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Beneath the Surface: Segregation at UR, Part Two

<p>Graphic of Boatwright Tower created by Nolan Sykes. Collage by The Collegian.&nbsp;</p>

Graphic of Boatwright Tower created by Nolan Sykes. Collage by The Collegian. 

Editor's Note: Mature language is used in this podcast.

In the second episode of this two-part series, The Collegian explores the Princeton Review's ranking of the University of Richmond as the fourth most segregated school in the U.S. 

Hosted, edited and produced by Conner Evans. Arrman Kyaw assisted in reporting. Music created by Nathan Burns. Podcast art created by Nolan Sykes and The Collegian. 

Listen on Spotify | Listen on Apple Podcasts | Listen on Podbean


CONNER EVANS: We started reporting about segregation on our campus more than a year ago, when the Princeton Review ranked UR fourth in terms of least class and race interaction. But on the weekend following Martin Luther King Jr. Day this past January, the conversation was renewed with anger, sadness and pain. 

Three students were attacked with racist epithets graffitied on their dorm room doors over the course of that weekend. All these attacks were done under the cowardly cover of night, and what’s as concerning as the attacks themselves, to many students, is the understanding that however many people carried out these acts of racism, more may have known and kept silent. 

We still don’t know who. Or how many people were involved. A black student was attacked, and two South Asian students were attacked with insults specific to their color, their nationality and racist stereotypes against their culture. 

Following these attacks, many students banded together. They wore black and shouted in protest that Saturday night at UR’s basketball game with signs that said, “No room for hate,” “Make racism wrong again” and “We will be heard.” Mostly students of color were brought together at that game, while many of those protesting reported that some of their white student colleagues jeered at them, refused to join in in solidarity and took their seats quickly after the protesters left. Echoes of segregation and white privilege could be seen in that protest. 

[music plays]

EVANS: I’m Conner Evans, and on this episode of Beneath the Surface, we’re going to continue our conversation about segregation on our campus, with a focus on student responses since the attacks, protests and demonstrations this past January. We’re also going to hear from members of Greek Life, an institution that received significant criticism from students for their exclusionary practices at several rallies and demonstrations. To be clear, there is no evidence suggesting that the suspect involved in the racist attacks was a member of Greek Life or was pledging to a fraternity or sorority. 

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How do we solve the problem of inclusivity and integration on our campus? How do students feel the effects of segregation in their daily lives? And, most importantly, where do we go from here?

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EVANS: Lauren Stenson is a rising junior now, and when she was a freshman, she saw that we were ranked ninth in the country for colleges with the least class and race interaction. The following year, UR was ranked fourth. Committees were formed and senior vice presidents were hired to work on this issue at the administrative level, but Stenson decided to do something about it herself.

LAUREN  STENSON: I was just like, “This school needs to do better.” [laughs] And it’s like, I heard things, but when I learned that fact, I realized that it was actually true. And then I was just like — I think it’s just because we don’t force ourselves to actually educate each other and learn from each other and actually talk to each other. We just kind of shove it under the rug and kind of function as normal. Because I think students for the most part have their own pockets that they’re relatively happy in. It’s just in terms of being inclusive as a whole we don’t do well at that.

EVANS: By her sophomore year, her conversation series that she titled Interpoint had begun to really take shape. On the Tuesday following the attacks, Interpoint’s first meeting saw more than 200 students come to the Web.

STENSON: I would say it was nothing short of divine timing. That’s what it really felt like, because I got the idea, like I said, in around September, October of my freshman year. And I’m, like, really a go-getter when I get a little ahead of myself. So I wanted to launch it, like December; if not December I wanted to launch it in January of my freshman year, I was like, “It’s not that hard.”

I’m a very practical person, but I’m also a big dreamer. So I was like, “All you have to do is book a space and bring people.” And I was like, “It’s not that hard.” [laughs]

EVANS: But those in the administration that she talked to at the time weren’t yet onboard.

STENSON: They were like, “Our campus is not ready.” That’s the general consensus that we got. We got that they’re encouraged by our tenacity, but they’re apprehensive about the readiness of our campus. And that’s when I knew that I wanted to do it for sure because I was like, “This needs to happen.” If you’re scared, then it needs to happen even more.

EVANS: Stenson was intentional about how she wanted to conduct these conversations. [She] and her team met people at the door and asked them how they identified in terms of race, ethnicity and nationality. She wanted to put people outside their comfort zone and make sure they weren’t just grouped with their friends. Plus, she wanted to ensure people were listening to and speaking in front of people from different backgrounds. 

STENSON: It is something that white people have the privilege of turning a blind eye to, just because they don’t have to experience it. And so, with that being said, not only did we encourage white people to come to the discussion, but we said, “Okay, well, when they come to the room, how can we ensure that the room is split up?”

For — on the one hand, we didn’t want friends together because that is a comfort zone. We wanted to strip everyone of their comfort zones, and we also wanted to separate them into groups where they could actually learn from other people’s ethnicity, culture and race. 

So, we didn’t want to profile people, because we felt like that was wrong, so we asked them when they came. Like they got their name tag; second table they got — they were asked how do you identify racially or ethnically and they would say, “I’m Chinese American,” or “I’m,” you know, “Middle Eastern, Afghanistan,” or “I’m black American,” you know, African American. And we put them in groups.

EVANS: When following up with people who attended Interpoint, Stenson was able to see some tangible effects, too.

STENSON: I talked to someone else who said that post discussion, that she met friends that she still talks with. That they’ve gone to lunch in Carytown. She’s a black female and she said that she met a few white females, and her group was pretty diverse. I don’t know if it’s just white females that she’s been hanging out with but she was just like, the conversation was so powerful that they instantly got each other’s numbers and were like, “We have to stay friends because I can’t believe I wouldn’t have met you if I hadn’t come to this discussion.”

And I was just like, “That’s crazy.” She was like, “I think I met my lifelong friends sitting at Interpoint talking, being vulnerable with each other and learning from each other.” And I almost cried.

EVANS: But one of the hard questions for a lot of groups like Interpoint is: How do you get people in the room who most need to have these discussions and educate themselves? How do you speak to the type of person who didn’t speak up about the racist attacks, cloaked in their white privilege? 

Here’s Stenson’s response:

STENSON: I was meeting with people all across the campus, all over the campus, trying to say, like, “Look, this is a thing that I think is important. I think your students, your members, your athletes can benefit from the discussion. Can you just encourage people to go?” 

I don’t want to make it necessarily mandatory, because that’s when you have people there that shouldn’t be there — that draw away from the discussion. But I just did my best in talking to as many people as possible and encouraging that they spread the word, and I think that’s all you can really do.

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EVANS: One of the highest attended school-sponsored events following the racist attacks on campus was the No Room for Hate community meeting held in the Alice Haynes Room in Tyler Haynes Commons. Around 450 students were in the room, according to a report from The Collegian and dozens more spilled over into the Current area outside the room, as well as the second floor where students watched a livestream of the forum.

One of the things I heard consistently at this meeting and the rally held at the Forum between the dining hall and the commons, were complaints directed toward Greek Life. Many students of color saw Greek Life as dominating social life on campus in a similar way that we heard last episode, but this time around, the message was more stark and passionate. 

One student of color said during this community meeting that when fraternities tabled to promote their organizations in the Commons, they didn’t advertise to students who looked like him. Others pointed to how parties require knowing someone who’s in the fraternity, and so the majority white fraternities are filled with students whose friends are also often majority white. It’s easy for students of color to feel excluded and for parties to feel segregated in this way. 

During an impassioned address, [then-sophomore] Monomay Modi said: “The biggest problem I see in this university is white Greek Life. You guys go to your sororities and your fraternities with your white friends, you chill with your white friends, you sit in D-hall with your white friends, you go to the library, sit with your white friends and you just chill with them. And you don’t give zero fucks about what we are up to.”

We talked to students who are in Greek Life or who just graduated for their perspective on how race and inclusion functions in their organizations. 

And I will note here: The Interfraternity Council president, Peter Corsiglia; the Panhellenic Council president Maggie Castelli; the Director of the Center for Student Involvement Alison Keller; and the Coordinator for Fraternity and Sorority Life, Lisa McCoy, all declined to comment when contacted by The Collegian for this podcast. 

Alexis Aviles was in Delta Gamma, and was the sorority’s VP of programming in 2019. Aviles just graduated this May, and she remembers being one of only a few Latinx students in her class when she heard about the Princeton Review ranking.

AVILES: We weren’t really shocked. We know that we’re like … we’re a minority on campus, but even being a Latino or Latina, Latinx, on campus is even smaller. Like, for example, I remember freshman orientation and there were two other Latinos, like in my whole class of like 800 people. I mean, like, there were probably more, but I only remember two, you know? 

The conversation was … yeah, like disappointment, but also, we’re not shocked. This isn’t news to us.

EVANS: And when asked how her sorority, Delta Gamma, discussed the racist attacks, Aviles said they did a good job, but the structural problems in Greek Life will remain without further action.

AVILES: I will say that my sorority did a good job of addressing what was happening. So they offered support for people who felt like they needed extra emotional support during that time. I saw a good representation of my sorority at events like Interpoint and at the protest that happened in the Forum. 

But as far as internal restructuring of, “How are we going to make Greek Life open to women of all socioeconomic classes and racial and ethnic groups,” I wasn’t involved in those conversations because I’m not involved in leadership. 

But, when I was in a role of leadership, I knew I started those conversations. But … in my experience, they don’t really go anywhere. The topic is brought up; it’s discussed. But then, how do you actually do it? And no one really knows how to do it. And I think, my personal opinion, is that it’s not supposed to happen. 

The institution is built, Greek Life is built, for inclusivity to be really hard. Because it’s bonds that are formed by exclusivity of people who are not in the group. So I don’t think it’s built to work. So while I think these conversations are nice and noble, when are we going to get to the bigger conversation of when do we disband it all together — abolish it, if you will — for the betterment of the campus at large?

EVANS: Aviles went as far as to say that she was in favor of abolishing Greek Life. In fact, the idea of abolishing Greek Life was growing more popular last semester, particularly after January.

Aviles said she was the only non-white person in her pledge class of 30 people. She called her bid day, when she realized this, the single most isolating day in her life. She had this to say about how privilege is even more pronounced in exclusive groups like those in Greek Life. 

AVILES: Greek Life enables people who … it enables privilege to incubate. And once that incubation is there, the privileged feel comfortable and feel empowered even more so than they already did. And then, that is how they can put other people down. And that happens predominantly — it happens along racial lines, and socioeconomic lines. 

And for a lot of minority students who are going to the University of Richmond on full rides — because the university has been capable of giving such good financial aid to these students — that’s the first time that many of them are experiencing that, because they come from such rich high schools. 

To be slapped in the face by this kind of segregation in college is shocking, it’s disheartening and it’s disgusting. Like, this is an institution of higher learning where the smartest people are there. Yet these smart people who earned their way to the University of Richmond as well are now having to face this. It sucks. [laughs] I’m like … I’m out of words. That’s it.

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EVANS: I also talked with a couple of white students who were or are in Greek Life.

Michael Paul also just graduated, and he was a member of Lambda Chi. He said that his fraternity did talk about the racist attacks, but that a lot of the discussions happened at the individual level. 

MICHAEL PAUL: It’s something that was talked about a bit and probably could’ve been talked about more. There were definitely talks about having some sort of joint programming or trying to make things more inclusive, but when there’s a large group of 60, 70, sometimes 80 people, it’s hard to come to a complete consensus about that. You have only a certain amount of time you can spend talking about it all as a group.

So on the individual level, yes, those kinds of conversations were most definitely happening. But I think one thing that could definitely benefit the school and Greek Life more is having more of a institutional — some sort of conversation with all of Greek Life, instead of the individuals in Greek Life having it amongst themselves.

EVANS: And Paul agreed that, particularly when he was an underclassmen, he felt like Greek Life dominated the social scene. He said, quote, “It just seemed like the thing to do,” adding that if he hadn’t joined Greek Life as a freshman, he didn’t immediately know where else he would have gone to build the kind of friendships he did there. 

PAUL: So I definitely see that as being a potential problem, in that it does seem to dominate the social scene, especially for younger students. But I know that there has, at least in the past year, there’s been a lot that the school has been doing to try to combat that in a way. Like having the new lodge that’s meant for organizations on campus is one idea that they’ve been doing. And creating more ways to get people involved outside of Greek Life. 

I think the main thing is that people just need to be aware of the fact that there are other options, and that Greek Life is not a be all, end all. It’s good for people that want to be involved in it, but it’s definitely not for everybody.

Mainly though, I really enjoy the people. I really enjoyed, kind of, the events that were going on. So it’s been a really good and important part of my life. I’m extremely happy that I’ve been able to join.

Evans: To his point about the new lodge, his twin sister, Lindsey Paul, was one of the people who started that project when she was still the WCGA president, along with then-RCSGA president, Mike Laposata. 

According to a report by The Collegian, they wanted to convert one or both of the two empty fraternity lodges into a social space available to be booked by student organizations, rather than fraternities or sororities. It would provide more students a unique space for partying or just hanging out on a special occasion. 

Paul said he understood the kind of exclusivity that Greek Life participates in, but for him the institution isn’t unsalvageable. 

PAUL: If you’re in a group and you only interact with that group, you’re never open to other perspectives or other groups of people. And then it just kind of stays that way, it just perpetuates.

I also talked to Erin Watton, who is a rising senior and a member of Tri Delta. For her, one of the solutions is to be more engaged with people outside your Greek organization on an individual level.

ERIN WATTON: To be an ally I think there’s a lot of different things you can do. I think, one, just as I was saying — to speak up. And when something’s wrong, it’s not to be a bystander but to correct it and, in some ways, help educate people in what’s right and wrong. Because sometimes people forget. 

Yeah, and also I think it’s really important to show up for each other. So, you know, if there’s a group on campus that’s hosting an event and you’re free, you know — go! And go talk to people. 

I think it’s really important that we advocate for each other and we attend each other’s events. We don’t all have to be best friends but a conversation doesn’t hurt anybody.

EVANS: Watton is also on the welcome week committee, where there are new ideas about how to conduct welcome week, centering around how much programming should be included and what kind of programming we should have for new students.

WATTON: So I’m on the welcome week committee. It’s made up of a very diverse group on campus. All different grades, all involved in very different groups on campus. And our role is basically to revamp welcome week in a way that’s very inclusive towards everybody and makes everybody want to come together. But in a way that’s not over programmed. 

I think that’s a problem that we have too, is: We want to support each other, but when there’s so many programs going on. You know, we need time for ourselves and we need to go to the gym, we need to sleep. You can’t fit everything in sometimes, so.

So what our goal is with welcome week is to spread it out so it’s really … it’s not just packed into one week, where you’re just overwhelmed; you’re tired and stressed out; you don’t know where, you know, your group’s going to be and what events you can go to, what clubs you’re going to join. But instead spreading it out so that you can kind of get a glimpse at everything.

EVANS: Watton, like Paul, ultimately wants to believe that Greek Life is salvageable. It includes large organizations of students, many of whom enjoy their time in a fraternity or sorority. But she doesn’t think the institution can continue without real reform. 

WATTON: You know, I can see the examples of, you know, you’re paying to get in, and demographically it’s really not diverse. But at the same time, you know, I would love to see Panhellenic work to revamp Greek Life. And, you know, pairing us with other groups on campus and programming together. Like, Greek Life and other organizations on campus. 

And this thing I was saying earlier of showing up for each other, of making that — you know, even if it has to be a quota to begin with of, you know, you have to attend this many events of, you know, organizations not Greek-related. I don’t know what the answer is really, but I think that there’s room to change how Greek Life operates. And so, before completely getting rid of Greek Life I’d love to see … 

Because also, there’s so many people in Greek Life, population-wise, there’s a lot of influence there. And so I’d love to see Greek Life get involved overall in this giant problem that’s facing our campus and be a force for good in it.

EVANS: Lauren Stenson, who you heard earlier, is also the current president of National Panhellenic Council at UR, which oversees the two historically black sororities and one historically black fraternity on campus. She said there were discussions about race and inclusion between Greek leadership teams.

STENSON: I don’t know for sure if there — what the plans are for this year, but I definitely think, we had a ... like, a Greek retreat in January, actually, the weekend that the racist events happened on campus, the racist tags were posted. And we spent a pretty good portion of time talking about it all together. 

And so, I think I was proud of that happening. And we talked about, you know, how we are all impacted by that. We each talked about the history of our organizations, so I got to teach all of the IFC, Panhel presidents and committee members about what NPHC is and when it was founded. And so I think we are doing the small things to get to that point.

EVANS: Stenson said there were signs of support from the IFC and PHC frats and sororities toward the NPHC groups last year, like having NPHC involved in the lip sync battle, supporting NPHC’s breast cancer fundraising event. And at least one sorority in NPHC, Alpha Kappa Alpha, shifted its recruiting timeline to align more with the Panhel sororities. 

But one tangible difference between the NPHC organizations and IFC is space for social events.

STENSON: Party culture is a big problem. The thing is, NPHC — we don’t have lodges. Like, we don’t have space that is for, you know, Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha sororities incorporated, or Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity incorporated. So like, we don’t have a space where we can say, like, “These are where NPHC has our parties and we invite people.” 

And because the IFC has that, it’s like ... that’s like a white thing. That’s what happens. It’s a white — predominantly white organization that has this party culture, that has this place where you can have parties. And that’s why I think the parties end up being so segregated.

EVANS: Stenson, too, felt like there was a desire for improvement within Greek Life, without tearing down the institution. 

STENSON: I would say as far as NPHC goes, that is our call to action for students that go to U of R: to educate ourselves, educate yourselves, and don’t be complicit in it. And be anti-racist. That’s what we call everyone to do.

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EVANS: Hijab Fatima is a student from Pakistan, and she was one of the most visible and vocal leaders on campus after the attacks. It hit especially close to home for Fatima because two of the attacks were directed specifically toward people from South Asia and people who practice Islam. 

Not only that, but she was a Resident Advisor in the same dorm building where at least one of the incidents occurred. Her fellow RAs and her met and talked through the events, and she was included in a meeting with President Ronald Crutcher and many student leaders where they discussed the events and possible action items. 

I saw Fatima at the open mic event in the Forum, and I saw her open the community meeting in the Commons. I don’t have a recording of her speaking then, but this is what she told me her message was and still is to students.

FATIMA: I think it was a very … “help us” kind of a statement. That, you know, you don’t necessarily have to face this in order to help us. You know, you have to stand up for these things; you have to move past, like, get over your discomfort. You know, because a lot of times, it’s like, these conversations are uncomfortable to have but, you know, our right to security, I think, overrules your right to say that these conversations make you uncomfortable.

Because it’s not a me versus you. It’s us versus a problem.

EVANS: As an international student and a Muslim student, Fatima said she often feels the pressure that comes with being part of a minority, in the classroom in particular. While she has the patience and resolve to speak up and educate other students, there’s also a pressure and a burden that comes with being one of the few people of color in a predominantly white classroom.

FATIMA: I think when you’re sitting in class you are — most of the time, you are either the only one or one of the two people of color in the classroom, which means that inevitably you will become a representative of an entire country or an entire, uh, religious institution. 

And you cannot stop yourself — at least I can’t. I cannot stop myself from stepping in and correcting someone if they are saying something very blatantly wrong or, you know, ignorant. I think it’s my duty to step in and do that. 

But at the same time, it does take a toll on you. Because I am one living expression of Islam. I am one living expression of Pakistan, you know. And as much as I don’t mind being a representative of those groups or being a voice of those groups, I think that that also means that … I don’t think that educating you should be on my shoulders.

EVANS: And when it comes to solutions, Fatima found acknowledgement to be an important first step. 

And the importance of physical space for minority students was evident in her message as well.

FATIMA: You know? So I think that these conversations need to happen more frequently. I think that safe spaces need to be made for students to become vulnerable and talk about their struggles, because I think step one is always acknowledgement. You need to acknowledge that there is an issue, and then you start working towards possible solutions. 

And then students come to you when they start talking about implicit or explicit racism that they’ve been facing. I think that’s when you start looking at solutions.

So for me, I think two of the biggest things would be to recognize the very blatant, segregated ideologies present on our campus and — acknowledging it and start working towards it. And then the other thing is, have open dialogues about these things. These conversations need to happen. 

Hopefully down the road, people who feel uncomfortable having these conversations … hopefully they’ll start getting better at it. But I think that now more than ever, we need to sit together, and we need to talk this out. We need to be each other’s allies, because … if not now then when?

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EVANS: Racism and segregation are still real issues at the University of Richmond, from micro-aggressions and seating arrangements to graffitied doors that make students of color across campus feel unsafe. 

For much deeper dives on the history of these issues on our campus, I encourage all listeners to check out the Race and Racism project, where students have worked to build an archive of our campus’s history as relates to these topics. You can find it at memory.richmond.edu.

And we’ll have to see for ourselves what improvements our campus makes, at a student level, a faculty level and an administrative level going into the year 2020 to 2021.

This has been Beneath the Surface, a Collegian podcast. 

Special thanks to Arrman Kyaw, who first conceived of this podcast and did much of the reporting in early stages. 

And music for Beneath the Surface was written and performed by Nathan Burns. 

I’ve been Conner Evans, and thank you for listening.

[music plays]

Arrman Kyaw contributed to reporting. 

Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at conner.evans@richmond.edu.

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