A representation of race
At a university with more than 18,000 students, less than 13 percent identify as racial minorities, or underrepresented.
February 26, 2015
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article and relating content contains some offensive and strong language. The Appalachian has published this language uncensored in order to more accurately depict sources’ accounts.
At Appalachian State University, the community of students, faculty, staff and administrators commonly refer to themselves as a family that is there for support, encouragement and companionship.
But there is a small fraction of this family that often feels left out and sometimes generalized, stereotyped and neglected by other members of the “Appalachian Family,” as well as by the residents of Boone and the surrounding area.
Take for instance senior Reggie Gravely, who came to Appalachian without knowing too much about the area except that it was predominantly white. As someone who identifies as half black and half Hawaiian, the idea of being a minority in this setting didn’t upset him.
But during his first week as a student, and his first week in the area, Gravely did not receive the warmest welcome to Boone when he went to Wal-Mart with a group of friends.
“We were just walking across the parking lot and people were calling us niggers,” he said. “And that was my first time ever being in Boone, and having that as one of my first introductions to Boone was something that made me aware of the environment that I was coming into.”
Junior Elena Avis, president of the Asian Student Association, recalls a similar experience in Boone more recently: during last semester’s homecoming parade. As the ASA’s float rolled through King Street, she said she heard some less than pleasant words shouted at her and the other students with her.
“At the homecoming parade, some fraternity yelled, ‘Hey, Jackie Chan!’ at my organization,” she said, “which is kind of offensive.”
Even Jamar Banks, the director of the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership for nearly seven years, said there have been “awkward moments” from time to time he’s encountered that he felt were presumably a result of the color of his skin. Banks recalls times he said he’s been called the N-word or denied service in the Town of Boone.
“I’m not here alone, my children also lived in this county before and they were subjected to the same kind of behavior,” said Banks, who is also the president of the Black Faculty and Staff Association. “Not on a daily basis, but it’s happened, and so I know that that was a result of skin color.”
Photo by MIchael Bragg
These are just a few shared, isolated and specific examples of what people who identify as racial minorities, or underrepresented individuals, have experienced during their time at Appalachian, a predominately white institution, or PWI.
As of the fall 2014 semester, only 12.8 percent of the entire student body identified as ethnic minorities. And while that percentage seems small, it’s slightly larger than that of the faculty and staff, as well as Boone.
But even in an overwhelmingly white population, senior Amber Haigler said she never felt singled out for her race when she first started at Appalachian, but that she did start to get that feeling as time went on and decided it was not OK.
“And that’s when I started to branch off and figure out that I did want to see more people of my color or of my race that understood my background,” she said, “and that’s when I started to get a little more uncomfortable with Appalachian as far as the culture here.”
Nationally, race has become a more visible, but not new, topic in the last few months, with events in places such as Ferguson, Missouri, and New York that have spurred social movements with recognizable slogans turned hashtags, such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe.” Even news of President Barack Obama’s immigration policy and the new relations with Cuba have brought on more discussions in the U.S. that involve race.
Looking back to the university, there are people in multiple capacities — from those in admissions, administrators and even students — who have begun working on new and existing ways to foster racial diversity on campus, recruit and retain more students of color and to find ways to make this campus a more inclusive, diverse environment for the benefit of all students.
“I think that one of the number one strengths of having a diverse student body and diverse faculty and staff is you have a richness of experiences, beliefs and perspectives from people who are different, and that really makes for a very important educational experience,” Chancellor Sheri N. Everts said. “If we only go to school with people who are exactly like we are, we don’t get that same richness.”
And while the numbers of underrepresented members at Appalachian remain small, they have improved over the years at the university in a predominantly white region of the U.S. that has had its share of racial demographic changes and inclusions in its history.
A brief history
From a Native American presence before white settlers came, to the earliest black residents in the area and to the national rise in the Hispanic populations, Boone and the surrounding areas have seen at the very least a degree of diversity in different races, backgrounds and cultures.
Boone and Watauga County’s history in pre-Civil War times was not like most southern areas, as western North Carolina did not have the climate or land comparable to the rest of the south’s plantations and fields. There’s also evidence, as mentioned in an article from Our State Magazine, that there was a presence of freed black residents in the mid 19th century.
“A lot of times, the lack of diversity in the present is looked at as something that’s always been, but in fact that’s not the case,” said William Schumann, director of the Center for Appalachian Studies. “There have been important inflows and outflows of people of color throughout the region over time and the Civil War is part of that. There is evidence that there were definitely slaveholders in Appalachia, but not on the same scale.”
In the time around the Civil War, the Junaluska Community, a historically black community, formed that still exists to a smaller degree in Boone today.
Looking into the 20th century at the university, Appalachian welcomed its first black student, William Roland Neely, in 1964, as reported by The Appalachian. The first full-time black faculty member came in 1969, Caroline Anderson, who taught mathematics.
A more recent presence and shift in the demographics of not only Boone and Watauga County, but in the nation as well, has been the rise of the Hispanic and Latino population. From 1990 to 2013, the percentage of those in Watauga County who identified as Hispanic increased from 0.67 to 3.5 percent, compared to 1.2 to 8.9 percent in the state and 8.9 to 17.1 percent in the nation over the same period of time, according to the U.S. Census.
Cameron Lippard, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology who specializes in race relations and immigration, said the growth in Hispanic populations in the High Country area can be attributed to jobs, such as those in the Christmas tree industry. Another reason he has seen, based on his own research, is to escape persecution in more urban areas.
“Living in the Charlotte, Greensboro area or Atlanta where ICE [Immigration Customs Enforcement] raids are more frequent in urban areas ... so they come to the mountains to get away from these kinds of things,” Lippard said. “But the number one reason is job opportunities, there’s work here.”
Currently at Appalachian, there are minority groups of students that are growing faster than others, while some racial populations have practically flatlined or even decreased in recent years.
Aisha Cotton, a senior child development major and president of the Black Student Association, took part in several of the demonstrations on campus last year. During one of the die in demonstrations in Belk Library, a passerby stepped across her face instead of around her. “Being walked over really made me feel like an underrepresented student,” she said. “It really made me feel like I wasn’t accepted here or that my opinion didn't matter.” Photo by Michael Bragg
Present day demographics
Appalachian has seen increases in the last few years in varying degrees for enrolled black, Asian, Hispanic/Latino and other racial demographics in the last few years.
From fall 2009 to fall 2014, there has been a 6.7 percent increase within the black student population, a 28.8 percent increase within the Asian student population and a 44.2 percent increase within the Hispanic student population.* The shifts in these demographics are rising at a rate higher than that of white students, which is 2.8 percent over the same period of time.
Since 2009, the percentage of ethnic minorities increased from 8.9 percent of the entire student body to 12.8 percent. When calculating these percentages, the university does not include the demographic Race and Ethnicity Unknown.
But the percentage changes and the actual headcount stacked against each other show a different image of the university. In fall 2014, the entire student body of more than 18,000 students included 15,447 who identify as white alone. Of the entire student population, only 584 identify as black, 267 as Asian and 702 as Hispanic/Latino, making it the largest minority student demographic on campus.
Since 2009, a new category known as Two or More Races was added, which has seen a 66.7 percent increase* within its own numbers since its inclusion. The number right now stands at 441 students.
The introduction of this new demographic comes from the U.S. Department of Education, which allows students at colleges and universities to identify as more than one race or ethnicity if they fit that description, versus having to pick just one in the past.
“We’re now giving individuals the opportunity to identify themselves as multiracial if they don’t necessarily have an affinity or predilection with a particular group, and so multiracial numbers have been increasing in the last couple of years,” Lloyd Scott, director of admissions, said.
Other smaller groups, such as Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, have seen steady increases, while groups such as American Indian/Alaskan Native are currently in a decline. These groups are much smaller than those mentioned before — Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, for example, has increased from 4 to 11 students since 2009 to 2014.
Faculty and staff numbers for underrepresented populations are smaller than that of the students, at 8.7 percent. According to the most recent U.S. Census date for Boone, which was taken in April 2010, residents who identify as white alone make up 92 percent of the town’s population.
Compared to the University of North Carolina System as a whole, Appalachian is much less racially diverse than the total populations of all 17 institutions, itself included in those numbers, combined. However, there are five Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, in the UNC-System today, as well as universities in more urban areas that have higher percentages of minority students.
Compared to schools in similar demographics, Appalachian still comes out as the university with the lowest percentage of underrepresented students of the three, compared to 13.1 percent at UNC Asheville and 19.8 percent at WCU.*
But the university is looking to take steps to continue increasing the enrollment of underrepresented students, as expressed in its current strategic plan. In this section of the plan, which addresses faculty, staff and students, some of the initiatives call for more inclusion and programs to better recruit and retain individuals from diverse backgrounds.
Some of the ways to help bring in more diverse students to visit campus have been through programs such as Multicultural Student Perspective Day, as well as Hispanic Access Day and Explore Appalachian Day, both of which were geared toward parents of the prospective students as well.
But there is also a newer initiative that was put in place by the chancellor to address the student body’s lack of racial diversity and how to fix it.
Everts started the Chancellor’s Student Advisory Committee for Diversity Recruitment, which is made up of 15 students and is co-advised by Susan Davies, associate vice chancellor of Enrollment Management, and Bindu Jayne, associate vice chancellor of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Compliance. The students involved in this committee were selected by Amber Haigler, who serves as the chair.
“These are students who are incredibly active on our campus, who talk to student pockets all over and I think they really have their finger on the pulse of what some issues are as it relates to the diversity of our campus,” Jayne said.
The committee has been able to meet a handful of times since its creation, but in that time they have discussed plans to better reach out to and recruit potential minority students and different ways to retain existing students for the coming year, such as revamping Multicultural Student Perspective Day and having a call center in admissions to reach out to minority students who are interested in Appalachian and answer questions for them.
Everts, who was the provost at Illinois State University before coming to Appalachian, was part of a similar initiative to increase the enrollment and retention rate of underrepresented students. In a six-year span, the percentage of incoming, first-time, incoming students from fall 2008 to fall 2013 increased from 12.9 to 25.3.**
“Accomplishing it, what I say is relatively quickly to go from 12 percent to one in four, was really exciting for the campus and a change that I think in many respects people thought couldn't happen,” she said.
Everts said she does not expect the exact same results in the same amount of time at Appalachian. But she is hopeful that there will be some significant changes over time, and she believes that the university is ready for the change.
“This is not a goal that is so lofty we can’t possibly meet it, but it is not one that I am dictating,” she said.
These measures to increase the university’s racial diversity are not just for the sake of positive statistics and matching up to other universities in the UNC-System, but to benefit the higher education process and prepare students for a world, and even a state, that is more diverse than Appalachian.
According to a study titled “Effects of Diversity Experiences on Critical Thinking Skills Over 4 Years of College,” exposure to “racial and cultural diversity” at college has a connection to students seeing gains in “problem solving, critical thinking, cognitive development and complexity of thinking.”
“The cognitive effect of diversity experiences appears to be sustained during four years of college and may even increase in magnitude over time,” according to the study.
The study also found that the effects of exposure to racial and cultural diversity had a more significant impact in terms of gains on white students than nonwhite students.
Scott said diversity, racial and in other categories such as geographics and socioeconomics, is an important presence to have at a university.
“The more diverse this campus is, and any campus is, the better picture of the world that we give to our students to supplement what they’re getting in the classroom and make them better prepared to go out and be successful,” he said.
Wanting to recruit more diverse students and increase efforts to do so does not mean the university will look to only recruit diverse students over those who would not qualify as such, Scott said.
“We want to attract no one to the university who will not be successful here, no one to the university who does not present good to excellent credentials,” he said. “We are not looking to recruit diverse students at the expense of other students.”
At Appalachian in its current state, the underrepresented individuals face an environment both on- and off-campus that either consciously or inadvertently has made them at times feel put down and trivialized.
The following posts were pulled from the mobile application Yik Yak, an anonymous public forum similar to Twitter. All posts were created by users in the Appalachian State University area.
Credit: Pulled from the Facebook group ASU in Solidarity
Outbursts, microaggressions and white privilege
In November 2008 after Obama was elected president, cities and college campuses around the country celebrated, and Appalachian was no exception.
As reported by The Appalachian, students marched on campus, through King Street and even to the chancellor’s house celebrating the election results, chanting “Obama,” “ASU for change” and “Go Apps.” One Boone police officer was quoted saying they usually see these kinds of crowds of students for football games, not elections.
Everette Nichols, who attended Appalachian for his undergraduate degree and now works as interim associate director in Multicultural Student Development, was among those who celebrated the election of the nation’s first black president with a large portion of the rest of the country.
But not everyone was as happy about the election results, the significance or how people felt in the wake of the election, and Nichols claims he experienced some of those negative actions on campus from fellow students.
“I remember walking outside of a residence hall with one of my fraternity brothers and someone yelled out nigger and another one yelled out monkey at us while we were walking just across campus,” he said.
The Appalachian also reported that after the election there were incidents where black students felt harassed in residence halls and that there were even “casual attitudes regarding assassination attempts against Obama.”
Forrest Yerman, a graduate student in the Appalachian Studies program with a focus on race in Appalachia, was an undergraduate around the same time. Yerman, who at this time had not studied race to the extent he has now, remembers walking past the library one night and overhearing a fellow white student say to another if he had caught the “in-niggeration,” rather than the inauguration, of Obama on TV.
“And I regret to this day that I just walked away and didn’t say anything,” he said. “I wasn’t studying race, I wasn’t that aware of what it’s really like in this country. I knew that racism existed, but again I didn’t understand it and I didn’t realize that I had a big role to play in stopping those students and questioning why they would say something like that.”
But more recently, and not always tied specifically to any major events, underrepresented individuals at Appalachian have heard several racially-tinged or ill-informed statements made in their direction.
Aisha Cotton, a senior and president of the Black Student Association, remembers a party she went to with a group of her friends, who were the only black people there, and what happened when one white partygoer — who seemed drunk — approached Cotton and her friends. He addressed them, jokingly and not harshly, with the N-word and asked if they were all “ready to twerk.”
Cotton said it wasn’t until after he saw the unamused looks on all their faces that he realized it wasn’t a joke.
Photo by Paul Heckert
“The fact that he said that to us was really disrespectful,” she said. “I don’t know you to be calling me anything outside of my name.”
For Luiji Massanga, a senior and Appalachian Student Ambassador, some of the most infuriating comments he has heard in his time at Appalachian were not meant to be intentionally racist, offensive or to put someone down. In fact, the intent was presumably meant to be a general observation or compliment, but instead came off as an insult.
“The thing that really, really, really irks me and boils my blood is when someone tells me, ‘Hey you are not like other black people. You are a lot more proper. You’re pretty much white,’” he said. “That’s something I’ve heard before that really, really upsets me.”
Sometimes, Massanga and other black students in particular will be asked the question, “What sport do you play?”
“People say, ‘Oh my gosh, you must be good at so and so sport,’ and I’m like, I really don’t know why these people think I’m an athlete,” Massanga said. “I’m just walking around campus being a regular student.”
These statements are known as microaggressions and are generally rooted in the intent to make a compliment, general observation or even a harmless joke, but most of the time stems from misconceptions and cultural insensitivity.
“I mean one stings, but about 50 of them, they get painful,” Massanga said.
Massanga, who identifies as a Haitian American and also sits on the chancellor’s student diversity committee, said he doesn’t think most the people who say these comments do so out of spite, but that they don’t know those kind of phrases said to someone of color are offensive.
Luiji Massanga — a senior electronic media/broadcasting major, Appalachian Student Ambassador and promotions intern for WASU — said he encounters microaggressions and misconceptions frequently at Appalachian. “I mean one stings, but about 50 of them, they get painful.” Photo by Michael Bragg
Similar incidents even appear in the classroom setting. Reggie Gravely, president of the National PanHellenic Council at Appalachian, said he’s often the only underrepresented individual in his classes and feels like the attention of the room shifts toward him when an issue of race or skin color is brought up.
“It’s not like it’s being directly asked, ‘How do you feel as the only person of color in here to speak on behalf of your race?’” he said. “It’s more of when we come across topics that concern people of color, everyone in the class kind of side glances like, ‘Oh, is he going to say something? Is he going to be mad? Do we say something?’ So it’s kind of like that, it’s a very silent pressure.”
Students like the ones mentioned previously have had their share of difficulties maneuvering and residing on a campus and in a town where they are part of the underrepresented population, but even that term itself has drawn some criticism and discussion from those who fall into that category.
“I would just call myself either a minority or diverse, but not underrepresented because that is saying that Appalachian doesn’t really care about me or about my culture,” said Aneisy Cardo, a senior and the president of the Hispanic Student Association, who also serves on the chancellor’s student diversity committee.
Everette Nichols said that the term is primarily meant to describe a statistical lack of representation within the racial demographics at Appalachian, but can understand how a created term a person is given could carry a negative connotation with it.
“It’s a term that we came up with to distinguish a group of students, just like first generation college students, or first gen students,” he said. “I never knew or understood myself as a first generation student until somebody gave me that term and I chose to accept it.”
For James Ivory, an associate professor in the Department of English, the term underrepresented to him means how closely an academic or social environment reflects the broader areas and world outside of it.
“I guess if we’re going to make our students and ourselves more globally aware, in some ways underrepresented means that we’re always struggling with the reality that our community is always in some sense underrepresented by some particular population,” said Ivory, who is a black faculty member and has been at Appalachian since 1996.
Elena Avis, who also sits on the chancellor’s student diversity committee, said she thinks the term is accurate for people at Appalachian, such as herself, especially when taken into account that populations outside of Boone are much more represented by other races.
“That’s just not representative of what life anywhere is like today,” she said. “So yeah, minorities are super underrepresented on this campus.”
People say, ‘Oh my gosh, you must be good at so and so sport,’ and I’m like, I really don’t know why these people think I’m an athlete...I’m just walking around campus being a regular student.”
Senior, Appalachian State University
And as underrepresented individuals at a university where the majority is overwhelmingly white, many agree that a sense of white privilege exists at Appalachian.
“There’s white privilege for sure because they represent the majority of faculty, staff and students here on this mountain and on this campus, so you can't get around that,” Jamar Banks said.
The idea of white privilege doesn’t focus on overt ideas such as racism and supremacy, but more on structural, systemic and historical issues in society about how white people can generally be treated more favorably regardless of intent or want.
For example, white privilege can be seen at Appalachian in the form of resources available to some students over others. A common example that is frequently brought up is that black students, faculty and staff in particular do not have easy access to services and care for ethnic hair or skin products in town, and have to travel as far back as home sometimes for these basic needs.
“Those things are not available to me like they are for the people who are not underrepresented,” said Massanga, who said he has to drive anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour to the closest place to get a haircut.
Although Massanga said he agrees that white privilege exists at Appalachian, he believes that it’s “not an easy task” for someone who has privilege “to step back out of themselves and say there’s something wrong here.”
“For them, it’s hard for them to see it,” he said. “But is there white privilege? Absolutely, and can I put that against someone who is white? I can’t.”
For Cameron Lippard, who is a white male who grew up in Boone and received his undergraduate degree at Appalachian before returning here to teach, white privilege also means that race can oftentimes not be brought up in conversations at a place such as Appalachian because it’s not an easily identifiable issue for the majority of students, faculty or staff.
As a result, Lippard said he has seen more focus on campus for LGBTQ, gender and sometimes social class issues, but not race “because it’s just not in our purview.”
But when students do talk about race, such as in the forms of protests and demonstrations, Lippard said he sees social media messages criticizing black students for “laying on the ground, and saying what they're doing is worthless and senseless.”
“That’s white privilege” he said, “that I can ignore, even with resistance, I can ignore other people’s pain and say it’s not race, it’s something else.”
National issues become localized
Matt Pearce, a national news reporter with the Los Angeles Times, collectively spent several weeks on the ground in Ferguson, covering events just days after Michael Brown was shot, several protests that followed and the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer. While reporting, Pearce noticed a presence of young social activists and protesters in a place that was not a major city where most movements begin, such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.
“One of the significant things you see in Ferguson is that there was an incredible amount of young people who were getting involved with protests for the first time,” he said.
Pearce saw a connection in Ferguson demonstrations, and similar ones that followed, to the Occupy Movement models where there’s no central figurehead, but rather a group of leaders using hashtags and social media to communicate their messages across the nation. This type of protest — minus the more violent actions reported on, such as rioting and setting buildings on fire that took place in Ferguson — is one that he could potentially see “echoed in the future.”
“You’ve also got just this entire group of young people now, who some of them have gotten their first taste of activism, and they've really gotten experience doing work with the Ferguson and Eric Garner protests,” Pearce said. “They're going to be experienced activists who are probably going to be prepared already the next time something happens, in which they decided to hit the streets or to organize protests.”
There have not been movements and actions to the degree or scale in Boone as they were in Ferguson and other major U.S. cities, but students have organized and made their presence known in the wake of these national events.
During the fall semester at Appalachian, a handful of protests and vigils addressing several topics, ranging from #BlackLivesMatter to the recognition of all minority groups on campus, that took place between September and December. Some of the more recent were die-in demonstrations across campus.
Vice Chancellor for Student Development Cindy Wallace was a presence for the administration among the demonstrators last semester, as well as Dean of Students J.J. Brown. Wallace said she was invited by students to join.
There were all kinds of students of all different colors and backgrounds and races that walked with us. It wasn’t just African-American students, and I think that’s good that it was so diverse. That kind of thing definitely made me happy and that was something that I was proud to be a Mountaineer.”
Senior, Appalachian State University
“I think that was a very powerful place of saying I trust you and I need you to be beside me right now,” Wallace said. “And that is, what I think, is my primary job in this role. I need to be an advocate for students before I do anything else.”
Aisha Cotton, who also sits on the chancellor’s student diversity committee, took part in the demonstrations and said the overall mood was positive on the protesters’ end and was “incredibly happy” about the support they received.
“There were all kinds of students of all different colors and backgrounds and races that walked with us,” she said. “It wasn’t just African-American students, and I think that’s good that it was so diverse. That kind of thing definitely made me happy and that was something that I was proud to be a Mountaineer.”
Aneisy Cardo, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba when she was 11 with her parents and sister, was one of the many students who participated in the die-in demonstrations.
“I wanted to be a part of it, because being a minority I can relate to how they feel,” she said. “People always tell me, ‘Why are you doing it’ and stuff like that, and I do it because I feel like discrimination against any race is stupid.”
But the reactions from some students on social media, and even in person, were not as positive. Gravely said that while they were laying down in the main entrance of Belk Library, he was able to look up to another floor where he remembers seeing a white female student standing against a window raising her middle finger to the protesters.
Also in the library, Cotton recalled a time where a person stepped over her face and not around her or the group of protesters to get to where they were going.
“Being walked over really made me feel like an underrepresented student,” she said. “It really made me feel like I wasn’t accepted here or that my opinion didn't matter.”
During and after the protests, several anonymous posts from others on campus through the social media application Yik Yak took aim at the participants and some at the cause of their actions. While a small handful did show support for the protesters, many of the posts criticized the message of the demonstrations, called out the protesters for disturbing students preparing for final exams and even used some racial slurs.
In one post, someone said they were proud of stepping on a protester, while another told the students to go experience real oppression, which caught the attention of Wallace.
“I thought, we have students on this in 2014 that would post either one of those things,” she said. “That’s disgusting, and yes it’s your right to say that, but shame on you.”
About 125 students, faculty, staff and community members gathered December 5 in solidarity against institutional racism. The demonstration included chants and a ‘die in’ in front of Belk Library, the International Hallway, Sanford Mall and Roess Dining Hall. Photo by Paul Heckert
Other posts took aim at the meaning of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and Massanga took offense to the trivialization of the phrase, saying it hurt to see people interpret that message as if it’s only black lives that matter.
“We’re trying to convey that every single life matters and so do ours, so please let us have our cause of letting people know that we’re not here to cause trouble, we’re here to advance the United States as a whole,” he said. “So to say that all lives matter, you’re pretty much telling us that, ‘Your protest really doesn’t matter, your protest is unnecessary, your protest is doing nothing but hurting this country.’”
Despite the criticism, Everette Nichols said he was proud of the work the students did to prepare for and carry out the protests, and said he was not surprised at all by the negative backlash in the posts on Yik Yak. Nichols said he has always known some people feel this way, but now there is a way to actually see it.
“We have proof and evidence that people, someone sitting down somewhere in the library or somewhere in the union — I might have just walked by this person — and they’re sending out this Yik Yak about black people being lazy, skipping class and marching,” Nichols said. “I wasn’t shocked by it because there’s always that group of people in every society or time that’s just ignorant to the experiences of someone else.”
These comments were upsetting, but they didn’t faze people like Cotton too much. As a senior at Appalachian, hearing comments like this were not as troubling as they were to a freshman she noticed in the demonstrations and could tell was clearly affected by the backlash.
“I hear this stuff as a senior and I’m like, well whatever. I can expect it, whatever,” Cotton said. “But as a freshman when you hear that stuff, she doesn’t know who is saying this stuff. They could be in class, it could be her roommate. That stuff makes her uncomfortable and makes her not want to be her, and that’s a problem. That’s never OK.”
Banks said that hearing and seeing those things — similarly to Nichols — were of no shock to him, but that he hurt for the students who were ridiculed for trying to bring attention of national events to campus.
“This campus does a nice job about talking about the Appalachian Family, and that did not feel like a family,” he said. “It felt very much like a house divided against itself and I think that our, particularly our minority, students felt that divide and they wanted to address some of those things.”
Solutions, suggestions and looking forward
The university has laid out plans and hopes to increase its racial diversity in the coming years, and has even brainstormed a few ideas to retain the students currently enrolled at Appalachian in order to make this a welcoming and inclusive campus.
“We want our students to be prepared and making sure that they understand the diversity of the world,” Bindu Jayne said. “I think is imperative in that preparation.”
For some, it’s going to take more than a few ideas or committees to improve the racial diversity at predominantly white Appalachian. It will take actions and attitudes by its members to move past misconceptions, microaggressions and the occasional offensive outbursts, not just an increase in numbers.
“I love these kind of committee meetings where we’ll talk about stuff, I love these kind of things,” Ivory said. “But I wondered if the talking sometimes comes across as kind of cathartic. I’ve had my emotional release, but in fact nothing has changed in terms of practice, resources.”
Ivory said developing a sense of empathy and being able to have sometimes difficult conversations with one another is a step forward that everyone at this university can take. In some cases, people might be nervous to ask questions and worry they might insult someone, therefore not engaging in these discussions.
“They say, well if I ask this, will someone be insulted? You don’t know until you ask,” he said, “and sometimes I think the issue is people are not having the difficult conversations.”
One thing that Forrest Yerman wants to see more of is people calling out racism or microaggressions when they see it, unlike he did during that incident that took place outside the library during his time as an undergraduate.
“When they hear a student say something, they need to challenge that student,” he said. “When they hear a professor say something, they need to challenge that professor, regardless of the person that that racist language or act was committed on. If that person doesn't say anything, you need to.”
Gravely wants to see more transparency from university officials and to see them be more vocal when it comes to what they are doing now to help minority students.
“You need to let the student body know what you're doing because right now it looks like you're not doing anything, which makes us more frustrated, which means we’ll be doing more demonstrations and things of that nature because we’re not aware of anything that might be going on.” he said. “Because change might be happening, but it’s not visible at all.”
Nichols believes this shift in attitudes is something that will come back to the students, not just those in charge of the university. To him, it’s always the students who can make a difference at a university and make it the place what they want it to be.
“I think it should be a holistic approach, but things happen when students push for them to happen, really,” he said. “And so I’m very proud and glad to see students using their voice how they see fit and having the opportunity to help them in any way I can.”
Another approach that could increase the enrollment and retention of racially diverse students is a stronger presence of racially diverse faculty and staff. By doing so, it could encourage more of these types of students to come to Appalachian because they see not just a presence of students like them, but professors as well.
“[O]ur efforts have to continue in recruiting qualified and competent, racially diverse populations of faculty and staff on our campus, of minority faculty and staff on our campus, and that those recruitment efforts are never ending,” Banks said. “I think that we have to do a better job in making sure that the students, faculty and staff that we’ve already recruited that we find ways to retain them, and that’s going to be an effort by the entire campus.”
And while underrepresented students have expressed a hope for the future of Appalachian, they’re divided on whether or not they’d actually encourage prospective students like them to attend.
During a panel discussion that followed an on-campus showing of the film “Dear White People,” put on by Multicultural Student Development and Appalachian Popular Programming Society’s Cultural Awareness and Student Engagement Council on Feb. 10 and 11, panelists in both showings and some members of the audience shared a collective majority decision that they would not recommend Appalachian to potential minority students based on their own experiences.
But Cotton, who has seen several members of her family come to Appalachian before her, would recommend prospective minority students to attend this school. Based on her chances to be involved and to advocate for change at this university, she would recommend Appalachian for future students who want to do the same.
“I would definitely recommend it to students who are already involved in things in high school, who see themselves being leaders on their campus because there might be times where you feel like you're the only one that cares because that's often how we feel here,” she said.
You think you're ready, and you come up here and you think, well it’s mostly white I have a bunch of white friends, that's fine. I’ll be fine. And then you get up here and you're not interacting with students that have gone through some of the things that you've gone through and you're not prepared for it."
Senior, Appalachian State University
Gravely would forego a recommendation to Appalachian, although he does not regret his own time spent here because he sees himself as a “very outspoken person.” He also said this type of environment challenges him to change ideas and attitudes for himself and others around him, and to hopefully educate them about his own experiences as a minority student.
“But I would not recommend this to any of my high school friends of color at all, because a lot of people aren't ready for this,” Gravely said. “You think you're ready, and you come up here and you think, well it’s mostly, white I have a bunch of white friends, that's fine. I’ll be fine. And then you get up here and you're not interacting with students that have gone through some of the things that you've gone through and you're not prepared for it.”
If Appalachian wishes to move toward a more racially diverse population, it looks as though it is going to take even more than actions and plans from individuals, and it may take that community known as the Appalachian Family to do so. And while students like Cotton, Haigler and Gravely do not identify with or use the term “family” based on past and current experiences, Nichols said it could take that sort of combined effort on campus just to get people talking, and hopefully doing something, about diversity.
“It can’t just fall on one or two departments because we are a university,” Nichols said. “We use the term Appalachian Family, and if we are a family, families usually go into things together. So I think everybody should make it a part of the conversation.”
*The percentages and totals of these figures are based on calculations with the information provided in the hyperlinks.
**The percentages and totals of these figures are based on calculations with the information provided in the hyperlinks. Illinois State University, unlike Appalachian, includes the Race and Ethnicity Unknown demographic in their percentage calculations.
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