her to to further her analysis and research skills while looking into a history that is still very relevant today. The most interesting part of this project for her was how some of the sentiments and viewpoints of certain people in the 1960’s still resonate with situations that we are dealing with today. This post was written as a part of Digital Memory & the Archive, a course offered in Fall 2017.

On March 17, 1972, the University of Richmond sent out a notice in the Collegian, informing their students about one of several racial awareness sessions that they were holding along with the Virginia Union University. Through further investigation, it seems as though racial awareness sessions were a common occurrence at that time period, in an effort to address and ultimately attempt to squash racism within different organizations (Twine & Blee, Feminism and Antiracism: Inernational Struggles for Justice, 2001, 125). The Collegian’s post interviewed Betty Hamlet, head of the University of Richmond committee, who described the sessions’ purpose as “[trying] to understand where the others are coming from…you try to imagine what it’s like to be a black woman or a black guy.” Trying to put themselves into someone else’s shoes, instead of recognizing that their shoes are the same. While at the surface this seems like something that would promote equality and trust, it seems like something that promotes tolerance, but not necessarily equality.

Initially, the word tolerance gives off a very positive connotation. But, the act of tolerating someone is not viewing him or her as your equal. It’s seeing their differences from you and allowing them to exist with you, but never really viewing them as the same as you, never necessarily recognizing the full humanity in the “other” that exists in you. The Collegian describes the racial awareness sessions as putting black and white students together in “normal” situations, but Ellen Kaye Scott, a contributor to the book Feminism and Antiracism: International Struggles For Justice, has some more insight on how the sessions, or workshops normally went. She describes the sessions as “individuals [occupying] one of two subject positions: victim or perpetrator…[but] the construction of two oppositional subject positions, the victim and the perpetrator, causes paralysis in the practice of antiracist politics” (Twine & Blee, 126). The idea that there is always a victim and a perpetrator furthers the idea of the power dynamic between white people and black people. Recognizing how to resolve conflicts to tolerate the differences are still giving into the hierarchy of white dominance. This reminds me of the first mention of a black student in Alley’s photographs in his book, The University of Richmond. Alley references the first black student going to school at the branch campus of the University of Richmond that was called University College. The branch campus was located in downtown Richmond, so even while it initially seems like a good thing, they were really just tolerating a black student, and only to a certain extent in that the downtown Richmond campus was very separated from the main campus.

The idea of toleration can be a toxic element to genuinely overcoming the racism. If, during the racial awareness sessions, as Scott mentioned, they can never get past the idea of victim and perpetrator, they are doomed to continue to return to the white dominance that prevails in their society then, and that continues to prevail in our society today. In Dr. Julian Hayter’s lecture, he referenced the idea that Jim Crow laws were just a way that white people could legally discriminate against black people, and the idea of having a racial awareness session eerily strikes the same chord. It seems as though the students organizing these sessions were attempting to take a step in the right direction, but I think that they needed to push a little harder to overcome racism.

That being said, we still have a long way to go in 2017. We genuinely haven’t come that far from 1972, seeing that in 2017 we still continue to perpetuate the idea of tolerance. Just as the university only tolerated the first student by placing him at the branch campus, we have black sororities that are recognized by the university, but that aren’t recognized by the National PanHellenic Council that is the governing body of most women’s Greek life on campus. The school tolerates the black sororities, allows them to exist, but they are not equal to the other sororities, do not operate under the same overarching body. They have different recruitment processes, and do not meet at the weekly PanHellenic community meeting to discuss and make sure each chapter is doing well. Looking to the future, there might be a day where the sororities can come together, where the Greek life community isn’t separated, and the student body as a whole isn’t tolerating, but viewing every student as their true peer.