Akil Alleyne ’08 is a graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a former program associate at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
As a black Princeton alumnus, I’m disappointed by the quality of the debate over November’s “Occupy Nassau” sit-in and the demands made by the Black Justice League (BJL). Much of the rhetoric employed by the BJL and its supporters has painted a rather gloomy portrait of a black and Latino student body brushed off by an unfeeling administration and seething with racial resentment. I, for one, don’t buy this dismal caricature of race relations at my alma mater. My experience as a black Princeton student in the 2000s suggests that while many minority students do experience racism on campus and feel alienated from the school’s cultural mainstream, many others don’t.
Mind you, I’m glad that the BJL has succeeded in prompting Old Nassau to confront the issue of race relations on campus. As an undergraduate, I heard more than a few black students express dissatisfaction with Princeton life due to the occasional racial slur, feeling out of place or unwelcome at parties at Princeton’s eating clubs, obnoxious racial attitudes expressed in campus publications, etc. Yet I knew at least as many black students who felt entirely at home at Princeton — and even those who felt alienated had a number of campus institutions to which they could turn for cultural succor. The Princeton that I attended was not the racial dystopia that many participants in the current clash make it out to be.
I did not struggle to find offerings of nonwhite culture at Princeton. The Princeton Caribbean Connection (PCC) kept me in touch with my West Indian roots through activities such as the annual “A Little Taste of Carnival” festival (where I performed on my brand new set of steel drums). I routinely broke bread with students from throughout the Caribbean islands and black diaspora, including two budding dancehall queens; I attended an annual Caribbean “Culture Weekend” with other PCC members in my hometown of Montreal; I saw — for free — reggae veteran Wayne Wonder perform at the Fields Center.
Offerings of black culture on campus abounded in my day, from the “Black & Brown Barbecue” that kicked off the school year to the “Soul Meets Seoul” dinner that united African American and Korean American students (and cuisine). The Black Student Union’s Leadership and Mentoring Program matched black freshmen, myself included, with older students who helped us navigate the often-choppy waters of the Princeton experience. Among my favorite social events were the Black Men’s and Women’s Appreciation Dinners each spring, in which gentlemen treated ladies to a sumptuous formal banquet and vice versa, and saluted one another for the roles we had played in each other’s lives. I never felt “pushed to assimilate into the dominant community by hiding important aspects of [my] identity,” contrary to the BJL’s assertion.
Of course, all was not copacetic; I never personally faced any ascertainable bigotry, but many black students reported not being so lucky. Student surveys over the years had shown that black students were not as satisfied with their campus experience as white students — at Princeton and at other elite colleges. With the University hoping to learn more about this, during my freshman fall, my academic adviser asked me bluntly whether I felt comfortable on Prospect Avenue. Taken aback, I told her that I felt fine on the Street; but it soon dawned on me that my experience was not universal.
I learned more about the alienation of many other black students after joining the Black Men’s Awareness Group (BMAG) and Princeton’s chapter of Sustained Dialogue, a group that organized weekly student discussions of racial and other identity issues. One of my Dialogue discussion group leaders stated that she’d been called a nigger on campus in the past. In BMAG’s online “grapevine telegraph,” members shared tales of rejection from parties on the Street. One member told us of the time he’d been accosted by an enraged, drunk white student who accused him of “wanting to screw our [white] girls.”
Anecdotal or not, such claims of racism shouldn’t be cavalierly dismissed. Peruse the comments below virtually any Daily Princetonian article concerning racial issues, and you’ll find expressions of both latent and blatant contempt for African Americans and other racial minority groups. I’m sure that at least some of that demonstrable prejudice occasionally manifests itself in face-to-face encounters between students or in interactions with faculty and staff.
Nonetheless, the totality of the circumstances doesn’t clearly support the narrative advanced by the BJL and its supporters. Based on my experiences and those of other black and Latino alumni whom I’ve consulted on this issue, I strongly suspect that a great many minority students have not found Princeton to be such an “oppressive environment.”
So it should come as no surprise that I don’t entirely agree with the BJL’s reform agenda. I’m not opposed to renaming University institutions named after Woodrow Wilson. Yet I can’t support this demand enthusiastically, because what practical good it would do is a mystery to me. Wilsonian nomenclature has no concrete impact on students’ daily lives; it doesn’t directly affect grades, job prospects, workloads, or classroom and social experiences.
I have grown sympathetic to the designation of a room for black students in the Carl Fields Center. As an undergraduate, I felt that the center already provided what the BJL says it wants for black Princetonians: “a place where [they] can have dignity and comfort and engage in self-healing with those who have had similar experiences.” Yet it’s been claimed that the Fields Center has ceased to cater to minority students the way it used to and no longer is the cultural center for African American students. If this is true, I can see how it made sense for the administration to agree to this demand.
However, I totally oppose the BJL’s call for the establishment of cultural affinity housing. Given my experiences, the implication that “students interested in black culture” currently have nowhere to go boggles my mind. The Black Arts Company regularly enthralled audiences with African American dance and theater; I thrilled to the acrobatic moves of the B-boy crew Sympoh; black students flocked in droves to Friday night “Black Box” dance parties (in the insidiously named Wilson College, no less!). The Sensemaya Afrobeat All-Stars were perennial crowd favorites at my beloved Terrace Club. I got to see the hip-hop group Jurassic 5 and pop songbird Rihanna perform (though I’ve always kicked myself for missing funk legend George Clinton’s show); I even got to converse briefly with human beatbox Rahzel after one of his two gigs during my freshman year. I befriended a veteran of Spike Lee’s films; I got to see Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter, speak on campus. I doubt that all those cultural opportunities (and many more) have completely vanished from Princeton since I graduated. I don’t see why nonwhite students need to be able to live in racially dedicated dorms in order to feel at home on campus.
I support the addition of a diversity category to the undergraduate distribution requirements. I learned a great deal about many lesser-known dimensions of institutional racism in America through my freshman seminar on “The Ghetto as a Socio-Historical Problem” and my writing seminar on “The Race Debate in the Modern U.S.” As long as the proposed courses are implemented as impartially and open-mindedly as these courses were taught, I’m confident that the caliber and tenor of discussion of race relations at Princeton will benefit.
Yet that benefit won’t materialize as long as Princeton students continue to denigrate the value of free speech and cast aspersions on its advocates’ motives; to refuse to substantiate claims of bigotry on campus; to dismiss arguments against the BJL’s agenda with facile accusations of racism and race treachery; to scorn critiques of the BJL’s tactics as “tone policing” and “respectability politics”; or to lump all black and Latino Princetonians into the same monolithically aggrieved category. I’m not convinced that Princeton is the bubbling cauldron of racial antagonism that the BJL’s rhetoric suggests, or that it is a systematically “oppressive” environment where only white students can get a fair shake. This more nuanced perspective, too, must be a part of the discourse on the BJL’s demands if Old Nassau is to emerge from the current controversy a better place.
One thing that certainly can be said for the BJL’s ballsy maneuver is that it has prodded Princeton to face up to the race question in an unprecedented way. For that achievement, these students deserve their props. Now that that phase of the mission has been accomplished and the debate is afoot, however, I hope that cooler heads and more open minds will prevail.