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.
Uncovering the narratives of black alumni who attended the University of Richmond, a predominately white school, in the mid to late 20th century, I expected to hear brazen, explicit incidents of racism and discrimination. The University is geographically located in a state that struggles to move past its history. The Richmond City landscape is dotted with tributes to figures such as Robert E.Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Digging through the archives I did find many instances of racist language and Confederate imagery that were despicable but not shocking. However, in the process of collecting oral histories, many black alumni did not share experiences of explicit or violent acts borne out of hatred. Rather a common theme within many of the oral histories were stories of social marginalisation. Black students on campus during the 1970s and 80s felt ignored by the dominant, white population and were isolated from regular social life. These small daily acts of exclusion left a deep impact on these students and shaped their past and current relationship with the University of Richmond.
This research, interview, and editing process has made me realise the role of emotions in retelling racially traumatic experiences. In academic work, emotions are not quantifiable thus labelled as not legitimate. However, in anti-racist archival and oral history work, the thoughts and feelings of the interview subject are crucial in filling in the gaps of the experience of student of colour. For example, by looking through the archives and the yearbooks, we know in 1975 there were 19 black students on campus. What the archives are unable to tell us is how these students felt about their time at the school, what their day to day lives looked like and their relationship with the rest of the student body. One interviewee, Dr. Jesse Moore (B’81), could vividly recall the discomfort he felt from his business school peers and the disconnect he felt from professors and the rest of the college campus. A major learning curve in the interview process was getting subjects comfortable enough to share personal stories and memories, and to have them express their private and intimate feelings and opinions openly and on recording.
What was less expected in the interview process was hearing sentiments that would resonate with students of colour in current times. While Dr. Jesse Moore didn’t face constant discrimination or outright hatred directed at him, he also never felt truly a part of this school. College experiences that were “off kilter.” to quote Dr. Moore, or less than desirable are things that are shared to me by current students. Many similarities exist between experiences shared in the oral histories and gripes shared by current students, such as: a lack of interaction across social groups, an exclusionary Greek life scene, unaccommodating campus space for a vibrant social life, stereotypes of being a black student athlete, underlying hostility from white students, and so on. Some students from today and the past feel the need to transfer to other institution to feel accepted and complete, to leave our campus to find a space that sticks less to superficial labels and to find a place where they feel valued and included. Our school is still failing students of colour more than 30 year on from the times when Dr. Jesse Moore attended, and the problems have not changed significantly at all.