“Am I upset that I didn’t say anything? Yeah. But was I outnumbered? Yeah.”
When Weinberg senior Tonantzin Carmona was confronted by a group of girls on her way home from the library the night of Thursday, Jan. 12, she didn’t say anything. The girls were walking behind her, yelling at her and giggling, apparently inebriated, says Carmona. When she didn’t respond to their calls, they became increasingly belligerent, yelling racial slurs towards her that referenced her Latino background.
“What,” they yelled at her. “No hablas Ingles?”
It wasn’t until she was back in her dorm that Carmona realized what happened. After talking to her friends about the incident, and hearing for the first time that many of them had similar encounters, she decided to take action.
A week later, looking into the audience at Harris Hall, she was shocked to see roughly 150 people, of all ethnicities and backgrounds, gathered to discuss racial discrimination and cultural insensitivity on campus, at a meeting titled “Caucus against Racial Prejudice.”
“I came here thinking there was going to be 20 people and then it erupted to over 100 people!” Carmona said. “But I’m happy that people got engaged in the dialogue. I am so happy and impressed by [the turnout].”
The event was organized as a student initiative led by Carmona, Communication sophomore Colette Ghunim, Weinberg sophomore Daniel Flores, Weinberg senior Kellyn Lewis, and graduate student Valeria Jimenez. The goal was to provide a safe space for students to share their experiences with racial discrimination and come up with constructive, tangible ways to stop incidents of racial prejudice from occurring on campus.
Discussion Moderator John D. Marquez, Assistant Professor of African American and Latino/a Studies, called Carmona’s ability to take initiative an “act of moral witnessing.”
“What Carmona is suggesting is that her particular incident is reflective of a broader historical condition,” Marquez said. “It’s not just her who is being put on display as a victim; it is the assortment of people who have been victimized by issues of racial or ethnic displacement over time.”
Throughout the meeting, Marquez helped facilitate discussion, challenging students to think of individual occurrences as reflections of broader social conditions at Northwestern and beyond.
Many speakers throughout the night expressed disappointment with the administration’s non-action in protecting against racial harassment, and frustration with faculty’s roles in perpetuating racial stereotypes and insensitivity. Medill senior Dallas Wright suggested that the university itself disappointed its minority community by failing to uphold community standards of diversity that were advertised to applicants.
“When I came here, I was under the impression that it was Kumbaya,” Wright said. “Very quickly I learned that that’s not the case. The university brings [minorities] here under the impression that everything is good, but they don’t protect that cultural diversity that they claim to value when it comes down to it.”
Many speakers expressed a desire for change to come from the top-down. Marquez said that historically, change has always come from the bottom-up, and he emphasized the power young people have to elicit that change.
At the end of the forum, students proposed ideas for how to raise awareness of race issues on campus, including physically compiling personal anecdotes and incorporating a “cultural competency” requirement in the Weinberg curriculum.
“The only way to really make things work is to make people uncomfortable,” said Communication senior Amin Elsaeed, who suggested reciting personal anecdotes in prominent places on campus.
RTVF senior Charles Agbaje, who was present but did not speak at the event, was one of only 81 black freshmen to enroll in the class of 2012. He says he has been involved in many campaigns similar to this one in the past, but none of them achieved significant goals.
“One of the sentiments that was echoed [at the meeting] is that sometimes it tends to stay here, within the people that are already motivated, within the people that already care,” Agbaje said. “I’m really interested in seeing where this goes next, how many people it can really affect. I’m hoping it can go as far as the whole campus and beyond. But it depends on how motivated the people are, how dedicated they are to making this thing worthwhile.”
Another meeting to discuss further plans of action and how to carry them out will be held Sunday for anyone interested in joining the initiative.