Reflections on the 2015 Students & Alumni of Color Symposium
The student-led organization Students & Alumni of Color (SAOC) held its 19th annual Symposium on March 28-29, 2015. SAOC's mission is to bring together Woodrow Wilson School students, alumni, and faculty to promote diversity, establish mentoring relationships, discuss issues relevant to the social, political and professional development of students of color, and support the social and political development of communities of color. We hope you enjoy the following reflection on this year's Symposium by current second-year MPA student Magda Anchondo.
As a biracial kid, I have both white privilege and an understanding of the struggles that Hispanics face when they come to this country. I’m still removed from the latter, though; my grandmother was the one to cross the border and my father was the first in his family to go to college. I qualify as a student of color but often identify more with the white side of my family.
This past summer, when Ferguson happened, I was an intern at the UN in Geneva. My colleagues, mostly white Europeans, asked me: “What is with you Americans? Why do you have such a problem with racism?” I remember trying to explain, but feeling as though I should have a better answer. I know that political lobbies sometimes shape domestic affairs, and that a country’s foreign interest can rule how it allocates aid, but I felt we could discuss race and how it affects policy more in my courses at the Woo.
Dr. Ian Haney Lopez’s remarks about dog-whistle politics at the opening plenary for this year’s Students and Alumni of Color (SAOC) Symposium gave us a clear outline of how America prefers to discuss race. He explained that Americans talk about Ferguson and race in five different ways: 1) We don’t, 2) Dismiss it as individual bigotry, 3) Stop at statistics and demographics, 4) Describe it as institutional/cultural and 5) Connect it to larger dynamics like taxation and revenues. My interpretation of this list is that Americans prefer not to place a human face on the idea of race. Dr. Haney Lopez explained that the origin of dog-whistle politics was never about intentionally targeting people of color, but about winning elections by playing off of the fears of Southern Democrats in the wake of the New Deal. Politicians got votes by using “dog-whistle” terms (veiled terms for whites vs. minorities) and comparisons of constituents as the hard-working man vs. the poor living high off their dime. Dr. Lopez went on to discuss how this juxtaposition has been used by both Republicans and Democrats to appeal to the middle class in a world that he and many others believe is leaving them behind.
As Dr. Lopez discussed the political and historical origins of racism in the modern political atmosphere, you could feel the energy and excitement in Dodds Auditorium. My fellow students were visibly engaged with the speaker, and after he concluded his remarks by urging the school’s administration to embed sophisticated racial analyses into the curriculum, he received a roaring standing-ovation. Alumni, students and other attendees were thrilled by his comments and argument. I personally felt as if I had more of an understanding of racial politics and felt that it made so much sense (in a twisted, ironic way) why Ferguson seemed controversial and threatening to some.
The SAOC symposium was also about seizing a moment where students and alumni could learn, build and move. We learned through the opening plenary and successive panels and were inspired to build by 2015 Bullard Award winner Chris Owens. You could tell right from the beginning that Chris Owens was a family man, who used those values to inspire young people of color in the same way that a father would. His work on education also embodied his sense that it was necessary to lift up the next generation of youth. He asked students to form networks at the Woo and fondly recalled his own relationships with alumni, which set him on the path that he follows today.
I certainly feel that my colleagues at Princeton have set me on a path for understanding the racial dynamics in this country better. They have encouraged me to challenge the status quo by attending events on race and reviewing how professors at the Woo discuss race in the current political context. I don’t think that I would’ve had the courage to attend the Millions March in New York City last December or engage in protests on Princeton’s campus, shouting the words “hands up, don’t shoot” and “black lives matter” before; I would’ve felt like an imposter. The SAOC symposium and its larger community have inspired me to engage more on this topic. I’m more aware of racial disparities, as well as, more importantly, learning about best practices to solve them. I thank the SAOC committee and its co-chairs for planting the seed in me so that I could learn, start to build and one day move forward on my own journey to reduce the disparities that so many people of color face in a country that claims to provide equality for all.