At UNH, Student Demands After Racist Incidents Feel Like Déjà Vu
As students get ready to return for another year at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, for some, there’s still unfinished business from last year.
After a series of racist campus incidents, students of color called upon the administration to make UNH a safer, more inclusive space, and presented a list of demands.
Last year there were close to 100 reported bias incidents at UNH. They included the vandalizing of school property with racial slurs and swastikas, while some students report having been spit on and having rocks thrown at them.
Gabby Greaves is a senior at UNH.
“I have family from all over that are messaging me like are you okay? What’s going on on your campus?” she says. “And when we were meeting with administration they were like kind of nonchalant about the whole situation and that’s really frustrating.“
Greaves helped organize a group of students that presented a list of sixteen demands to the University’s administration this past May.
One specific demand is a call for a cultural competency course that all students would be required to take before graduating. This includes raising awareness on the effects of implicit bias and stereotypes.
“I think a course like that would inform the students on how to learn about other cultures that aren’t your own,” Gabby says.
This isn’t the first time students have made a call for a class like this.
Déjà vu all over again?
Chandra Craven went to UNH from 1995-99. She’s originally from Boston and says she would go days on campus without seeing another student of color.
“I don’t think that people quite understand it but when you say it and break it down and say, one of twelve black females on a campus of 12,000 people, then they get it.”
Craven grew up navigating majority-white spaces, but even that couldn’t prepare her for some of the things she would hear at UNH.
“I had a girl come up to me and say what’s wrong with your hands, and I was like what are you talking about? And she was like its dark on the one side and light on the other. I said, excuse me? Apparently she had never met a person of color in real life.”
Craven adds, “Those kind of questions were a constant thing and you can never turn it off. “
In the fall of 1998, after repeatedly asking the University to address race relations, students from the Black Student Union staged a sit-in in then-President Joan Leitzel’s office. They drafted a list of demands titled “Broken Promises.” Those demands included a call for a cultural competency course.
“It wasn’t just for the students to help us to feel more comfortable on campus,” Craven says, "it was also for leadership and teachers. Because, let’s not forget we had like three teachers of color on campus.”
A culture of appropriation
This past May, one of the tensest moments on campus came after a few students posted photos on their social media wearing ponchos and fake mustaches while joking about deportation.
The issue of cultural appropriations, or distorting an oppressed group’s culture, was also happening on campus in the 90s. Craven points to an example of that – SIS, or Sisters In Step.
Sisters In Step is a step group that was started at UNH by three women of color in the late 90s. Chandra Craven was an original member.
“It’s a combination of hip-hop meets traditional African call-and-response dance rhythms,” she explains.
When Sisters in Step started, it gave women of color a team of their own. A year later the group decided to invite men of color to join.
But today, people on campus say the group that started as a place of refuge for students of color has become an almost entirely white team, and a few women of color were cut from the group at tryouts.
Sisters in Step didn’t respond to our request for comment.
“It hurts me to the very core of my being that they have taken something that literally,” Craven says, “and I’m sorry I’m gonna cry here, that literally almost saved my life because I was at my wits-end being at UNH.”
Would it have made a difference?
One administrator who’s been on campus since the 90s, remembers a different UNH.
“A lot of people of today will say, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do that, but having been there at the time I can tell you it really was a big push into the future, says Dean of Students Ted Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick was on the receiving end of the demands made by students of color in 1998. He says the University has worked out a lot of those issues.
In the late 90s there were two African-American student body presidents. Representation for students of color on campus has jumped from one percent to eight percent.
But one demand he says hasn’t been met is a course on cultural competency.
“What’s the value of having a class like that and would that class have made a difference if it would have been on campus for the last twenty years? The answer to the last part of the question is absolutely,” he says.
This fall we have a cluster hire of three African-American faculty. If you asked me to predict that last year, whoa boy, the odds are long on that. White people did that. - UNH Dean of Students Ted Kilpatrick
When contemplating whether the UNH administration has done enough for students of color on campus, Kirkpatrick is equally sure of his answer.
“Never. I mean, even if we got A grades, the moment you get complacent you’re dead - so, no, it’s ongoing work and it’s ongoing work for the nation.”
One difference between the demands students are making today and those made nearly two decades ago is that, this time, the dean himself is named.
“The last demand is that if these things aren’t done by the end of the coming academic year that I’m replaced in my job as dean of students.”
Kirkpatrick says there’s still work to be done and that the administration is taking steps in the right direction.
“This fall we have a cluster hire of three African-American faculty. If you asked me to predict that last year, whoa boy, the odds are long on that. White people did that.”
Taking a toll
UNH students on campus this fall will be working on these issues and waiting to see how the administration responds. At the same time, many on campus don’t see a problem.
“Just within my peers they think we’re blowing this out of proportion,” Gabby Greaves says. “They don’t see it as a much larger issue that’s been going on for decades.”
Gabby Greaves, like Chandra Craven, knows the effects of being a student of color at UNH. While she’s battled depression, others have transferred or dropped out because of the campus’ environment.
“To have students come to the university and have to deal with racism, homophobia, transphobia on a daily basis and then still have to perform the same as their counterparts who aren’t dealing with those kind of systematic and interpersonal discriminatory experiences that is really difficult. And it takes a huge toll on you mentally and emotionally.”
The question facing all sides is whether or not students will be returning to a university that’s ready to address these issues, or if this conversation will be passed down to yet another generation of students.