Pitzer College students requesting non-white roommate spark national debate

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Photo via Lauriealosh/Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA)

The responses from administrators highlight a growing debate on reverse racism and safe spaces.

45 minutes from Los Angeles sits the five campuses that comprise Claremont Colleges. The prestigious private institution boasts alums like Walt Disney's son, Roy, and Gabby Giffords, as well as a dizzying rolodex of notable faculty and high-profile commencement speakers. Though a straight shot from Interstate 10, the LEED-certified buildings and manicured landscapes feel a world away from L.A.

For one, the city of Claremont is predominantly white, as is Claremont College. The school is the highest employer in the city and its residents boast an impressive median household income of over $83,000—a full $30,000 more than the average American median household income. All of these stats point to a less than diverse community surrounding students.

Exterior factors such as these could've prompted Claremont Colleges student Karé Ureña to pen a Facebook post in the Pitzer College Class of 2018 asking for a "POC only" roommate. In a statement sent to the Washington Post by Ureña and her roommate Sajo Jefferson, the duo certainly indicate as such:

“When and if you understand this context, it becomes clear that students of color seeking a living space that is all-POC is not only reasonable, but can be necessary. We live in a world where the living circumstances of POC are grounded in racist social structures that we can not opt out of. These conditions threaten the minds, bodies and souls of people of color both within and without the realms of higher education. We are fighting to exist.”

The Daily Dot has reached out to Ureña and Jefferson and is awaiting a response. Those in support of Ureña's request cite the right to feel a sense of security in their home, which is how the duo wants the conversation surrounding the post to be framed. Critics consider the exclusion of Whites as an explicit example of "reverse racism." Ureña and Jefferson maintain that such rhetoric only reinforces their feelings of “being submerged in a white-centric world.”

The roommate request, which was posted and deleted this week, has nonetheless prompted a campus-wide debate that has prompted both Pizner College President Melvin Oliver and VP of Student Affairs Brian Carlisle to speak out. Both offered drastically different statements on the subject. It's worth noting that Oliver is African-American and Carlisle is White.

Oliver's first college-wide email ever condemned the post. “While Pitzer is a community of individuals passionately engaged in establishing intracultural safe spaces for marginalized groups, the Facebook post and several subsequent comments are inconsistent with our Mission and values,” Oliver wrote in part.

Rather than facing the issue head-on, Carlisle instead chose to speak out about the harassment that resident advisors have reportedly been subject to following the national attention Ureña's post gained. Specifically, Carlisle mentioned that Twitter trolls had been attacking RAs. He called on students to rally behind RAs and student affairs staff.

“Please join me in thanking them [RAs and student affairs staff] for their work in furthering our mission and for keeping our campus a safe place to work, live, and study,” Carlisle concluded.

Clearly, harassment on either side is a terrible consequence. As Carlisle's statement shows, it obscures the larger issue at hand of students of color not feeling comfortable on campus, that they may not feel heard, and that their concerns appear to be brushed aside by fellow students and faculty.

An article in the campus newspaper the Claremont Independent written by Elliot Dordick is perhaps the most overt example of dissenting attitudes on campus. Dordick, a White Pitzer College student double majoring in Political Studies and Economics, saw no issue with posting comments from the Facebook post in full despite Pitzer College Class of 2018 being a closed group.

Dordick also defended the decision to use a photo of a Black man getting water at a fountain with the words "For Colored Only" emblazoned next to it. Students have spoken out about the insensitivity of such imagery as well as the puzzling decision to fill the piece with more Facebook quotes from students than actual copy.

The Claremont Independent staff writer did little to bolster his case when interviewed by the Washington Post. Dordick recounts a Black Lives Matter protest in which students reportedly verbally attacked Oliver: 

“Hundreds of students stormed through the center of Claremont McKenna College chanting ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogans. The president of the college came out to a central area of campus and was verbally attacked by many students of color whose emotions were out of control. They shrieked about their experiences on campus and demanded racially segregated ‘safe spaces.’ Two girls even went on a hunger strike,” Dordick told the Post.

Ureña stated that she does not regret posting the request for a roommate. The off-campus household, which is comprised of Ureña, Jefferson, and another roommate is now fully occupied. They have reportedly found their fourth roommate, hence taking the post down. Though Ureña's request has been fulfilled, the debate surrounding it has yet to reach a definitive answer.

H/T Washington Post

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