The Exploitation of Trauma: The Foundations of a “Diverse” PWI

By Ayanna Madison

On Sept. 8, 2017, NPR dropped an episode of “This American Life” entitled “Essay B.” In the introduction, we get to listen to a young woman named Mariya from Texas. She explains how she was the only Pakistani and at times the only person of color in her classrooms and social circles. As part of a class activity, Mariya is asked to critique her fellow classmates’ admissions essays. Since Texas has its own Common App for its state schools, many students were required to write its “Essay B.” The prompt was simple. “Many students expand their view of the world during their time in college. Such growth often results from encounters between students who have lived different cultural, economic, or academic experiences.With your future growth in mind describe a potential classmate that you believe you can learn from even within or outside a formal classroom environment.” The essays not only portrayed offensive stereotypes of people of color but many also included versions of Mariya with small false details added in to portray her as more ethnic. While I would like to think that the poor prompt was an isolated incident, historical accounts of the reasoning behind the integration of predominantly white institutions (PWIs) favor the ideology that sending kids of color to white schools would benefit the white students’ ability to be socially aware, while educating kids of color is a secondary bonus. With programs in our education system such as The Stouffer Foundation, a program that placed poor black kids in private white high schools as a form of forced integration (also discussed in “Essay B”), charter schools that only accept a set number of vouchers, and current college essay prompts, it has become increasingly clear which kids the diversity programs are seeking to help. Children of minority or low-economic backgrounds are forced to grow up early due to traumatic experiences of discrimination, police brutality, sacrifices of childhood staples, and constant battles with how they are portrayed in media. All of these factors are obvious emotional and socio-economic setbacks, some take years to overcome, yet they are asked to rehash them for the education of those who have not experienced that side of life. Is our PWI the exception to this rule or have we turned a blind-eye to Haverford’s systems that have exploited the trauma of our underprivileged students?

Haverford can boast a fairly diverse student body. 41.5% of students are non-white, beating out national diversity averages by substantial amounts. President Kim Benston is quoted on the Haverford Initiatives website saying, “Our goal should be a truly pluralistic ethos that builds on the affirmation of diversity as an educational value integral to our fundamental mission.” Despite Benston’s statement on diversity being taken as well-intentioned, it is vaguely reminiscent of propaganda used to convince private white institutions to integrate lower-income and minority students. The Stouffer Foundation said integration would be for the betterment of the future white leaders of the U.S, and by forcing diversity the students could learn from each other. When diversity is described as an educational value rather than a moral one, it is implied that it helps students gain alternate perspectives through others’ experiences. The propaganda depicted diversity as a means to make white, privileged children more accepting of minorities, and took the focus off providing underprivileged kids with higher learning to break poverty cycles. An anonymous first-year explains it like this: “When you say my experience is valuable to the community are you referring to the list of extracurriculars I gave you when I applied or are you hoping my presence and emotional labor will improve your status as a liberal school? How much of me being here is so white liberal donors can pat themselves on the back for letting a few in?” Some are beginning to challenge how genuine Haverford’s motivations for diversity are.  That is the question. Upon admittance, are underprivileged students expected to put in a higher level of emotional labor than their white counterparts for the sake of a more “woke” student body?

Emotional labor is the rarely discussed fee of attending a PWI. In this context, emotional labor is the process of dredging up possibly traumatic events for dialogue or having their life experiences questioned for the sake of academic discourse. When emotional labor is added to the academic workload, extracurriculars, and any athletic commitments, it is surprising more underprivileged students don’t have weekly CAPS appointments. Whether it be in a classroom, the D.C., or hall meetings, the burden of educating the more privileged of systematic oppression falls on minority students. Questions like, “Why is it offensive when I do this?” or “Is it racist when…” feel like problem sets no less routine than turning in your weekly WebWork for Calc class. When your everyday life mimics the comments on a controversial Twitter thread, the phrase “Google is free” is almost a necessary part of your vocabulary.

Hall meetings are among the worst offending settings — a  scheduled hour a week where you have to explain the emotional traumas you faced in childhood for the possible social awakening of your peers. “Yes, blackface is offensive.” “No, I haven’t personally been stopped by cops but the idea of it keeps me awake at night.” “Please, don’t wear a native headdress to the costume party.” The session on cultural appropriation only enforced this uneven dynamic. In many accounts from first year students, the session was an endless bout of explaining the importance of power dynamics and respecting the experience of the oppressed to be true even if they personally had not experienced it.  Every week you are asked to use your own life experiences to prove oppression still exists. I don’t think this was the intention or purpose of the hall meetings, but as we have learned from said meetings, intent versus impact is a vital part of introspection. When we have hall meetings the intent is to make sure the hall is sensitive to issues that affect the students on campus. Despite good intentions, the meetings have evolved into minority students going through emotional labor to prove that oppression and discrimination still exist at Haverford. The meetings may be helping people learn but it is at the cost of making minority students examples.

If the discomfort of POC and low-income students around being indirectly forced to educate their peers isn’t proof enough of undue burden, then we can examine the roles affinity groups take on. Groups such as PARC, ALAS, and BSL are almost solely responsible for organizing or informing students of the events that support representation of their history and culture. Students who worked in similar organizations in high school can be awarded money through the Ira De A. Reid scholarship. These opportunities come with a catch of course. In respect to the scholarship, a student is given the money under the assumption that any social activism they took part in high school will carry over to their time at Haverford. Essentially it is payment to minorities for putting in emotional effort to enact social change around campus. One could debate that the compensation through tuition makes taking on the burden a fair trade. But then we should ask, “why is it in the hands of the oppressed to appeal to the conscious of those who enforce the systems of oppression?” Is it that minorities are the only ones capable of enacting this change, or, more likely, that minorities feel more compelled to enact change because we are directly harmed by the faulty systems?

The issue isn’t with minorities being expected to try to better the community. The issue is that the burden is by no means equal among the students. The downfall to most PWIs in a minorities mind is the feeling of being othered.  Due to nasty rhetoric around Affirmative Action and diversity numbers, students of color have begun to feel either out of place or paraded around by white liberals as much as Michael Oher in The Blind Side.  Minority students have to deal with psychological barriers to feeling a part of the community such as imposter syndrome and tokenization, adding becoming a pseudo-professor of minority oppression for their peers only heightens the barriers.  The social expectation of minorities to serve as a mouthpiece for a movement or people in everyday life and not just in activist groups is harmful to the ideal of inclusion that Haverford says it tries to cultivate. To those who are wondering how else privileged students are supposed to be more aware of social issues they are blind to if minority students stop using their own life as examples, I have one phrase for you: Google is free, look it up.