About 400 members of the New Paltz community gathered in the Multipurpose Room (MPR) of the Student Union to discuss racial equity, racism in society and their experiences with racism.
The forum was held on Nov.30 and was sponsored by College President Donald P. Christian and Student Association President Terrell Coakley, titled, “Can We Talk About It?: A Discussion about Race and Racial Equity.” The forum took place three weeks after racist signs were posted on campus in the Humanities Building and in residents halls on campus. Christian said these events cannot be ignored by the campus and talked about how issues of racism are entrenched deeply into our society. He said that this kind of change takes time but starting discussion if the first step.
“This is a chance to increase understanding with all members of the community how these events affect not just the people but the community as a whole,” said Christian.
Christian also said the investigation into the sign postings is ongoing and they have identified a person of interest.
Each attendee was given a sticker of a different color and one of 2,000 “Let’s talk about it” buttons. After the opening remarks, everyone in the MPR was divided by sticker color into smaller discussion groups; some of them with as few as 10 people. Coakley said, the people were divided to create an easier way for attendees to speak out about their feelings and to help carry the discussion forward.
“Let’s share our experiences. So that when we come together our motive is more powerful and we’ll actually try to get something done,” said Coakley. “If we don’t listen to each other, then we can’t care about each other, if we can’t care about each other we can’t help each other and if we can’t help each other we can’t save each other.”
The small groups had a mix of students, faculty, staff and administrators. People were encouraged to speak with each other not only about their reactions to the signs and their personal experiences with racism but also color blindness and the desire for greater communication about race.
“While everyone thinks that everyone is equal, the reality is that racism still exists in society,” said third year sociology major Shawn Wilson. “But because people don’t see it they don’t take it as seriously as they should. I think this opened a lot of people’s eyes.”
Residence Director of Bevier Hall Claudette Aldebot said the students of color in her group voiced how difficult it is for them to fully learn when most education in the United States is from the perspective of the white experience. They also talked about how we should use this forum as platform to create awareness of our differences and use these differences as a means of embracing diversity.
“Effective communication is the first thing we need to move forward as a community and as a society. I think that hearing students speak out about their experiences was amazing,” said Aldebot. “We were all very comfortable talking about our experiences within the New Paltz community. I believe that we all learned that in order to change we must do it together. This is not just a black minority issue, this is a human issue. “
This sentiment was shared by Assistant Professor of Communications and Media Jerry Persaud who said his group learned that it’s possible to talk about the sensitive issue of race on campus. Persaud has taught Race and Media, Diversity in Media, Race and Racism and Communication among cultures. These classes were filled with predominately white students, Persaud said. He said he had difficulty getting an open conversation about race and racism with them.
“It’s easier to talk about than you think” said Persaud. “Race and Racism are two different things. They are both embedded in American history and are part of the fabric of the nation and they should not be neglected in higher education.”
Christian said he hopes this forum will be “the first in a series of conversations that we have, and work that we undertake, to address issues of race and racial equity on the campus as well as other dimensions of diversity and equity.”