Students of Color Unwelcome on Campus: Thing of the Past?

[For the first blog post of the Summer 2018 A&S Research Fellowship, students were tasked with exploring the existing collection of the Race & Racism at UR Project at memory.richmond.edu and reflecting on the materials they encountered there.]

by Rena Xiao

Rena Xiao is a rising junior from New York City who has spent the majority of her life living abroad in Beijing, China. She is a Double Major in Geography and Global Studies with a Concentration in World Politics and Diplomacy, and a minor in WGSS.

When I walk by tour groups on campus, I will often hear tour guides tout the benefits of attending a small liberal arts college. I find most of these ring true: the small class sizes, more research opportunities, better relationship with professors, and a campus that doesn’t feel overwhelmed with the number of students. However, I find the tour guides statements of a “small, close knit community” are false. More often than not, I have found campus space here at the University of Richmond to be divided by different by racial and class lines.  For a population of only 3,036 people, there is a great deal of separation and segregation between student groups. Student life and campus culture at this school cater mostly to students of the dominant group: white students within Greek life. They have the greatest mobility to move through social spaces and have their identity reflected in the culture, practices, and behavior of this school.

Taking a look at the Race & Racism Project at the University of Richmond’s website, the exhibit “Student Life and White Supremacy” examines the cultural geography of this school throughout history. University of Richmond started off as a private, white Baptist institution for men in 1830 and eventually including white women (some enrolled in Richmond College in 1898) and made official with the creation of Westhampton College in 1914. The clubs and organizations at a school reflect the atmosphere of campus and the interests of the dominant majority. Although the University of Richmond began admitting women around the turn of the century and minorities in the mid-20th century, the institution’s student life did not create a welcoming environment for students of color or encourage interaction across racial lines. Rather, the students of the school found an unchallenged space on campus to preserve and honor ideals of “Southern heritage” and pride. Starting from 1915 with the creation of the Minstrelsy club,  students  performed in blackface in recitals that included singing, dancing and other skits. At one point, there was an “Anglo-Saxon Club” on campus with the purpose of “conserving racial integrity” of whites and was anti-racial mixing. Interestingly enough, the first ethnic club on campus was the Chinese Club in in the 1920s, where Chinese Baptists were students long before integration in the 1960s and 70s forced the school to enroll black students on campus.

It is interesting to examine the lasting legacy of white superiority at this school and how it affects today. The school has made significant strides in the racial, social and economic diversity of the student population, but can it really claim all students occupy the same space on campus? Do students feel equally welcome and at home at this school? Has the school clearly left behind its history of a white and Greek life oriented population that dominates student life?

I enrolled in Fall 2016 with what I thought was a good understanding of what campus culture would be like at the University of Richmond. During the college application process, I paid a great amount of attention towards student life and diversity on campus. I researched different clubs and organizations, the percentage of students of color and the number of students who participated in Greek life. To gather answers I poured over the University’s website and read student reviews online. After my first few weeks at the school I noticed a big difference between the diversity statistics reported and the actual reality of the school. I was surprised to find the extent of which students are separated and segregated by identities. The University and its students  makes an effort in increasing diversity at this school, but places significantly less emphasis on inclusion and equity. The work done so far by the fellows of the Race & Racism Project has led us to ask the question: How does racism manifest itself institutionally? The University may not have intent to harm but the “colorblind racism” ideology used to minimize racial frames is a masking mechanism. The University carries the weight of two centuries of charged history, and although it may no longer have the intent to harm, the students use rhetoric to uphold and rationalize racist actions of the institution.

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