I recently wrote an article about microaggressions, after helping to organize a movement on St. Louis’ Webster University campus, to try to address systemic discrimination. As part of that effort to create change, students wrote letters to the administration describing student experiences with prejudice and discrimination.
And now I want to take a moment to share some of the stories of Webster University students with you. A few students have given me permission to share parts of the letters they wrote to the administration in this article.
First, let me expound on the idea of the letters. We wrote a summary letter that explained the purpose of the letter campaign and framed the movement. This is an excerpt:
“Webster University prides itself on diversity, inclusion, and internationalization. We know you as president believe in dedicating the institution to furthering the cause of global citizenship and participation; for that we commend you…Webster is one of the largest global institutions in the world, and we want to help it reach the high standards to which you and the Webster community hold it…
We want to do our part to help you ensure that each and every student at Webster University has the same quality education– the same pleasant and engaging experience– unimpeded by issues of prejudice or hatefulness.
These letters contain countless experiences of Webster students regarding issues of diversity and inclusion; unfortunately not every student or every classroom meets the high standard of global excellence upon which Webster prides itself. The incidents detailed herein are neither novel nor isolated…We hope they help you in the process of change, and we look forward to your response to resolve these pandemic issues.”
Many students wrote to the administration anonymously, fearing retaliation, but refusing to be silent on such an important topic. I will respect that request for anonymity here.
The letters describe a range of experiences with prejudice, microaggressions, and oppression at Webster; students detailed discrimination in many forms, in many places, and based in many sources. They depict the pain of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, heterosexism, ableism, Islamophobia, cis-sexism, transphobia, and the numerous other -isms and forms of hatefulness that impair, paralyze, and deeply pain.
There are a few common themes we identified of major issues we found on campus. The first is the obvious exclusion of minority students.
Concerned Student writes:
“I have experienced difficulties finding opportunities to participate in the Webster athletics teams… While these teams have been doing great job looking in from the outside, on the inside there have been a lot of problems. When in high school, I desired to be recruited by Webster University and try out for the team when that time came. Unfortunately, after several unresponsive emails and leading messages from the coaching staff I felt completely ignored and that my past experiences were of little value. Yet, my peers around me who would be classified as “white-caucasian” have had no troubles communicating with coaches,… receive special treatment, and have had several opportunities to leave and come back to the team while I, a person of color, haven’t even had a chance to try out…
I plead with you please start making an effort to support and listen to your students to make this a better place for all students to attend where we can fully embrace our differences and feel welcome in the environment.”
This is compounded by slews of insensitive comments by students, faculty, and staff alike.
“I wish people would understand that yes I am African-American but my experience wearing this skin should not be generalized by stereotypes. I do not always know the newest dance craze, certain “slang”, or have a valid opinion on issues that have involved other African-Americans. I just want to be seen as an individual that has her own experiences and whose actions are not justified just because I am African-American. Students also constantly find that professors don’t understand these issues– that rather than being educated, students are having to educate their teachers.”
“A professor has continually referred to me as “her Muslim student.” When she mentioned in class how I sat next to her at an event and her “Black friend sat on her opposite side,” she said she felt like she was “in Diversity Central.” Aren’t I worth more than my skin color? Isn’t my value as a human being worth more than dark skin and a headscarf?”
Lara Hamdan, a Webster student studying International Relations and Journalism, said:
“Sometimes I feel unsafe mentally. I am of Middle Eastern decent, so I have a different point of view on certain issues. They are not conflicting with American values, just different. But I have found that I feel limited to what I can share or express in some classrooms due to some I do not want to silence the professor, or have them feel as if they cannot fully teach what they intended. But rather, I would like to see them bring in outside perspectives, to give students the chance to have a wider point of view, not just the view of their upbringing or their professor. I have had professors openly teach incorrect “facts” about the Middle East or the religion of Islam. It would be much more reasonable to bring in an expert in the field to address those issues, rather than to make false claims.”
Students are constantly called out to speak for their entire identity group.
“At the beginning of my freshman year here at Webster, Michael Brown was shot and killed in the streets of Ferguson. A few days after, looting took place and many businesses in Ferguson were ruined, as a result. In one of my classes my teacher spoke of the many tragedies that had taken place and asked the class how they felt. Especially myself and another African-American student in the class stating that he hated to ask “this question” from us. Honestly, I did not know what to think or say and had not even processed everything that had taken place in Ferguson in a short period of time. Why should I represent the entire African-American population on such a serious question?”
“I have been asked point-blank by a professor in front of the class to act as a mouthpiece for my racial, (perceived) national, ethnic, gender, or religious identities. In methodological terms, the sample (me) is not representative of the population. But I am supposed to speak for all people because people label us the same way? Pardon, but that doesn’t make sense to me at all. And I know with the utmost certainty that I am not the only one placed repeatedly in such a position; other students are asked to represent their racial, national, ethnic, gender, religious, sexual, SES, etc. identities. And it’s demeaning. It hurts.”
We talked about blatant inadequacies in Webster policies where the university fell radically behind on progress.
A Student Looking For Change wrote that Webster is widely considered a forward-thinking, progressive, “LGBTQ-friendly” school but, disappointingly, fails to live up to that standard several times over:
“I am disheartened and disappointed to express that Webster’s commitment to forward-thinking inclusion seems to have slowed in progress and withered in reach… The administration has yet to make policies that would provide trans* students with safe, comfortable restroom options in all buildings. Students have also expressed interest in an African American Studies program, as well as an LGBT Studies program. In response, the administration stated more students must to take these types of classes before creation of such programs can be considered. This, though, is a faulty argument. Students have trouble finding these classes when registering because there is not one encompassing prefix to use when searching for these classes. Therefore, there are systematic obstacles one encounters when attempting to register for these classes.”
But the letters weren’t all pessimistic. There are many, many opportunities for change.
Andrew Wagner, a junior Sociology major “passionate about justice” warned:
“The solution to these problems is listening to people of color who have been oppressed by these institutions and going forward with their guidance. As Webster University seeks out students of color to help pave the way forward, I would like to put forward a word of caution to the administration as they seek to listen. Patricia Hill Collins who is a critical race social theorist says this, ‘Oppressed groups are frequently placed in the situation of being listened to only if we frame our ideas in the language that is familiar to and comfortable for a dominant group. This requirement often changes the meaning of our ideas and works to elevate the ideas of dominant groups.’ My hope is that the administration at Webster will seek to listen to not only the words that are easy to swallow, but also the words that are difficult to stomach.”
Lara suggested diversifying our faculty, staff, and student bodies so that our campus is as diverse in actuality as it is in advertisements and refusing to raise tuition rates because they “marginalize people of lower income households.”
“We see the many flags above our heads as we walk in the University Center, but once we lower our heads, we don’t see the diversity represented. I hope you take the time to listen to your students needs and take the proper steps to address them. The students are willing to uphold their part if the administration is willing to do the same.”
At the meeting, we also discussed including questions assessing professors’ ability to conduct their class without prejudice, having a staff working at the administrative level to address issues of diversity and inclusion in the classroom rather than one individual, creating a student panel to hear cases of discrimination in the classroom so that students feel there is an approachable entity to whom they can address their concerns (at the moment, there isn’t, which is why so many of these issues go unchecked), having a day that operates like Webster Works Worldwide where the whole Webster community can come together to address these issues in a collaborative and constructive manner, and– most importantly– mandating training for faculty and staff on power and privilege and oppressive structures because currently no such training exists for any Webster employee as far as anyone can tell.
As I said, nothing has come of any of these suggestions yet. The administration has not made any visible changes and none of the grand promises we’ve heard and read tens of times have borne any fruit. But we’re not giving up. We’re stubborn, and we’re here to stay.