Reflecting on Black History Month as a Macaulay Honors Student

My initial relationship with Black History Month was a fairly homogenized and extremely sanitized front. Teachers across the board would relay stories of black exceptionalism, without fully confronting the pain and anguish that our people have endured. We analyzed the stories of Madame CJ Walker, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela without speaking to the events that make their successes so inspiring.  

For many black students, the month of February can become the most trying month of the semester. We are oftentimes the “token black” in our classes, toeing the line between appeasement and genuine expression in every discussion. While our professors and classmates celebrate Black History Month through readings and videos, we are on the receiving end of stares and questions on “how we really feel about Black History Month” and the typical revisionist history on black revolutionaries. Above all, it is almost comical that the students and faculty who covertly denigrate you for your race in January, will make attempts to celebrate you when February starts.

As a student in Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College, the climate in terms of discussion on race on campus has been disquieting. With the release of “A Seat in the Honors Academy” by Jesi Taylor and the subsequent responses from various faculty members, I realized the questions would soon be turned on me. “Have any of the staff or students ever treated you in a way that made you feel excluded?” “Are most of the students and staff affiliated with Macaulay Honors College racist?”

Little is known about how discrimination manifests before individuals formally apply to organizations. In addition, not much is said about how it varies within and between organizations. One constant is certain: discrimination in higher education is pervasive, and many of the gatekeepers in academia participate in its ability to thrive.

Again, Brooklyn College is no stranger to questions about discrimination. In December of last year, the Kingsman made plain that Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College showed “stark racial disparities in admissions.” It is not surprising that this pattern exists at most, if not all, of the Macaulay Honors College campuses.

Within this article, the newly-minted director of Macaulay Honors at Brooklyn College commented that these disparities are “unfortunate but out of our control,” after going into an expected diatribe about the difference in SAT scores between races. This comment flies right in the face of admissions directors within and outside of CUNY who stress the idea of “looking at applications holistically.” It further depresses the amount of students of color who could have applied but have lower scores due to being disadvantaged, whether it be through income, school attended or family obligations.

The debate over whether black college students’ expression of concerns about racism on campus are “appropriate” often assumes that black college students and white college students are already on a level playing field in terms of the considerations and opportunities they receive. But, no matter how prestigious the university, the students of color who attend classes are anything but respected. Access to Ivy League or highly selective schools does not erase the racism that students experience from their fellow classmates.

In fact, there is an ample amount of research showing why black college students have to fight for recognition and respect on college campuses  —  particularly overwhelmingly white ones  —  which makes it clear why students are saying they have finally had enough of being treated as the “other” at their own institutions of higher education. According to a 2013 Association for the Study of Higher Education paper, which conducted focus groups with graduate students at seven universities, students of color reported many instances of faculty suggesting their race affected their interests.

The question becomes “What can we do?” and “How can we make things better?” There are a variety of ways to improve results that are within the purview of admissions. First and foremost, the change has to start at the top. Can Macaulay be diverse in terms of student body without a diverse faculty? Are faculty members who are people of color, given prominent roles in the college?

In regards to student body, Macaulay has an outreach problem. More often than not, students simply do not know what Macaulay is. A majority of open houses are held in specialized high schools, where the same issue of diversity is being discussed. Many students come from the same five or so schools, knowing each other, while everyone else ends up feeling excluded and ostracized. Instead, train Macaulay students to be representatives and have them accompany staff to schools across boroughs. This creates a larger and more diverse applicant pool, considering that most Macaulay students are always willing to help students who were just like them years ago.

The Macaulay Honors College believes that “Diversity in the classroom has proven educational benefits and reflects Macaulay’s core value.” That aim is true and extremely valuable, while also being a goal that should be continuously worked towards based on where we are currently. Black History Month for Macaulay should be a month of not only reflecting on the great work done by Eleonor Leger, Joy Nuga and Jaclyn Williams, but a new investment in ensuring that people of color feel empowered and supported in doing great work as well.

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