Sitting in a poetry class her sophomore year, Shamayne Cumberbatch ’11 listened to the precept discussion of a poem by Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays.” The class of mostly white students, led by a white preceptor, analyzed the poem’s syntax, its style, and other literary qualities, breaking down the structure and the meaning behind the writer’s words.
A week or so later, Cumberbatch encountered the same poem in her African-American studies class. The class of mostly black students, led by a black professor, learned that the poet, Hayden, was African-American. Class members delved into the personal history of his Detroit childhood and the events taking place at the time the poem was written in 1945.
Cumberbatch, an English major whose family is from Guyana and who grew up in Irvington, N.J., remembers being shocked that the two classes yielded such different approaches to the same work. And she found it odd that in her poetry class, there was no discussion of the poet’s background; the class had watched documentaries about the lives of other poets, so it wouldn’t have been unusual to learn more about Hayden or to discuss his African-American heritage, she said.
She relayed her observations to her African-American professor, who encouraged her to bring it up to her preceptor. A nervous Cumberbatch approached the preceptor before class and suggested that the class should consider the racial background of the poet and how it might have influenced the poem. She says she received a perfunctory “thank you,” and then the preceptor moved on to another topic.
Cumberbatch turned the experience into an opportunity for further academic inquiry. She decided to write a paper about the identity markers of black poetry — how it is defined, if it even can be defined. But emotionally, she says, the experience left her feeling that there were clear dividing lines when discussing race at Princeton in the one place that it should be easiest to talk about — in the classroom.
“It bothers me that issues of race are only relevant in classes of African-American studies. In other classes, we tiptoe around it,” she says. “It’s the teacher’s responsibility to ask the question, and then we can decide for ourselves whether it’s relevant, but at least we have the information.”
Cumberbatch’s experience at Princeton isn’t unlike that of other African-American and Latino students on campus today, as the University moves to assert itself as a national thought leader on race yet still struggles in ways large and small with how to acknowledge and incorporate race into the academic and social life of the campus.
The election of Barack Obama to the presidency has spurred conversations about race in a way that has not been seen since the civil rights era or the national debate on affirmative action in college admissions. The question has been posed: If an African-American can ascend to the most powerful post in America, has the country reached a kind of postracial society, where color no longer matters? Has Princeton? In some ways, race was more of a daily topic of campus conversation when there were few students of color, their sparse presence decades ago more of an anomaly. Today, students and professors report a campus atmosphere that has absorbed race and racial identity into the fabric of academic and social life, and in some instances — in student groups and discussions, in some classrooms — is tackling the topic head-on. Current students grew up in a time when racial diversity was valued as a part of their identity, resulting in diverse sets of friends, many of them identifying as multiracial. And so for most, race has little overt influence over daily life; there’s too much studying to be done, classes to take, off-hour relaxation to pursue.
But race does still matter, even if concerns and interests find different, and perhaps more nuanced, expression than they did in the past. For example, the University since 2006 has supported a Pan-African graduation ceremony in Richardson Auditorium at which graduating seniors receive a kente stole that they may choose to wear two days later at Commencement. (Latino students initiated a similar ceremony, which also receives University support, more than 20 years ago.) The event is meant to reflect African-American heritage and create a strong sense of a niche community within Princeton’s larger community. “There were initial questions and concerns about, have we not made it far enough in our diversity efforts that students feel like they want to be segregated in their own event?” says Makeba Clay, director of the Carl A. Fields Center, which oversees the event along with a student committee. “But students felt like there was an opportunity that was missed to celebrate their unique cultural community,” Clay says. “It goes back to duality. You don’t have to pick and choose; you can do both.”
Princeton’s increasing diversity — not just in race and ethnicity, but also in socioeconomic and geographic background — along with the growing national discussion on race and multicultural topics has led to greater interest in courses that focus on ethnic cultures, according to students and faculty. Many African-American students who are pursuing majors in areas such as politics or history also are earning certificates in African-American studies. A certificate program in Latino studies was approved in April, and Asian-American students and alumni, along with some faculty members, have been pushing for an Asian-American studies program. Yet the interest does not hold strictly to racial lines, says Professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97, chairman of the Center for African American Studies. He reports that as many as 40 percent of the students in African-American studies classes — in courses like “Race and Medicine” and “Bring the Pain: The Politics and Poetics of Black Satire” — are not black, reflecting a desire for more cultural understanding among all students.
As a result, there is little doubt that this is not your great-grandfather’s Princeton. The percentage of minority students — defined by Princeton as Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and those who self-identify as multiracial — make up 37 percent of students in the Class of 2013. Asian-American students are the largest ethnic minority in the freshman class (17.7 percent), followed by African-Americans (7.3 percent), Hispanics (6.8 percent), and Native Americans (0.5 percent). In recent years, the University has allowed students to identify themselves as multiracial, and more than 5 percent of freshmen do so.
Moreover, those numbers obscure large differences in the backgrounds, desires, and needs of Princeton’s student body, many of them related to family income and culture. Minority communities represent dozens of nations of origins and varying cultures. For example, Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey and his research colleagues have found that black students at elite schools hail disproportionately from immigrant families: In a 2007 study, they found that first- and second-generation immigrant students made up 41 percent of black freshmen in Ivy League schools in the fall of 1999, though they comprised only 13 percent of the nation’s college-age black population.
Princeton attributes the increase in minority students to its reaching out to a broader spectrum of students, the recent gradual expansion of the freshman class by 11 percent, and the elimination of loans from financial-aid packages beginning in 2001. That decision put Princeton within financial reach of academically talented students whose families otherwise would not be able to afford the annual tuition and fees. The admission office’s Web site includes profiles of students from a cross-section of racial and ethnic groups; a new print publication highlights student stories with representation from a broad pool. Princeton partners with community-based nonprofits around the country that work with low-income students and students from certain racial backgrounds. For the last nine years, the University has hosted a multicultural open house for targeted high school juniors and seniors who live within driving distance of the campus. The event, which drew 300 students and parents this year, features a panel discussion with current students, a campus tour, lunch, and a social outing like a football game or a visit to the University Art Museum.
At the same time, campus officials seem to take pains to tamp down discussion of diversity that is focused on race, and are careful not to equate race with socioeconomic status. “We’re trying to show that there is diversity on campus, and that every student has their own experience,” says Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye. She defines diversity broadly: “It includes talents, background, beliefs — and race is a part of that.” But despite the undeniable changes, Princeton struggles to compete with other Ivy League schools for minority students, particularly black students. Currently fewer than half of admitted African-American students choose to enroll at Princeton, Rapelye told participants at a conference for black alumni in October. The others? “Most of them go to Harvard,” she acknowledged to a chorus of groans.
Some students long for the traditions and rhythms of their own cultures, and blending those with entrenched and historically exclusive traditions of the University sometimes can be difficult. Ethnically and racially based student organizations — more than 50 of the University’s 250 student groups — have grown and continue to hold strong appeal. The Black Student Union pairs African-American freshmen with upperclass students in a mentoring program (there are similar mentoring opportunities for other students).
On campus, Marieugenia Cardenas ’11 finds friendship and comfort in the traditions of her Mexican culture. She grew up in Queens, N.Y., with her mother, and attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts through a scholarship from the coed boarding school. After a bit of culture shock, she made friends and enjoyed her experience there. When she came to Princeton, she was thrilled to take part in Ballet Folklórico, tapping into the traditional dancing of Mexico, and became involved in Chicano Caucus, serving for a time as the group’s treasurer.
One day, Cardenas says, she realized that she knew most of her friends through those activities, and that she had a less diverse set of friends at Princeton than she did at Deerfield. She’s not worried about how that might appear. “I just wanted to be comfortable and in a place where I felt like I belonged,” she says. (Though many minority students acknowledge that some self-segregation exists, they are quick to point out that all-white student social groups do not get the same scrutiny.)
Every community needs a home, a physical space, and for many minority students, that place historically has been the Fields Center, previously known as the Third World Center, or TWC for short. In the days when minority students were few and racial tensions high, it was where black, Hispanic, and Asian-American students could go and feel completely comfortable. But the building, nearly hidden behind a high brick wall, meant a long walk down Prospect Street past several eating clubs, and it almost seemed symbolic: Keep walking past the eating clubs that represent one of Princeton’s oldest traditions, to get to the place that was like a home.
This fall, in what also can be seen as an act of symbolism, a renovated Fields Center moved across the street into a gleaming, high-profile building — it once housed Elm Club — at Prospect Avenue and Olden Street. Its mission changed, too, says Clay: While the center respects the struggles and triumphs of the past, building on its identity as the cultural hub of programming for minority-student life, it also embraces the reality of a multicultural society, sharing programming and the values of diversity with a large, general audience. “It’s not ‘either-or,’” Clay says. “That was one of the big pieces of the conversation [we had] in strategy and planning. It’s, how can we not be either, and be both, at different times?” That’s a different mission from being a safe haven for minority students, she points out. Today, for example, the center hosts a student group called Sustained Dialogue, which dates to 1999 and grew out of students’ frustrations and sense of alienation from the eating-club culture. In a Sustained Dialogue session, eight to 15 students from different racial backgrounds talk about topics like race relations, eating clubs, and exclusivity.
Clay says the center has four guiding principles: leadership, understanding, empowerment, and social justice. “Everybody can fit in some way, if you can somehow fit into one of these four conceptual concepts at Princeton,” Clay says. Already, she says, the beauty of the physical space has lured more students to the center, which also hosts writing seminars and classes on immigration and social justice. Most of the students in those classes are white, “so that exposes the center and what we do to another group of students,” Clay says.
Reginald Galloway ’11, who coordinates undergraduate student programs at the center, says Princeton’s efforts to make the University more welcoming for minority students have resulted in a sort of decentralization of the minority experience. “There isn’t one central location for minority student life on campus,” says Galloway. “Something’s happened within the culture to make it so that the Fields Center is still an important aspect of the Princeton experience for minority students, but it’s not the central physical space or the central focus that it was.” Partly as a result, he says, “we really haven’t found our constituency yet, if there is one.”
Galloway is African-American and from Silver Spring, Md., where he went to a large public high school. At Princeton, he followed a tradition that’s less common for black students than for white ones, joining an eating club, Quadrangle, where he enjoys a wide mix of friends — just as he did in high school. “By no means are we in a postracial state, but I feel like race is no longer the defining attribute at Princeton,” he says. “It’s more socioeconomic and the backgrounds and culture from which people operate.” Indeed, a 2007 survey about campus life by the Undergraduate Student Government focused on social class, not race, and found that students who identified themselves as coming from a lower social class — who also were more racially diverse — were less likely to join an eating club or fraternity or sorority, and more likely to feel out of place there.
Jasmine “Jazz” Ellis ’10, a religion major from the blue-collar, ethnically diverse town of Union, N.J., applied to Princeton just to see if she could get in. She did. When she came for “hosting weekend” that April, she felt a relaxed vibe on campus and saw a diverse group of students. She accepted.
The biggest shock, she says, had more to do with class than race. Ellis saw how cavalier some students were about money, and recalls being invited to dinner by her roommate and her parents during freshman year. She appreciated the friendly gesture, but found when she got to the restaurant that nothing on the menu cost less than $50 — and the parents were going to handle the bill. “I felt uncomfortable,” she says.
For recreation, Ellis is inclined to find low-key activities that cost very little. She loves to dance and has been active in the all-female troupe eXpressions and in SYMPOH, a break-dancing company. She decided not to join an eating club and became a residential adviser in Forbes College. “Princeton is not New Jersey; it’s an upper-class bubble in New Jersey,” she says. “I’m not going to change who I am to fit in with a larger culture.”
Ellis used her discomfort as a point of advocacy, starting a student chapter of the NAACP. But she found even that process dispiriting, because though the University agreed to support the group and pay for students to attend a state conference in Morristown, she struggled mightily to find the 25 students required to create a recognized chapter. Only four students ended up going to the convention, Ellis says, and “the apathy was very discouraging.” She says she often has found herself standing alone in her efforts to point out to administrators serious campus issues, such as depression among black women and the need for more peer counseling. But that has enabled her to find her voice. “I used to be really shy in high school, but I’m not anymore,” she says.
Ellis’ experience reflects what Glaude has heard from African-American students over the years. As a graduate student in Princeton’s religion department, Glaude says, he felt comfortable in his own skin, as he puts it — which he attributes largely to the fact that he attended a historically black college, Morehouse, for undergraduate study. “I didn’t feel this sense of anxiety about being in a predominantly white environment, and I didn’t have any anxiety in the classroom, worrying about whether I was an affirmative-action baby,” he says. “I was just here to get this credential and pursue my dream.”
But when he returned to campus in 2002 as a professor, Glaude recalls, he didn’t see that same confidence in some of his black students. “There was a feeling of not having a sense of possession of the University ... that they felt like interlopers or the place wasn’t theirs,” he says. “They would complain about the limited social scene and said they’d be throwing their own parties, and they invited me to come by. You could tell they were trying to create a whole world where they could be comfortable, that they were working very hard at it.”
Gradually, Glaude says, that has changed. “I still occasionally have the students who are grappling with these issues and problems, but it seems as if students are more actively taking ownership — or at least trying to do so. So it’s fascinating to witness.”
Though the changes on Princeton’s campus cannot be attributed to any one person, some students mourn the upcoming departure of Janet Dickerson, Princeton’s vice president for campus life and its highest-ranking black administrator, who plans to retire at the end of the academic year. Dickerson has acknowledged that she, like many of the students with whom she has worked, felt like an outsider when she arrived on campus a decade ago. Perhaps because of this, she has paid attention to the special needs of Princeton’s varied communities, even while she has worked to bring them together.
Looking back, Dickerson takes pride in the disappearance of “rigid boundaries” that Princeton had in earlier generations; today, she says, “we have a lot more interaction.” She notes that her office has supported many events to bring together different groups — she cites as a favorite example a “Fried Chicken, Fried Rice” event that featured performances by African-American and Asian-American cultural groups — and says it’s critical to create more opportunities and spaces for students of different backgrounds to express themselves. That does not apply simply to racial and ethnic minorities, she notes, and her contributions on campus include improvements in mental-health services, additional civic-engagement opportunities, expanded religious programs, and the start of the four-year residential-college system. Under Dickerson, Princeton opened a center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students; halal dining facilities for observant Muslims; and the Fields Center’s new home. A goal, she says, has been ensuring equal access to everything Princeton offers.
“We’re trying to deal with all the things that students say are important. Race is part of that, but it’s not the only thing. ... My strategy has been to identify and work to address those issues of equity for students who are the most invisible. The more we help those who feel like outsiders, the more we are opening the culture to everyone to be an insider.”
She continues: “No matter where someone comes from, whatever their ethnic background is, however they’ve faced their challenges, whatever door they’ve entered — when they leave, they are Princetonians.”
Theola Labbé-DeBose ’96 lives in Washington, D.C., and is a reporter for The Washington Post.
PAW intern Leah Haynesworth ’11 contributed to this report.