The Problem of Minority Retention
Issue   |   Tue, 10/13/2015 - 23:17

For many at Amherst College, without an institution like a sports team, prominent club, fraternity or group with great social capital, it is not uncommon to feel naked and constantly exposed to the elements. More often than not for people of color on this campus, this exposure feels especially acute. Subtle erasures of our bodies, slight yet sharp jabs from the ignorant, interrogations of whether or not we are deserving, a continuous feeling of homelessness — “Are you sure this space is really mine?” we ask. “They tell me that it is, but I feel so uncomfortable.”

These erasures can feel like the loss of home to natural disaster, and similar to loss from an earthquake or hurricane, it’s hard to place blame on a single will. Individual losses hurt, but we are expected to be tough and weather those storms. But collective ones, the catastrophic disasters, are especially difficult to cope with. Unlike more natural catastrophes, however, they are generally predictable. In my time as a student here, one has occurred each year without fail.

My first year, computer components and furniture were stolen from the health center and spray paint was used to damage the room and to draw swastikas. Three months later, an unidentified offender carved the word “nigger” in the snow on top of a car parked on the street just north of the Lord Jeffery Inn. That same year, two-thirds of the student body voted against the relocation of the game room to make room for the Multicultural Resource Center on the first floor of Keefe. My sophomore year, swastikas and a racial epithet targeting black people were drawn outside a dorm. My junior year, a group of students hijacked the well-intentioned “Black Lives Matter Awareness Week” for an “All Lives Matter” campaign, in which participating students defaced posters and equated black lives to fetuses. This year, many of our minority faculty and staff have left the campus for personal or professional reasons. These losses take place in the blink of an eye and hit students of color the most haphazardly and unremittingly, like great sheets of rain. Most prominently, Mariana Cruz, director of the Multicultural Resource Center and Chief Diversity Officer, resigned last week, citing personal reasons.

There are very few faculty and staff members that reflect the diversity of the student body. As a result, the access to mentorship that many of our more privileged counterparts have on campus is not there for us. Minority role models with similar life experiences are far and few in between. Perhaps when compared to the race-based tragedies of the past, the most recent tragedy of minority faculty and staff retention proves to be the most catastrophic because it sends the message that maybe everything won’t be OK.

The importance of mentors with similar life experiences should not be discounted. Minority mentors attempt to comfort us. They challenge us to make homes out of homelessness. Often they tell us what their mentors told them, or if they didn’t have one, minority mentors share what they had to find out the hard way. To paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates: That this is our world, that this is our country, that this is your body and that despite the confusion that may come from self-doubt we must find some way to live within it all.

But what message does the loss of a minority mentor send? Perhaps the environment was too hostile after all? Maybe the hope of living free and safe from the elements was a pipe dream? Maybe the distance between the world of the elite, littered with seemingly endless opportunities, and the galaxies that many of us come from is too vast? Minority mentors are the guides that help us to overcome this cosmic distance – a tenacious gravity, according to Coates – of a world that shackles our bodies.

The Friday before Mariana Cruz tendered her resignation, about a dozen minority students gathered in the Multicultural Resource Center to hear her life story. In the question-and-answer session that followed, Mariana recounted that one of her greatest failures was not having a mentor to offer her the guidance and help that she was able to give to students. Mariana wasn’t as fortunate as many of us were. On this campus barren of minority exemplars, there remain a few, and they must be safeguarded. As a community, we have an obligation to provide the resources and mentorship that minorities need to thrive. Everything must be done to retain the diverse faculty and staff that we have and to find more.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in “Between the World and Me,” “In all our phrasing — race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land with great violence upon the body.”

The racial chasm only deepens when we ignore the poor retention of minority exemplars in a school that prides itself on diversity. We cannot continue to avert our gaze as minority exemplars continue to be erased. We cannot keep reducing these losses to mere personal or professional reasons, nor can we continue accept them as costs of business. At the end of the day, these losses affect the vulnerable bodies on campus the most, the same bodies on which this institution built its foundations, the same bodies that this institution uses as fuel to thrive today. Minorities cannot continue on as diverse bricks in Amherst College’s road to redemption or preeminence. We are real people with needs that must be prioritized.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article contained references that were not properly attributed to their source, Ta-Nehisi Coates. This was an error on the part of the editors. This page was updated April 25, 2017 at 7:22 PM.

Alumni '15 (not verified) says:
Wed, 10/14/2015 - 02:19

I don't understand this overwhelming fixation with minorities needing minority mentors. I was a non-white international student who viewed several of my professors, all of whom happened to be white, as my role models and mentors. I never for a moment thought that by being non-white, I could not aspire to be like them. Sure, mentors of a different race may have had a very different life experience than you, but that shouldn't immediately tune you out from the possibility of regarding them as a mentor! Your mentor is meant to teach you things about life in the here and now, as you are a student at Amherst. As a student at Amherst, you are as good as almost any other student. Sure, you can't go to the same expensive parties and holidays as some of them, but that shouldn't be things a mentor should try to steer you towards. A worthwhile mentor seeks to guide you in academic and/or personal development, all of which cross racial and cultural boundaries. In fact, I personally think it to be beneficial to seek a mentor of a different race, culture, and background than you. You will learn more from the diversity he/she brings to the table.

Eddie Kim '15 (not verified) says:
Thu, 10/15/2015 - 20:15

Consider a student, who is black, on Amherst campus, who we shall name Paul. Every year, dozens if not hundreds of academic articles, periodicals, and various forms of literature are written documenting the gap that exists between black and white students; Paul and his peers. There is an income gap, to overcome. There is a cultural norm difference to navigate. There is a differential in expectations, to ignore. There are microaggressions, that he must withstand. There are biases to admission, that he must outpower. So say all of these articles, most of which are meant to document the gap in order to find some ways to bridge it. They point to this gaping chasm, screaming about how deep and treacherous it is, it has become. And in response, "Look here! a way to close it by an inch." "Look now there! a way to cushion the fall by an ounce."

One can look at all of this, add up all the math, and say "A ha! It's possible! In theory, there's a chance for him to make it!"

But what value is that when it is his turn to cross, that someone's done the math for his? that someone's helped his with the math? Is it really so unreasonable to find comfort in seeing people who have made it past the same trials he expects? To be sure, some minority students who see this chasm, and even feel it, might be comforted enough by math and the idea that it is in theory possible. But do you really fault Paul, who everyone, whether in a positive or negative way, is telling him how big the gap is, for feeling intimidated after looking over the edge? Do you really think it appropriate to tell Paul "suck it up; do the math"?

Anna (not verified) says:
Wed, 10/14/2015 - 19:44

I don't ever leave comments on this website, but your article spoke to me. Ignore the ignorant comment above mine. Come find us! The diversity recruits who went to Amherst, maybe took a year off because we failed out or because we needed to go home due to the crippling isolation, but now have graduated and had similar experiences to you. I don't really participate in alumni life, but if there is a drought of minority mentors, I'd like to help. I can't tell you I loved Amherst, or if being there will get better, but I can tell you how I dealt with it. And how now I'm happily out in the world.

You're not alone!

Nicole'15 (not verified) says:
Wed, 10/14/2015 - 21:54

I don't think Andrew's piece seeks to discredit the importance of having non-minority mentors. As someone who has greatly benefited from having a non-minority mentor and friend since 2010, I can say that I got the chance to meet an absolutely wonderful person, and to learn things regarding career and personal development on a one-to-one basis, which makes me feel like someone is advocating for me; I also get to learn about her experience, as different as it may be from mine. However, as important of an impact this is, it does not mean that we can ignore the discrepancy that exists when we champion diversity, yet are unable to retain students, staff, and faculty of color. Racism and microaggressions are not myths (as I was reminded of during my visit to a certain store in town the other day), and it means a lot to have people in this institution who actually look like you. Faculty and staff of color can orient, connect, and share their experiences with students about all kinds of things, including the details of their journey and their opinions about the different forms of discrimination that still exist within our society. If for some reason, people of color are still struggling to remain in this institution, then it tells you that something has to be done -- it doesn't mean we should give up and say, well, it doesn't matter because I can learn from someone else anyway. How can you assure students of color that can achieve their utmost potential and feel at home, and yet continue to have scarce examples of this within the administration? Now of course, this takes time, but is absolutely necessary.