Lions, Tigers & Blackface

I wrote this piece the final semester of the senior year of my undergraduate career. Though the event in  reference happened three years before I penned its tale on paper, I felt driven to leave some kind of trail of its occurrence and role in changing the college’s culture forever. My urgency rested with the evolution of the Halloween tale into a myth of sorts. Underclassmen all heard fragments of rumors of what happened. This was my attempt to set the record straight.

March 5, 2010

 Campus climate has nothing to do with the weather.

Instead, it gages the temperature of student interactions on campus by evaluating a college’s “legacy of inclusion or exclusion,” “compositional diversity,” “psychological climate,” and “behavioral climate.” 

When Asad Rahim arrived in 2003, Babson was weak on all counts. 

In a telephone interview, the Harvard Law School student recalled his first encounter with race at Babson.  It occurred after his first FME exam, a test taken by all freshmen in the college.  Once the test results arrived, his professors recognized the top two scorers in the entire class. 

The first name that was called was that of an Asian-American student.  He was met with a thunderous applause.  Rahim was summoned second.  He vividly remembers the deafening silence that echoed throughout the room.  “They were in shock that little black Asad had done better than them on the exam,” he added with a stifled chuckle.

He was one of four Blacks in his graduating class. 

By Rahim’s senior year, Babson was making huge strides.  The school boasted of its first black student body president.  The college had just welcomed its third generation of POSSE scholars, a group of student leaders mirroring the vast diversity of New York.  The population of domestic minorities was over 60 strong.

But, it was a recipe for disaster. 

According to Jeffrey Melnick, the Professor of African-American Studies at Babson, the sudden rise in the population of students of color on predominately white campuses is often linked to the occurrence of Blackface incidents. 

“I’m a historian, so right away I started researching on where Blackface incidents tend to happen, [I discovered] that they tend to happen on campuses where there has been a recent spike in initiatives for students of color or underrepresented students.”

This surge in incidents paralleled the push for diversity in colleges across America.  “Toxic Campus Climates,” an article written in June 2006, captures the phenomenon: “If the headlines are any measure, it’s been a dismal year for racial harmony on campus, with controversies erupting in Boulder, Colorado; Chicago, Illinois; and Durham, North Carolina.”

Babson Park, Massachusetts would soon be added to this roll call. 

On Halloween night, October 2006, as the student smeared his face with black makeup in preparation for the campus-wide party, his thoughts might not have fallen upon the historic implications of his attire.  He, most likely, did not realize his costume mirrored infamous images of derision mocking blacks as racially and socially inferior throughout the 19th century. 

But he was quite aware of his environment.

 “He would have never worn the costume to a Halloween party at Roxbury Community College,” stated Professor Melnick. 

Subconsciously, the student felt safe and protected attending a campus-wide party in the controversial costume.  “That the campus was so accepting speaks volumes,” mused alumnus Asad Rahim.  He was not surprised.

Neither was Sarah English.  The 2008 Babson alumna had heard of similar incidents in Babson’s past.  “I was [just] surprised by his boldness,” the former Black Student Union president stated in a telephone interview, referring to the student’s decision to post an image from the night as his Facebook profile picture. 

Amir Reza, the Director of International and Multicultural Education, echoed English.  “[We] may have had a Blackface incident in the past, but the chances of it becoming an important conversation [were nil]. . .Before it may have gone unnoticed, because there were less students to talk about it and get offended by it.” 

He credits the presence of a critical mass with the change.

Yet, this change was by no means immediate.  English, who was abroad in the fall, recalls returning to find a “dejected, disappointed” minority body in the spring.  “Like little hamsters on a wheel, many felt that their work was simply exercise—that it wasn’t producing tangible results.” 

As she refocused the Black Student Union internally, Toni Blackwell, the Associate Dean of Multicultural Programs set about ensuring that the voices of the students were heard outside of the organization.

These student voices were the pillars of the college’s new approach to diversity.  Reza recalls a poignant meeting between former President Barefoot and a small group of students in which Barefoot humbly described himself as a “60-something-year-old white man who doesn’t have a ton of experience with diversity,” to explain the perspectives of many professors and staff at the college.

 But Barefoot expressed his care.  He delegated around $100,000 to the creation of initiatives for a better Babson.  He also added a new position within the President’s Cabinet for the development of diversity at Babson.

Newly-elected Chief Diversity Officer Elizabeth Thornton began her term in focus groups, talking with Black seniors, like Asad Rahim, about their experiences at Babson.  These conversations and a thorough evaluation of Babson helped craft her strategy.    

This diversity strategy now runs throughout the seams of the college. 

Last spring, President Schlesinger defined the mission of the college as the creation of “a diverse, multi-cultural and inclusive community of highly talented students, faculty and staff.”

Linking diversity and cultural awareness with success, he stated “future leaders must understand how one’s culture, history and background informs and shapes one’s perspective. . .” Future leaders must learn “how to effectively integrate these diverse perspectives into developing business solutions that impact people, planet and profit.”

To make this vision a reality, Thornton and Schlesinger christened the Council for Inclusiveness and Community.  Comprised of students, faculty, and staff, the council tackles issues of recruitment, retention, curriculum development, and inclusive community building.  Each sub-committee has defined a set of goals, metrics, and deliverables. 

Though Renee Barton, a Babson junior from Texas, credits the school’s response as the deciding factor of her attendance, Babson is still far from perfect.  Thornton has recognized the lack of diversity amongst the faculty, staff, and graduate school ranks.  She is also looking for ways to support Babson’s blooming LGBT community.  In his new role, Reza seeks to incorporate international students more in Babson’s culture.    

This perpetual quest for improvement shows that the school is headed in the right direction.

Now that the clouds have cleared, the Blackface incident is heralded as the best thing to happen for the Babson community. The college’s response stands as an example to all institutions weathering the growing pains of diversity. As the Blackface incident shows, colleges are not charged with preventing the rainfall: But they must provide the umbrellas.

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