Opinion: An open letter to colorblind CU

CU Boulder from above. (Will C Holden)

Opinions do not necessarily represent CUIndependent.com or any of its sponsors.

Correction: An Intergroup Relations working group planned and facilitated the session referenced in the article, not CU INVST and CU Dialogues as previously stated. The article has been updated to reflect this change. 

On Nov. 7th, the University held its Diversity and Inclusion Summit. An Intergroup Relations (IGR) working group of faculty and staff from across campus planned and facilitated several dialogue sessions entitled “Can recognizing human dignity pave our path forward?”

This letter’s purpose is to express our concerns about the theme of these dialogues, the effect they had on students attending and the larger effect on CU’s diversity framework. Our intention is to address the campus-wide problem of silencing and sidelining the concerns of minoritized students. We end this letter with several demands of the University.

We, the authors of this letter, attended a session of these dialogues with the expectation that diversity — specifically racial diversity — power and legitimate campus climate issues would be discussed openly, honestly and critically. The dialogue’s colorblind context and facilitators silenced and opposed our efforts to address these topics. This silencing is not new and extends beyond the Diversity and Inclusion Summit to the inaction by administrators in response to concrete requests from student groups.

We explicitly address this letter to Chancellor DiStefano, President Benson and the administration. Our concerns are about the institution’s inability to name, approach or enact meaningful change in regards to racial injustice on campus. The institution’s inabilities were highlighted by the summit’s dialogue sessions — mere (yet crippling) symptoms of the university’s negligence.

CU (and the dialogues) operate within, and reinforce, a colorblind lens — we consider this an injustice.

Colorblindness is a form of racism that ignores the unequal treatment of people in this society based on their race. An active process, it denies that race has impact and is a significant aspect to identity. This framework naturalizes and justifies racial injustice as being the result of individual choice and interactions between individuals.

A discussion of “recognizing human dignity” that doesn’t acknowledge systems of power that subvert people of minoritized races is colorblind. Thus, to deny someone’s race (and to silence discussions of race) is to deny their dignity, an ironic effect of these dialogues.

Further, the definition of dignity offered in the dialogue — “Dignity is our inherent value and worth as human beings; everyone is born with it” — was fundamentally colorblind, as this idea ignores racial inequality. In imposing an idea of common dignity, experiences of dignity denied in a hierarchical and unjust society are silenced.

We take further issue with CU’s (also colorblind) definition of diversity — “We strive to be a diverse campus, welcoming students of all ages, ethnicities, gender, location, and sexual orientation.”

Such a definition boils diversity down to difference while not recognizing the importance of race in students’ experiences on campus. Not only is CU’s diversity framework race-blind, but it equates these diverse experiences to one another. Age and location do not have the same impact on a person’s life than do race (coded as “ethnicity”), gender and sexual orientation. This broad and shallow definition of diversity allows the institution to claim a diverse student body while under-serving minoritized racial groups.

CU silences minoritized students’ voices — the dialogues catered to white student comfort and restricted speech about the university to center on positive experiences.

The colorblind framing of the dialogues affirmed white students’ positive experiences within an institution that engages in white supremacy, while silencing the injustice endured by students of color. The context also established a false equivalence between students’ experiences on campus and consequently provided a mischaracterization of CU as equally inclusive for all students.

This reinforced white students’ experiences of CU as a positive space with no recognition of how these experiences are built on the backs of students of color. The lives of students of color are fetishized and consumed as a credential for white students, providing white students with an extra line on a resumé: “thrives in diverse environment, accepting of difference.” Engaging across race is optional extra credit for white students on this campus, evidenced by CU’s rank as top 15th in least race and class interaction in the nation.

In what we consider an effort to protect white students from the discomfort of hearing of the ways white supremacy harms students of color and other minoritized groups, the dialogue facilitators only allowed participants to share positive experiences. This color-blind strategy, in turn, allowed non-minoritized students to continue ignoring and benefiting from systems of power at the expense of others. Consequently, it boosted white participants’ confidence in their recognized dignity while amplifying minoritized participants’ acute awareness of their experiences of dignity denied.

In sum, these dialogues only provided space for positive reviews of campus climate, thus protecting the university from open criticism.

This sort of silencing, invalidation and dismissal is not new.

CU (and the dialogues) mystifies practical solutions and places responsibility on the individual action of students rather than upholding the obligation of the university to recognize the dignity of students and support them institutionally.

These dialogues proposed that our participation would contribute to change. We argue that their purpose was to preserve, and divert attention away from, ingrained power structures and place the burden on communities of color to prove their own humanity, instead of recognizing it on an institutional level.

We were asked, “how can we each recognize the dignity of everyone in the CU community?” The proposed solutions of smiling, holding doors open, and active listening were shallow and unsubstantial. A direct result of the colorblind framing of the dialogue, the colorblind definition of dignity and the constrained and unsafe space for expression offered by the dialogue.

Such a request of participants sent the message that the university has exhausted its efforts to assure equality and that individual behavior will “pave the way forward”, in the words of the dialogue. As such, it hides the ultimate power of institutions to create change. Yet this power also includes the implicit ability to preserve systems of power and oppression — such inaction and willful ignorance reinforces the status quo. We must also remind the institution that has already heard from students, yet denied several requests that would improve equity. These summit sessions are unsubstantial, miseducative and demonstrate that meaningful institutional change is not a priority.

These dialogues placed the onus for progress on students, rather than upon the university. For example, the Inclusive Excellence plan establishes students, faculty and staff as the units responsible for improving campus climate. The next-steps message following the Summit exported responsibility to individuals: “While we have a wealth of opportunities — and many dedicated communities across campus — available to help us move forward, it is through our own individual commitments to the practice of inclusion that we will make real progress as a university.” No concrete commitment to social justice on an institutional level has been made.

Individual action to promote inclusion and equality at CU will not make an impact if it is undermined by campus policy and administrators’ agendas.

CU (via the dialogues) actively harms minoritized students by silencing experiences and affirming colorblind frameworks within an institution-sanctioned event.

This session actively harmed minoritized students by silencing authentic sentiments about their experiences at CU and by propelling colorblind racism through the rhetoric of equality unsubstantiated by policy and action.

Students with limited race-consciousness likely left these dialogues with a justified and emboldened colorblind framework for approaching issues around race. It is an injustice on the part of CU to promote and operate within post-racial, colorblind ideas through a dialogue that minimizes and trivializes the damaging reality of racism within our institution and society. It framed CU’s racial problems in terms of student behavior and ignored how these are affirmed and reinforced on an institutional level via the conduct of administration and policy.

Racism is most potent when supported by an institution.

This letter is a criticism of the overall treatment of minoritized students by the University. Therefore we demand a commitment to substantial change from the institution as a whole:

  1. We demand the University directly address this campus’s problem with racial diversity and inclusion and critically examine its shortcomings — instead of obscuring and silencing them under color-blind language and feel-good summit sessions.
  2. We demand the campus definition of “Diversity” include, validate and support racial diversity.
  3. We demand that Chancellor DiStefano be physically present, engaged and active in measures to achieve equity for all students on campus — we welcome a discussion of the ideas we have presented in this letter.
  4. We demand the University to listen and respond with action to student voices — not just voices constrained by the dialogue. Students have repeatedly made practical requests to the University with minimal response, let alone action. We reiterate those demands: We demand the University support its minoritized students (and not just in gestures) through concrete, equitable policy and resource change.
    • Create and defend safe spaces for students of color — and stop taking them away (see also demand 5b)
    • Hire proportionate numbers of staff and faculty of color.
    • Incorporate scholars of color into the curriculum just as frequently as white scholars.
    • Mandate multicultural classes that directly address power and racism for all students (see demand 5c).
    • Take action against racist events, groups, or individuals on campus rather than idly tolerating such hatred on this campus.
  5. We demand that programs aimed at social justice truly embody such a claim:
    • CU Dialogues must invite critical dialogue concerning unrestricted experiences of students and institutional shortcomings.
    • Residential Academic Programs claiming to support students of color must be explicit in that goal.
    • Curriculum requirements about diversity must always address systems of power.

This is how the university can recognize human dignity.

Sincerely,

Hayla Wong
Sarah Farley
Shannon Vyvijal
Priyanka Goel
Ethan Friedman
Bruno Tapia Garcia
Shoshana Pollack
Vidushi Goyal
Mae Jones
Sam Maney
Mattison Cembalisty
Lilly Evans
Emily Doak
Ellie Dunlap
Amber Carrion
Caroline Heinze
Tessa Derecat
Kate Mooney
Yoselin Martin
Harrison Eaton
Kelsey Avila
Tess Martinez
James Hansen
Kyle Barth
Carmen Mabee
Maykala Noyd
Madison Choate
Emma Presley
Rachel Shellenback
John Ficklen
Berkeley McCarthy

Contact CU Independent Opinion Editor Hayla Wong at hayla.wong@colorado.edu.

Hayla Wong

Head Opinion Editor Hayla Wong hails from Hawaii and is majoring in Sociology, minoring in Philosophy. When she is not writing serious social critiques, she provides her social commentary as satire pieces.

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