The school can stop real racism now or just keep trying to change perceptions
By De’Vonna Pittman
In response to your article “St. Cloud State image makeover is lipstick on a pig” [MSR Nov. 3], I feel that I am very qualified to speak on this very topic. My daughter attended St. Cloud State for two years.
This past fall she transferred and is now attending an HBCU in Louisiana. She’s joined her younger sister, who refused to attend St. Cloud State after hearing all the horror stories. They are both very happy and transitioning very well, and though they are thousands of miles away, we are sleeping very well at night — in fact, better than ever.
Many others will continue to follow the countless students of color who journey toward institutions more accepting of them. I have much to say about this subject, but I will attempt to stick to facts while respectfully being brief.
Dropping your clothes off at the dry cleaners requires little to no thought. You pay the bill, take your receipt, pick up your clothes when they are ready, and life goes on. On the contrary, dropping your child off at a college campus is not so simple.
When parents begin to empty their nest and send their precious angels off to college, it’s in stark contrast, no comparison at all to dropping off laundry at the dry cleaners. Our precious angels have been reared in love, prayed over, and prepared for higher education.
By now, we’d surely counted up the cost and realized that most of our eggs nest would be spent on an ever-increasing tuition. We deemed it well worth it. This is what we’d been preparing the children for. And, in the end, we as parents are stuck trying to psychologically “let go.” We must now begin our life again, with one less child or childless.
In the fall of 2009, my husband and I drove our daughter to St. Cloud State to begin her first year of college. We were welcomed by several frat houses and their cheerful upperclassmen spirits. The signs they held read, “Fathers, thanks for your daughters,” “Freshmen girls, see you at the bar later and my place later-later,” and “Honk if you’re horny.”
My husband was appalled and sneered at the guilty. I, on the other hand, found this funny and decided to appease the young lads by playfully reaching over my husband and honking the horn. My two daughters (one then a senior in high school) laughed at my “indiscretion.”
These boys weren’t doing any harm; they were basically having fun. This kind of behavior is at first shocking to parents, but this is a sign of kids being kids. This is not the behavior that grieved us at St. Cloud State.
The things that caused me sleepless nights happened long after we’d dropped off our child. Those things triggered much distress.
The things that began to happen in St. Cloud, both on campus and off, made emptying our nest a nightmare. Many youth report that when students are walking at night they’ve had beer cans thrown at them while the driver yells racist comments such as, “Get out of here n****r!”
There were many sleepless nights because we simply did not feel that our daughter was safe in St. Cloud. My daughter and friends of hers reported that police spend weekends patrolling the streets and targeting Black youth themselves.
My daughter attended SCSU for two years. She shared with me the racist events that happened both on campus and off campus. The tone and spirit of the university is very much racist. The Caucasian students gain fuel by the racism that is very much alive in the town.
Black students were targeted and attacked at parties. Girls were ruthlessly blindsided and attacked on a regular basis (by boys and girls). When they reported these vicious attacks, there were no efforts by police or school officials to rectify the issues or find the responsible parties. I spent many nights praying for the safety of my daughter and her friends.
The institutional racism extends to some of the “tenured” professors. My family had planned a vacation to the Bahamas a year before school started. We’d stressed to the children to stay on top of their work, so that two or three days of missed class wouldn’t affect their final grade.
My daughter responsibly communicated (in writing) to her professor, and he agreed that he would allow her to present her final report upon her return. At that point she had a B in the class. Upon returning back to school from our vacation, my daughter was told by classmates that the professor had changed the dates of the presentation.
When she contacted the professor, he told her that she in fact would not be allowed to turn in her final paper or give her final report because he had changed the presentation dates and didn’t remember giving her an okay to be away from class or to present upon her return. He reprimanded her for not being responsible.
My daughter was hysterical. She frantically searched through all of her emails to present her case, and forwarded the emails to him proving that he did in fact grant her permission to present on another day and to turn in her final report upon return.
After she forwarded him the emails proving that he’d allowed her to present after she returned from her vacation, he went ballistic. He immediately responded to her email, but in total disdain of her proactive behavior. She was reprimanded for being proactive and for having a voice — how dare a student of color question a White professor.
I read the emails and I couldn’t believe the tone or the verbiage of his communication. She had no voice. My daughter was given a D in the class, the first D she’d every received. We reported this to administration and there was nothing done. No reply to our reports or emails, no phone calls, no rectifying the situation.
And now, after many reports of violence, racism, and bias, St. Cloud State University is at a crossroad. As if in a chess game, they have made their move. St. Cloud State has hired a public relations firm to “close the gap between perception and reality that many have about the area and St. Cloud State.”
These are statements from St. Cloud State’s President Earl Potter. And I’m asking him and his administration, “Do you hear the words that are coming out of my mouth? The things that happened to my daughter and her African American friends are as close to reality as the color of their skin. It’s not made up. My perception is my reality.
“Until you can assure students and parents that racism is a thing of the past, it doesn’t matter how much ‘damage control’ you do. These efforts to hire a PR firm are more about damage control than about changing an age-old culture and making sure that every student feels valued and safe. Hiring a PR firm will be in vain and nothing will change by ‘clearing the air.’”
Here are some suggestions to St. Cloud State President Potter:
1. Have the race discussion. Invite students, staff, and community residents. Communication is an element that has gotten lost here.
2. Hire a strategic alliance to come in and clean house.
3. Conduct a survey to hear directly from the student body about their experiences at St. Cloud State.
4. Stand up and declare, “Racism is not accepted at St. Cloud State or in St. Cloud.” Not by staff, not by students, and certainly not by residents of the town.
5. The administration needs to take a hard look at how to fix the immediate issues at hand and not by putting a bandage over them.
If these things are implemented we will slowly begin to see change. Until then, this will not go away and sooner than later we will realize that once again, the chess moves were all wrong.
De’Vonna Pittman lives in Brooklyn Park, MN.