VIEWPOINT: Identifying degrees of racism

by Jamie Lawlor

Recently, a black student at the Claremont Colleges, Karé Ureña, and a roommate, received national news coverage for specifying “people of color only” in their ad for a roommate on the school’s Facebook page.

I’ll start by saying I have no problem with putting a racial preference on a roommate ad. Gender preferences are more than common in roommate ads, so why should a racial preference be viewed any differently? What I really take issue with is the statement and stunt intended behind the ad, and how Ms. Ureña justified the ad under a “desperation for a safe space” on the campus. 

To what extent must a person consider the relativity of suffering to determine their own? There is something devastatingly ignorant about a student of one of  the quaint Claremont campuses claiming to be “eagerly desperate for a safe space.” Meanwhile, systematic racism leaves millions of less fortunate young minorities ducking under stray bullets that pierce through their public housing units, too traumatized to finish the homework given to them by a school district that lacks the funding for adequate teachers and facilities in the first place.

The cities are in shambles because they don’t receive the funding that others do and anyone with a grip on American history knows it all begins with the color of the community’s skin. Shouldn’t terms like “desperate” and “safe space” be reserved for disastrous, yet widespread racial situations like those, rather than for petty disagreements between students on civilized liberal arts campuses?

I don’t know Ms. Ureña or her roommate, and as minorities they very well may have come from such disastrous beginnings themselves. However, considering the racism I have witnessed in my own life as an American, I find it unlikely that someone who has faced serious racial conflicts would claim to feel “desperate” and unsafe at the Claremont Colleges.

I’ve visited the campuses countless times. Their security units are well-staffed, their student body is ethnically diverse and, of the hundreds of their students I’ve met throughout my years in Claremont, none has hinted at anything close to a racist ideology.

My point here is that feelings of desperation and danger in this case are considerably unwarranted and insensitive to relative situations.

Ms. Ureña’s statement in the Washington Post included the phrase, “Our people are being killed,” several times for emotional effect. I find it ironic that her intention is to bring attention to more serious racial matters through discussion of a benign one. In reality, putting this much attention on a microaggression in the public eye only makes racism deniers feel more strongly that racism isn’t a serious issue.

A stronger argument from Ms. Ureña’s perspective would be “people of my race are being killed, which is why I am glad I am in one of the safest possible environments compared to those that are having their lives threatened and ruined on a daily basis in less fortunate areas.”

I sympathize with a black American’s plight in any environment, but if Ms. Ureña does not make this distinction, she is inadvertently minimizing the true extent of modern racism in this country.

As you read this, there are millions of American minorities surviving in chaos. Institutional racism has left many of their loved ones either dead, incarcerated, impoverished or addicted and their chance of escaping such a fate themselves is tragically unlikely. Many don’t have a single family member, friend or teacher to serve as a good role model. From their point of view, there is no world beyond the projects they were raised in. With respect to racial equality, there is nothing more important than fixing this disharmony.

But the Claremont Colleges are not savage. Educated people who have been fortunate enough to attend such an institution should be raising awareness about the impoverished regions, but instead I see them preaching about microagressions they experience while attending school in the safety of Claremont.

The conversation of racial issues needs to stay focused on the most serious matters first. So, to the Pitzer College student that created the roommate ad—you’re right. People of color are being killed. So let’s stop worrying about a Facebook post and dedicate our passion to the far greater racial conflicts happening in this country right now. Small-scale offenses are unfair and despicable, but we cannot let national attention to microaggressions drown out the public’s awareness of the more serious issues.


[Editor’s note: Jamie Lawlor, 21, is a longtime Claremont resident. —KD]


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