Occidental offers potential for social progress

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I am a black man.

At least that is how I identify myself, my heritage and the face I see when I look in the mirror. However, as a biracial—African-American and Puerto Rican—kid from the northern Los Angeles suburbs, my identity as a black person has been questioned for as long as I can remember.

The recent efforts of the Coalition @ Oxy for Diversity and Equity (CODE) to address a proposed student party theme that dehumanized the struggles of minority groups from around the world has brought the issue of race to the forefront of our community. This incident has also forced me to think about my past struggles with racial identity for the first time in quite a while.

Over my last three and a half years at Occidental, I have not felt acute racial discrimination. While there is an incident or two that still burn in my mind, I have never felt threatened by the community as a whole and have generally been welcomed by every group that I have been associated with.

My experience going to a predominately white suburban high school was quite different. Whether it was in my AP classes—in which I was often the only black student—my football team, or even among my group of friends, I was always made to feel different because of my race.

I quickly gained a reputation for being the “smart black kid”—an oddity of course, because black males are stereotypically seen as being suited for the playing field and not the classroom. The term “white washed” was thrown towards me on what seemed like a daily basis, or at least often enough that I no longer flinched when I heard it.

After years of being called “white washed” I began to believe that what my peers had been saying might actually be true. While I enjoy listening to hip-hop, my musical passion has always been alternative rock, and I would much rather sit down and watch baseball than turn on a basketball game. And, as my high school classmates liked to remind me, I talk like your average white person.

In those transformative high school years, when so much of my identity was shaped by interactions with my peers, I struggled to understand who I was and who I fit in with.

That all changed when I came to Occidental. For the first time in my life, I was able to have serious conversations with people who came from outside of the sheltered middle class to which I had grown accustomed. In my Diplomacy and World Affairs classes especially, I witnessed the wide variety of people that this school attracts and had meaningful interactions that changed the way I think.

It was inside the walls of this institution that I became comfortable with my blackness, even though I do not fulfill the stereotypes that people want to assign to me.

I am not here to say that Occidental is a safe haven where issues of race simply do not exist; that is far from the case. The fact that I have heard numerous people on campus simply write off last week’s incident as “frat boys being frat boys,” shows that there still needs to be a fundamental change in the way many of us think about race.

But the fact that what some may see as a relatively small act of insensitivity can ignite a campus-wide dialogue shows that Occidental still harbors some of the traits that have historically made it an incredibly forward-thinking institution.

My biggest hope is that the conversations we are witnessing on this campus right now will not simply subside with the passing days. If this school is going to put its money where its mouth is, dialogue has to continue after the first small steps have been taken.

We all need to admit that there is work to be done in regards to race and take an active role in this process. Luckily, Occidental is home to individuals at the forefront of progress, and offers a venue where discussions can be had and progress can be made.

 

Alex Nieves is a senior Diplomacy and World Affairs major. He can be reached nievesa@oxy.edu or on Twitter at @alexdnieves5.