Illustration by Emily DiSalvo
Brief note: The writers of this article are two Black male students. They interviewed 11 undergraduate students of color and a Black administrator. The intent of the story was to examine the racial experiences of a variety of students. The story is not meant to provide a complete understanding of the racial climate of Quinnipiac.
Being a minority on a primarily white college campus can be a difficult experience.
Racism is a constant fear and unfortunately, there are many unheard stories of these encounters that occur at Quinnipiac University.
“He yelled at me to go back to my own country if I don’t like it (here),” said Ashley Cotto, a senior journalism major. “I’m Puerto Rican.”
Cotto had this confrontation with a white student who owned a flag supporting former President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 and lived on the same floor as her during her freshman year. This is one of many racist incidents students at Quinnipiac have experienced.
Quinnipiac is a Predominately White Institution (PWI). For reference, the racial makeup of the first-year students in the class of 2024 is 75% white and 21% underrepresented minority, according to the university’s website. The reality of being among a racial minority is an understanding many students of color have before applying and choosing to attend Quinnipiac.
At a university that has approximately 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students from many different backgrounds, it is unsurprising that a racially biased act may happen to the greatly outnumbered students of color. The most ubiquitous kind of act are microaggressions, which the Harvard Business Review defines as “verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.”
For students of color, harsh acts of racism do happen, but not as frequently as minor moments of discomfort experienced on campus. For example, there are times when these students are acutely aware of how distinct their presence is in a given space among mostly white peers.
Marley Marston, a junior psychology major who is Jamaican and Scottish, said she remembered a time feeling like she was being looked at in a different way while at her job in the fitness center.
“I had to confront a few white students about what they were doing wrong, and I don’t know what it was but I had the most gut feeling that I was being looked at in a different way,” Marston said. “I don’t know if that’s just me or if other people get that too.”
The suspicion that these situations of discomfort could be imagined is a fear that Genesis Iscoa, a sophomore political science major and international student from Honduras, said is shared by many non-white students at Quinnipiac.
“I think for students of color who are from different backgrounds, there’s always this idea of ‘Am I overreacting, am I imagining it?’’’ Iscoa said. “I feel like that has happened a lot to me.”
Olamide Gbotosho, a senior management major and the class of 2021 Student Government Association (SGA) president, said that her first experience with racism at the university happened during her vice presidential campaign her freshman year.
“I went to a table of guys, and I was telling them about my campaign, what I was running for, things like that, and they told me they wouldn’t vote for me because they don’t vote for Black people,” Gbotosho said.
She said a similar experience happened a second time. Due to these occurrences, Gbotosho makes sure her hair is straightened when she is campaigning.
“Everytime I campaign, I don’t know if anyone has noticed that, I always have my hair straightened, … ever since that happened my freshman year,” Gbotosho said. “(It’s) just to appeal to people who wouldn’t necessarily vote for me because of my skin color, so I don’t have braids in whenever I campaign.”
Esau Greene, a senior political science and sociology double major and former SGA vice president for student experience, said as a Black student, other students see being Black as a “monolithic experience” that is based in struggle. He said for those who are Black in positions of leadership, like SGA, it is assumed that they will only use their authority for Black issues.
“I would never forget this when I was at my debates for student government for e-board,” Greene said. “And the first question they asked me was like, ‘Do I think I’m able to advocate properly for people who don’t look like me’ and not just basically for Black kids … People think you’re (incapable) of doing things outside of being Black.”
Situations of racism are not divorced from the classroom either. Greene said that after he spoke up in classes, students would tell him that they did not expect him to be intelligent.
“If I’m too smart that means I can’t be Black anymore, like Black-ness has to somehow equate to being uneducated or dumb,” Greene said.
Darian Duah, a senior in the 4+1 dual degree program majoring in political science and finance and the president of the African and Caribbean Student Union, said he remembered a white male student during a classroom discussion saying he doesn’t understand why Black people are mad about something that happened centuries ago, referencing slavery.
“This shows how little Quinnipiac educates its students on Black and brown voices, and I’m not going to lie, truthfully after that I did not sleep for three days,” Duah said. “I was pissed.”
Duah said he was also cognizant that if he had an opportunity to honestly respond to the student’s ignorance, the student would likely have a reaction seeing how Duah fits the stereotype of the angry Black male.
Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Associate Professor of Sociology Don Sawyer gave his perspective as a Black administrator who often advocates for underrepresented students.
When asked if there are ways Quinnipiac can help stop these kinds of situations from happening, Sawyer said that Quinnipiac cannot stop biased acts because these are societal problems and that the school has to affirm its values.
“We as an institution, and others may feel differently, can’t prevent racism,” Sawyer said. “We have not solved racism in the larger society … Quinnipiac and any institution of higher learning is a smaller part of larger society. We don’t have a force field around us that protects us from these things … But what we have to do is to make sure that we state what we value, we have to state what we accept here at this institution and what’s not accepted here and move accordingly.”
Sawyer said the new diversity, equity and inclusion training that is optional for students this semester and potentially mandatory for upcoming semesters is not going to result in solving the bias issues at Quinnipiac.
“First and foremost, I don’t look at trainings as vaccinations,” Sawyer said. “I look at these trainings (as) a small piece of the work that needs to be done to transform campus climate and culture.”
In conjunction with the training, Sawyer said sessions that lead to “intentional interactions across difference” can be implemented both inside and out of classrooms to help educate the campus community.
Even though extreme racist experiences can be rare, they do happen. Junior psychology and criminal justice major Leilani Girard-Isaac said that her first experience with racism was during her freshman year. It involved a couple of white male students after leaving the library at night.
“I was walking back to my dorm and a couple of guys on the other side of the street … They were like catcalling me and when I didn’t respond, they resorted to calling me the N-word,” Girard-Isaac said. “At the time, it was the first racist experience I ever had directly. So I was kind of just in shock. I didn’t know how to handle it, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure what to do because you hear about those experiences all the time until it actually happens to you then you’re kind of just sitting there like, ‘Well I can’t retaliate, but I can’t say nothing, like what do I do?’”
This experience significantly impacted Girard-Isaac’s state of mind.
“It took me a while to mentally recover from it and so I had a moment where I was genuinely thinking of transferring,” Girard-Isaac said. “Even after that, I dealt with a lot of moments (questioning), ‘Are they microaggressions … am I just reading into it too much?’’’
Another direct racist encounter happened to a female sophomore biomedical studies major who requested to remain anonymous. The student, who is half white and Puerto Rican, had a roommate that made racist remarks toward her and others.
The sophomore said that her freshman-year roommate said things such as the majority of people who come to Quinnipiac try to avoid Black people. The roommate called Black and Latino students the N-word and said that they look like monkeys.
“She thought that anybody besides white people was dirty and gross to her, that’s how she described it to me,” the anonymous student said. “She didn’t say anything like that until she found out that I was half Puerto Rican, that’s when she started calling me the N-word.”
An overwhelming majority of students interviewed did not report their incidents, regardless of the severity. The reasons for not reporting varied.
Some people who had direct racist experiences didn’t report because they were still in shock and needed time to recover. Others didn’t know the people that offended them or didn’t have any evidence.
When asked if they would report their incident if they hypothetically were able to prove what happened to them was true, an overwhelming majority strongly believed that the school would do nothing to the accused student or the student would receive a minor punishment.
However, Sawyer explained how the university’s privacy laws can limit transparency when it comes to the punishments students receive for racial biased acts.
“We have privacy laws. We can’t tell people what sanctions were (instituted) for any specific case,” Sawyer said. “We do respond, we just don’t post what happened to the student, and I think that’s the part where there’s some tension because if you don’t see anything posted and you don’t know what happened, then there’s an assumption that nothing was done.”
People who have been on campus for at least one full year were divided on if the school has improved in terms of its racial climate. Some said they have seen improvements or acknowledged the school’s efforts in becoming inclusive, while others said that the university’s statements are hollow. Sawyer responded and said that he has seen changes since he came to Quinnipiac.
“One of the things with students, specifically if you look at the undergraduate student population, you have a very short time here,” Sawyer said. “This is my ninth year. I came here in 2012 and without any sense of doubt or hindrance, I can say that this is not the same institution that I came into … hands down I put money on it.”
Sawyer listed changes like the shifting of the administration, the student of color leadership retreat, the LGBTQ leadership retreat, different partnerships with community colleges and organizations in place to help diversify the student population and initiatives to aid in diversifying the faculty and staff along with individual hires of people of color in high ranking positions.
Sawyer said that he does think there is an area Quinnipiac has fallen short in when it comes to these issues.
“We haven’t done the best job at communicating to the general community what’s happening,” Sawyer said. “Some of the things I listed you probably didn’t know happened … If there’s a place that I would say that we failed, part of it is on notifying the community on the initiatives that have been happening.”
Some students of color did not have a clear-cut racially insensitive experience. First-year sociology major Naomi Gorero has not had a racist experience directly happen to her on campus, but she said she feels a large amount of apprehension as an Asian student due to the rising number of hate crimes against Asian people in the United States.
“If I see one person looking at me, I’m just like, ‘Why are they looking at me’ or if they are going to do something,” Gorero said. “Because throughout the whole year, I’ve been very scared, and I’ve gotten to the point where I had to contemplate buying (things for) defense because I do not feel safe even though Quinnipiac says that they’re all inclusive and I have a support group in Quinnipiac. It still doesn’t negate the fact that I do not feel safe … I became very paranoid.”
Another overwhelming sentiment from the students interviewed was the desire for a more racially diverse faculty.
Sawyer said he “absolutely” agrees with the desire for more diversity among professors.
The percentage of diverse hires from January 2020 to January 2021 was 34.1% and from January 2021 to March was 58.8%, Sawyer said.
Sawyer stressed the importance of not only the data but also the policies in place.
When discussing how some upperclassmen interviewed do not believe the school has improved its racial climate, Sawyer said that he can’t invalidate their opinions, but he would ask questions to understand better. He also said that as a Black faculty member, he has experienced microaggressions as well.
“I do not blame the institution for the behavior of the people who violated my humanity,” Sawyer said. “The institution cannot control the choices the individuals made. In the instances where I have experienced these personal slights, I understood them in the larger context of white supremacy and racial oppression. I do, however, feel we need to have policies in place to proactively address these issues in our community.”
Racial encounters can be difficult to speak about due to the effect on the victim however, these events should not be unheard. If you have had any racial or discriminatory experiences while on campus, fill out the Bias Incident Reporting Form at https://cm.maxient.com/reportingform.php?QuinnipiacUniv&layout_id=7.