Last week, one of my teaching assistants held extra office hours for a paper due the following week. Aside from being obsequious, I sought genuine guidance on the assignment. I sat patiently for the two students ahead of me to finish with the T.A., who were there for, presumably, the same reasons. Quarters being tight as they often are for T.A.s, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation which transpired between one of the students and the aide.
“The terms ‘people of color’ and ‘colored people’ have two different connotations,” the T.A. explained after skimming the student’s first draft.
The student apparently used the phrases interchangeably in her paper unaware that ‘people of color’ is a term of empowerment, starkly contrasting ‘colored people,’ both a derogatory and antiquated expression. The T.A. gently admonished the student, who quickly apologized for the mistake, referring to a lack of certainty in racial phraseology. No harm done. Right?
Did I brand the student as a flagrant racist because of the mix up? No. I have no doubt that it was an innocuous error. However, I found the ignorance on display cause for reflection.
I immediately thought back to the front page story the Collegian printed last week about affirmative action ending in the college admissions process nationwide. The article cited a recent study conducted by Jessica Howell, an economics professor at California State University, Sacramento. Here were some of Howell’s findings: race-neutral college admissions standards would cause a two to four percent decline in the enrollment of blacks and Latinos; among the top ranking universities, that figure more than doubles.
A similar study appeared in the Boston Globe this week which found Asians are statistically held to higher standards in terms of SAT scores when applying to colleges.
Next time you’re walking to class take a good look around. You’ll see that UMass can’t afford a depletion in its already lean minority constituency.
Affirmative action has been a hot button issue since its inception during World War II. It has affected the racial make-up of numerous institutions from the federal government to public transportation and schools.
UMass enrolled 863 African American students during the fall 2009-2010 academic year. It enrolled 770 during the academic year a decade prior. That is an average growth rate of fewer than ten black students per year enrolled. Those figures don’t strike me as being particularly “affirmative.”
I bring these statistics to your attention, not to single out UMass. The university finds itself in abundant company. So what does all this have to do with the student who misused ‘colored people?’
I’m going to make a bold statement: white people, my experience has led me to conclude, do not often socially integrate with people of color. I include myself in this regard. Think of the people with whom you eat your meals, who your roommate is, who you sit next to in class, who your professors are, who the people are holding the red Solo cups beside you in your Facebook pictures. We surround ourselves with the people with whom we most closely identify. This is true for most everyone.
In addition, white people aren’t forced to think about skin color: White is white. It is the societal referent on which everyone is based. It won’t factor into purchasing a car, or taking out a loan, renting an apartment, or applying for a job. Quite frankly, the difference between ‘people of color’ and ‘colored people’ is unimportant to many whites.
When I think of the term “colored people,” I think of the famous (or should I say infamous) photo from the Jim Crow era depicting a black man drinking from a dingy “colored” water fountain. Next to it stands a well-maintained “white” fountain. Within the black community, “colored people,” is still sometimes used as a term of endearment. Many oppressed groups have “taken back” words and phrases which pejoratively refer to them and have breathed new life into them, so to speak. Thus, expressions such as “colored people” can possess esoteric meaning when applied within the context of the black community. But outside of that realm the term reverts to its racist roots.
Don’t be “that kid.” The student I witnessed last week in the T.A.’s office was embarrassed by the semantic mistake. But I’m quite sure the student isn’t the only person on campus who’s erred in that manner. Schools need to do more to promote a culture of cognizance and hold students to a high standard. Just as we are taught to use MLA format when writing scholarly papers, or use pencils in math, we should be inculcated with the principle that a preposition can make all the difference in the world. Colleges need to increase minority enrollment. How can they even consider “reversing” affirmative action when it hasn’t had the chance to kick in?
Shane Cronin is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.