Student request for non-white roommates puts Pitzer in spotlight

Pitzer College has become the center of a firestorm in recent days, after racially-charged comments made by students on social media went viral.

In one of his first acts at the helm of the liberal arts college, new President Melvin L. Oliver released a statement Wednesday afternoon emphasizing Pitzer’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Still, the story has sparked a national conversation about the climate on today’s college campuses.

It started with an item posted Tuesday on the website of the Claremont Independent, a publication focusing on happenings at the Claremont Colleges.

The story carries the type of headline guaranteed to garner clicks: “Students at Claremont Colleges refuse to live with white people.” The article focuses on a Facebook thread begun by Karé Ureña, who is set to graduate with Pitzer’s class of 2018. 

Ms. Ureña posted a notice that she and three friends planning to live off-campus were looking for a fourth person. Along with mentioning some financial particulars, she noted all potential new roomies should be “POC [people of color] only.”

The conversation continued when a student, Dalia Zada (Pitzer ’18), expressed concern about Ms. Ureña’s advertisement. “POC only? Maybe I’m missing something or misunderstanding your post, but how is that not a racist thing to say?”

A few Pitzer students were quick to leap to Ms. Ureña’s defense. Pitzer student AJ Leon, also from the class of 2018, asserted, “This is to protect POC, not white people. Don’t see how this is racist at all.”

Regardless of the ad’s intent, Ms. Ureña’s post violates the Fair Housing Act, instituted in 1968, which makes illegal the refusal to “sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Other students who said they consider Ms. Ureña’s stipulation reasonable included Nina Lee, who is majoring in Asian-American studies, multimedia and women’s studies. She joined the thread, saying she and other people of color “don’t want to have to tiptoe around fragile white feelings in a space where we just want to relax and be comfortable. I could live with white people, but I would be far more comfortable living with other POC.”

Terriyonna Smith, who is serving as resident assistant for the 2016-2017 school year, was more vehement. “White people always mad when they don’t feel included but at the end of the day y’all are damaging [as f__k] and if a POC feels they need to protect themselves from that toxic environment THEY CAN…I’m not responding to NO comments and NOPE I don’t wanna have a dialogue.” 

Another Pitzer RA, Jessica Saint-fleur, likewise expressed the opinion that a student should be free to pursue what they consider a safe haven. “White people have caused so much mf trauma on these campuses…why in the world would I want to live with that? Bring that into my home? A place that is supposed to be safe for me?” 

The COURIER reached out to Ms. Ureña, Ms. Zada, Ms. Smith and Ms. Saint-Fleur via social media on Wednesday, but had not heard back from the students as of press-time.

Had this been a verbal conversation, it is likely the exchange would have gone unnoticed. The comments were, however, posted on social media, making them viewable and sharable by many.

By Wednesday, the story in the Claremont Independent was picked up by outlets like the Drudge Report and Campus Reform and then began to go viral on the internet. It was hailed in Facebook posts, article comments and tweets as an example of racism on the part of people of color and as a sign the millennial generation feels entitled to an environment free of differences and dissent. Some people who responded asserted that if the wording in Ms. Ureña’s post had read “whites only” it would be clearly understood as racist. 

By Thursday, the story had become mainstream news, with opines on the subject appearing in outlets like US News & World Report.

President Oliver’s statement, released to the press via email and posted on the Pitzer College website, emphasizes that the college doesn’t support the views of the students seeking or expressing a preference for non-white roommates.

“Recently, an article in local media quoted Facebook comments made by Pitzer students regarding their preference in race for their roommates in non-Pitzer housing,” the statement read. “Specifically, the post indicated that only people of color should inquire about the housing option.

While Pitzer is a community of individuals passionately engaged in establishing intracultural safe spaces for marginalized groups, the Facebook post and several subsequent comments are inconsistent with our mission and values. Pitzer College’s mission is to create engaged, socially responsible citizens. We rely on Pitzer’s core values, including intercultural understanding as well as Pitzer’s community values of diversity, dialogue, inquiry and action to help us achieve this mission. We come together to live and work in a shared learning environment where every member is valued, respected, and entitled to dignity and honor. Our shared goal is to create a balanced approach to engaging complex intercultural issues, not to isolate individuals on the basis of any protected status.”

Mr. Oliver also took a moment to weigh in on the complications that can arise when personal opinions go digital.

“This is but another example to us that social media is not an effective platform to engage in complex dialog on seemingly intractable critical issues that have varied histories and contested understandings. They create more heat than light and invite extreme viewpoints that intentionally obfuscate the nuanced context that surrounds these issues.”

Mr. Oliver urged any students who feel they need additional support on the matter to contact the on-call therapist offered to students by Monsour Counseling or to reach out to a chaplain. 

“As we move forward in the academic year ahead, I look forward to participating in these discussions in the best tradition of Pitzer College,” he concluded.

In an email to the COURIER, Pitzer College’s Vice President for Student Affairs Brian Carlisle sought to remind people that the students whose views have been highlighted by the story are just that, students.

“Student Affairs at Pitzer continues our strong commitment to the growth and development of all students. We understand that during this growth process our students are sometimes prone to make imperfect decisions,” he said. “Yet, our faith in and unwavering dedication to the education process and its capacity to engage and transform students remain steadfast.”

—Sarah Torribio





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