Junior Sofia Gonzalez may have transferred to GW midway through her freshman year, but she said she’s always felt “detached” from the University.
When she heard former history professor Jessica Krug falsely claimed a Black identity, she said she felt “anxious” for Krug’s students and the Afro-Latinx population on campus that once trusted her. But those feelings aren’t new – students of color at GW have needed to bear “a lot” of the emotional labor following racial incidents in recent years, she said.
“We’ve been having a lot of incidents with racism on our campus,” she said. “And it’s just one of those things that keeps adding up and adding up, and it just gets exhausting at a certain point.”
Gonzalez is one of several students of color who said they often turn to the Multicultural Student Services Center or Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement for a safe space after racial incidents, but they wish those resources weren’t needed in the first place. Higher education experts said multiple racist incidents can increase stress for students of color who are supposed to attend GW to study and graduate.
A tense past with students of color
After at least five racial incidents in the past three academic years, officials have had to address present demands from students for greater diversity and inclusion training in student groups, faculty and the administration.
In 2018, two members of the Alpha Phi sorority were condemned for posting a racist photo on Snapchat, pushing dozens of students, faculty and staff to create a report outlining plans to improve diversity and inclusion. A little over a year later, officials suspended Panhellenic Association fall programming after a racist image posted by the then-president of the Phi Sigma Sigma sorority surfaced.
In February, University President Thomas LeBlanc apologized after facing backlash from students for comparing support for fossil fuel divestment to hypothetical support for shooting “all the Black people here.” And a few months later, Krug, the history professor, admitted to falsely claiming a Black identity.
Jordan West, the director of University diversity and inclusion programs, said the office acknowledges that a lot of members in the GW community were “deeply hurt” and impacted by Krug’s actions, and officials have provided “campus resources” and a community space for those directly impacted.
“We heard and continue to hear and respond to the pain in our community,” West said in an email. “We remain committed to creating the spaces needed by members of our community to process and heal.”
She said about 5,000 people registered to attend #GWInSolidarity, a four-week-long ODECE series in June following nationwide protests against police brutality. She said she has led educational workshops covering bias, identity and other social topics on a “regular basis” with student organizations, staff and faculty since she was hired in fall 2018.
“During #GWInSolidarity, a workshop on unconscious bias for faculty was led by myself and included practices on inclusive classroom design, and more than 160 people attended and stayed for the full two hours,” West said.
Moving past ‘spreading awareness’
Junior and Black Student Union Vice President Peyton Wilson said she hopes officials will implement changes after being nationally scrutinized after Krug’s confession. She said she is appreciative of the MSSC staff who offer spaces to debrief, reflect and recognize the importance of identity in students.
She said administrators need to have “frank” conversations acknowledging the harm caused when racial incidents occur to make everyone on campus feel integrated and acknowledged.
“Now we’re getting past the spreading awareness stage and getting into the ‘OK, so what are we going to do about it’ phase because it’s really important,” Wilson said. “We’ve talked about it. Now it’s time to get some action into it.”
Amira Al Amin, a sophomore majoring in human services and women’s studies, said the University needs to show greater transparency when incidents occur and focus on acknowledging the pain students of color feel to build trust. She said student groups like GW Black Defiance have created their own spaces to speak up and educate students about racial issues.
Student groups like the GW National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have launched workshop series for minority students to “enlighten” others on topics like cultural appropriation.
“I want what’s real – I want to be able to say ‘my university said that this was racist, and they acknowledge it and hold accountability,’” Al Amin said.
Holding officials accountable
Experts in diversity in higher education said officials must actively listen to students’ concerns and strategize new solutions to issues like racism if they recur.
David Kirkland, the vice dean of equity, belonging and community action at New York University’s Steinhardt School for Culture, Education and Human Development, said students repeatedly speaking out against racial injustice have not had a chance to recover from the “exhausting times” they are living in. He said after students have raised their concerns, officials must find solutions without acting defensive or dismissing students’ concerns.
“We need to hold listening sessions, call for restorative care circles, develop with students new levels of interpersonal wealth,” Kirkland said. “Reparations are about healing justice, holding ourselves accountable to the harms we have committed and doing all we can to redress the damage by any means necessary.”
Laura Rendon, a professor emerita at the University of Texas, San Antonio, said universities should involve students in their plans to address racism because some administrators might not understand what it means to be the “other” in society. She said schools should engage consistently with students of color to build a long-term plan that includes a budget, resources and staff needed to combat racism and discrimination.
“I think it’s good that students are galvanizing and becoming advocates for justice and equity,” Rendon said. “But at the same time, I feel that it puts a lot more stress, a lot more work on them, when the institution should be involved in resolving these issues and letting the students do what they were brought to do, which is to study and to finish their degrees.”
Tara Suter contributed reporting.