TW: This story contains mention of racism, hate speech, and contains strong language
Being a person of color at Emerson is undoubtedly a challenge. Boston is a diverse city, but a predominantly white one, with 52.8 percent of residents identifying as white. This is even more apparent at Emerson, where just 28 percent of the population identifies as people of color.
The Beacon spoke to students from a multitude of diverse backgrounds. They said that while Emerson students and the college itself appears to be diverse and accepting to the outside world, it feels like a performance for them. There’s a perception, they say, that they were lied to or taken advantage of.
“They only use us when it’s necessary,“ says sophomore Sommer Stokes, a journalism major. “Their pamphlets and their website is full of people of color, but you get here and you’re the only one in the class or you’re the only one in the auditions or you’re the only one speaking for yourself.”
Leaving home for college is a momentous part of life. An adolescent starts their journey on their own, prepared to find themselves and capture the opportunities before them. When one’s vision of college is tampered with because of something so simple as representation, it’s devastating.
When they enter the college, students of color begin to wonder why they came to Emerson.
“What the fuck am I doing here?,” says Sophomore Amaris Rios, a musical theater student. “[I thought] ‘What the fuck am I doing in a place that proclaims themselves to be so woke and so progressive,’ and that was the moment I realized it was all performative.”
Coming to an institution that does not represent your culture or identity can negatively impact your mental health and how you view yourself.
“[It’s] draining to constantly put on a certain persona in order to acclimate or assimilate to the other white people in the school,” says First-year Business of Creative Enterprises Fatima Swaray.
A common practice among communities of color is to code switch, or when one changes their manner of speech to match the social or formal setting they are in. This phenomenon has become commonplace amongst people of color, as it became a necessity to gain acceptance.
People of color, especially Black and Hispanic Americans, find that changing the way they express themselves is a necessity.
Being around white Americans exhausts people of color to the point of having to give up your identity to please those around you. Sometimes, it takes going home and getting back in touch with one’s culture to realize one’s worth.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to be someone else for the first semester that I was here,” Rios said. “It took for me to leave Emerson for the winter break, and come back, to realize that I can no longer be quiet or I can no longer be silent and I need to just be myself, and so be it if people feel uncomfortable by that.”
Rios, like other people of color The Beacon spoke to, said she grew up in an environment where talking about one’s mental health was not encouraged.
“Turns out anxiety is real, depression is real,” Rios said. “And then, piled on top of that, you’re a person of color, so you got to be the best you got to be because you’re the minority. So you have to be at the top of your game all the time.”
“It feels very alienating at times,” Daphne Bryant, first year creative writing major, says. “I really felt invisible and like the tiniest speck out of everybody. Sometimes in friend group situations or romantic situations, I really just feel undesirable and out of the loop.”
A lack of representation among staff and faculty at Emerson can reinforce the feeling of being “other.” This is not improved by the fact that the majority of staff members of color are subject to the same experience.
“I was like, why the fuck am I the only person that is able to communicate with the maintenance staff and the cafeteria people, that pissed me off,” Rios says. “It was the first time I felt like a true minority, and it was the first time I felt like a target in my own skin.”
Many students say they think Emerson doesn’t do enough to help students of color cope.
“They treat us as an afterthought,” Stokes said. “I don’t think they prioritize our health, our mental health, our well being, especially queer BIPOC, they don’t ever talk about us.”
“Despite the fact that I knew that there was a small percentage of people of color, that went to the school, actually living it is always a disappointment and actually seeing the [first-year] class and not [seeing] many more students of color is always a little bit of a letdown, ” Fluellen said.
Safety and support also includes the physical. According to an FBI report, there were more than 5,000 hate crimes committed in the year of 2020 alone, motivated by race, ethnicity, ancestry, and religion. Unfortunately, while Emerson should be properly showing their support to those in communities who are terrorized, the “support” doesn’t go past social media and online activism.
These incidents of hate have occurred on Emerson’s campus as well. In Spring 2020, a swastika was found drawn inside a Piano Row stairwell. Just days later, anti-Asian graffiti was found scrawled on a door in the Little Building. Then, in Fall 2020 the Student Government Association passed legislation calling on the college to do more in response to incidents of hate on campus after “Spectrum,” an organization created in support of LGBTQ students of color, was zoom-bombed.
“The Emerson College community must do more to ensure the safety of LGBTQIA+ students of color,” the legislation read.
Just this week, the organization “Turning Point USA” passed around stickers inscribed with the phrase “China kinda sus.” An email acknowledging the incident from Interim President Bill Gilligan didn’t go far enough, according to some students.
“Can that “investigation” include getting rid of turning point altogether now that they’re confirmed racists? Or is Emerson too afraid to actually take any sort of action?” wrote user @moyochong.
“Y’all if Emerson doesn’t do something about the turning point USA club, they’re just like… admitting that their activism is only performative,” Sophie Bellone said on Twitter.
“@EmersonCollege supports turning point emerson and full on blatant racism against asians. y’all ashamed?” wrote user @greenbeanpond.
There’s a difference between posting a black square on Instagram or reposting infographics on hate crimes and actually going to protests, asking your BIPOC friends how they are really doing, signing petitions, and participating in true change outside of the internet. When someone is not actively being part of the solution, that makes them part of the problem.
“A lot of white liberals here have this white savior complex, and they might have ‘Black Lives Matter’ in their bio but have no Black friends or will exclude them or say inappropriate things,” says Bryant.
Many people of color experience gaslighting, especially as white people bring attention to themselves rather than to larger, society-wide issues at play. The Beacon has erred in this area in the past, and has taken numerous steps to begin repairing its relationships with communities of color on campus.
“White guilt, white guilt, crying yourself to sleep. I’m still gonna be called the N-word at the end of the day,” says Sophomore Theater and Performance Major Kwezi Shongwe.
Many cultures celebrate holidays that aren’t considered “mainstream,” and students don’t get a day off for themselves, despite the importance the holiday may have on their family and community. Hindu festivals like Diwali and Holi, Muslim holidays like Eid, and Jewish high holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are just a few of many that aren’t acknolwedged by the college.
People of color often grow up immersed in white culture not only through school, but also through media. It is extremely rare to see representation of various cultures and ethnicities in movies and television, which is another factor that pushes people of color to feel worthless.
“Growing up in a white community with white role models in the media, I kind of just started to think that I was ugly,” says Fluellen.
Rios says preparing to enter a predominately white industry like musical theater is daunting because she sees so few people like her succeeding in her field.
Emerson is home to many creatives, many of them being in the musical theater industry like Rios. Being underrepresented in your career path is daunting, which Rios’s mentor in high school forewarned her about.
“[My mentor] went on to warn me, ‘you’re about to enter an industry that is going to single you out, that is going to make you feel different and like you don’t belong there and like you have no role in the industry.
“‘And I need you to continue to remind yourself that that is not true. That in fact, it is the reverse, they are profiting off of your body. So don’t forget to remind yourself why you’re there, and why they need you there,’” Rios says.
Because of the demographics split at Emerson, it is rare to see multiple students of color in one classroom. It is hard and uncomfortable for them to speak up and voice their opinions.
“On the rare occasions that I do raise my hand, I feel like people are hearing me with their ears, but not really listening to what I’m saying,” says Swaray. “It discourages me from ever wanting to raise my hand or speak up again because it doesn’t feel like anything I say will sink into the minds of my peers, so I just avoid it.”
We are all at Emerson to get an education, but students of color have a hard time doing just that. What does that say about Emerson as an institution?
“It’s weird seeing a debate on a topic that affects you so personally, and seeing it used in a way that’s made into a philosophical question,” Swaray said. “Seeing it being turned into something so academic and not as humane as I’d like it to be was a really huge shock to my system.”
Constantly discussing serious issues that affect one personally in the classroom is often draining and draws attention to students of color.
“It’s hard to talk about things that have happened to your community every single day and not be exhausted by it,” says Stokes. “I wish when we talked about colonization, all eyes would be on them.”
Swaray said the conversations at the student of color pre-orientation were not what students expected, or desired.
“Why would you teach racism [at pre orientation] to a bunch of people of color? I think we know what it is,” says Swaray. “We didn’t actually talk about the things we really needed to talk about, like how it feels being a student of color at Emerson.”
Many students of color have lived through what is being taught in classrooms, and many times the BIPOC students are not the ones who need to be further educated, but instead the white students.
Coming to Boston from parts of the world where your cultures are represented is a culture shock to many. Students experience situations that they’ve never experienced before, which are usually negative.
“Me and my friends have a running tally of how many times we’ve been hate crimed in Boston, which is kind of dark, but it’s a real thing, and it’s been three times in two months,” Swaray said. “I’ve kind of grown numb to it.”
The students expressed frustration with the difficulties professors have pronouncing their names, often not attempting to say it correctly.
“My name is a testament to the people who came before me,” Rios says. “You will say my name, because that’s who I am. And you’re not going to shorten it because it’s easier. You’re not going to mispronounce it because you don’t want to learn it. Absolutely not, figure it the fuck out. Figure out how to pronounce my name. This is who I am.”
Intercultural organizations on campus like Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interest, Amigos, and many others play a significant role in keeping students of color afloat.
Those who have joined these organizations say they found a space where they belong.
“It’s been really helpful to have a space where we can talk and vent about our experiences being black at Emerson and just in general,” Bryant said.”[EBONI is] a safe space and I’m really glad that we have it here, because a lot of times I don’t feel like I can talk about those things.”
As Emerson’s community is predominantly white, it makes it difficult for students of color to find their place within organizations that are also predominantly white.
“A lot of the spaces here, like in organizations, are dominated by white people,” Bryant said. “It’s really important for me to remember that I’m here for a reason when imposter syndrome sets in,” Bryant says. “I can infiltrate and I can make my mark within that and I shouldn’t feel inferior just because I’m a minority.”
People of color suffer in white America, there’s no doubt about it. With racism and discrimination neverending, feeling like an “other” is a constant emotion minorities at Emerson face.
“At the end of the day, it’s really us that have to stick up for each other, because we can’t expect them to,” says Stokes.