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People Of Color At Davidson College Share Stories, Call For Change

Protests for racial justice this spring and summer have prompted a related movement: Black people and other people of color have been sharing their stories of injustice and everyday racism in public ways. Davidson College students and alumni have been using an Instagram page to collect their stories - and to demand change. 

More than 100 posts have been added to the Instagram account People of Color at Davidson since it appeared in late June. Many stories are seemingly small moments in which faculty, staff or fellow students were insensitive toward people of color. Others are overtly racist or discriminatory. Most have come from current and former students who graduated within the past 15 years. Those are prompting others to share their stories, as several did in recent interviews.  

“I remember when Obama was elected, and you had five or six drunken white kids who were walking around with the Confederate flag, talking about the South will rise again. Nothing was done,” said 2010 graduate Imani Bowen. 

Chris Burton, a 2008 graduate and former student government president, recalled: “I think about, like, the English class I had where we were reading Edward Said, his work on 'the other.' And you could feel like the class just, like, kind of turned to you, like, what do you think about this? All of a sudden you have to speak about what it means to represent otherness.”

And Mel Mendez, class of 2013, said: “We had had a series of, let's be very frank, racist-themed parties down in our fraternity eating house court. We had one that was, like, geishas versus something else. And then we had a south of the border one come up. You know, a couple of students, myself included, kind of said, you know, this is not OK.”

Their stories echo those on the People of Color at Davidson Instagram group. There are incidents where white people can't distinguish black or Asian faces, where professors use inappropriate terms for racial or ethnic groups, and where students or staff racially stereotype people of different colors or religions.  

Leah Rapley
Credit Leah Rapley
Leah Rapley

A Picture of Racism

Leah Rapley founded the page in late June (originally as Black at Davidson). 

“What I've learned from the receiving end of these stories is ... people don't realize the extent of racism that exists at Davidson,” said Rapley, a 2012 Davidson graduate and former college employee. Until recently she was the college's assistant director of civic engagement.

Rapley wanted a way to capture these kinds of stories and get people to think about the problem of systemic racism. 

“I think it's a powerful source, and a way for people to reflect on the ways in which they've engaged in this or done this with anyone else,” she said.

Rapley said she started the group after a virtual community meeting in June where Davidson President Carol Quillen and former Charlotte Mayor and Davidson alumnus Anthony Foxx talked about institutional racism.

In that webcast to the college community, Quillen said she shares the grief and anger over the killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by a white Minneapolis police officer.  

Davidson College President Carol Quillen
Credit Davidson College
Davidson College President Carol Quillen

“We commit ourselves to the quest for truth, and we seek to build a more just and humane world. Systemic racism is antithetical to those values. We at Davidson commit to both understanding and dismantling systemic racism here and broadly in this country,” Quillen said.

When Will Change Come?

Since then, Rapley has been posting regularly, asking when the college will announce actions to carry out that pledge. She says more discussion isn't enough.  

“What I've known from as a student, an alum, and former staff is that oftentimes, Davidson says, 'We hear you, we see you, you're important.’ An event happens, we make a statement, we have a conversation, and then no action is done after that.” 

Some alumni share her frustration and see the Instagram page as just the latest outlet to discuss a problem that never seems to really get addressed. 

So Rapley and others have put together specific steps they say the college can take soon, including: 

  • Enacting comprehensive anti-racism plans, with the same planning and energy that the college has done with its response to COVID-19 
  • Requiring racial justice materials in the curriculum. 
  • Making all first-year students take an implicit bias survey and use it to develop training during orientation. Incoming students already take a Myers-Briggs personality test to help pair them with roommates.  
  • Adding an anti-oppression policy or statement to the college mission statement.
  • Creating a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Code of Ethics, much like the college's Honor Code. 
  • Begin ongoing anti-racist training for faculty.

Other Changes Wanted

For some alumni, those are just a start.  Chris Burton wants to see curriculum changes. 

“You can have African Studies class, you could have classes about, you know, the plight of LGBT folks and, you know, a variety of interfaith things. But all of those things, as the school's curriculum is currently constructed, are optional. So that means if I'm skillful enough, I can avoid having all those conversations.

Others we spoke to want new majors, like Asian American Studies. And they want the college to grant tenure to more people of color.

President: Work Just Beginning

Davidson College did not make President Quillen available for an interview. In a statement about the Instagram group, she said Davidson has made progress in confronting racism and being more inclusive. But, she said, "It’s painfully clear from the comments of current and former students, faculty members and staff members that we have really only begun this work.” 

In that June event with Quillen, Anthony Foxx told of his own challenges as a young Black man at Davidson. That included an incident his freshman year when he was playing pickup basketball with other students.    

Anthony Foxx
Anthony Foxx

“A staff member walked right past all of the white students, only to ask me for my ID. And that was one of the first moments where I felt I was being singled out,” he said.  

Foxx went on to become the first African American student government president, and graduated in 1993.  Now, he's on the Board of Trustees. And he chairs the Davidson Commission on Race and Slavery, formed three years ago to examine the college's own complicated history.  A final report of the commission is expected in early August. 

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Chambers, the main classroom building at Davidson College.
David Boraks / WFAE
Chambers, the main classroom building at Davidson College.

Copyright 2020 WFAE

David Boraks is a WFAE weekend host and a producer for "Charlotte Talks." He's a veteran Charlotte-area journalist who has worked part-time at WFAE since 2007 and for other outlets including DavidsonNews.net and The Charlotte Observer.