A roommate-wanted notice posted on Facebook by a Pitzer College student has turned into yet another racial controversy. The student, along with two Pomona College students, were seeking a fourth to join them in an off-campus house. The notice included “POC only” –person of color only—and this got them immediately called out as racists by some other students.
The ad is not racist. The text reflects a bias, as in “preference,” but that isn’t necessarily racism. Everyone has freedom of association in this country, or should. Human beings are more comfortable with those whom they perceive as being more like them. There is nothing wrong with that, but even if there is, it is human nature. There is nothing to be done about it, and there shouldn’t be anything done about it other than to help each other understand that tribalism is divisive and a pre-programmed bias that we should fight, because getting past it makes us better neighbors, members of society and human beings.
Still, I don’t want to live with someone who doesn’t want to live with me, but who is going to accept me into a living situation based on a feeling of obligation. A house seeking someone else to share the rent isn’t a public accommodation, and there is no ethical principle demanding that the roommates can’t or shouldn’t specify the kind of individual they think would best complete the group. What if the other three are all white, and are seeking someone different from them to make the house more diverse? Is it equally offensive if the ad sought an athlete, or someone overweight (who wouldn’t make the three hefty roomies feel unattractive), or a good student, or an actor, or someone with a good sense of humor? Why? Such requirements are not a per se indication of anything but personal preferences, and personal preferences aren’t racism.
Is the “POC only” addendum unethical? Technically, it fails Kant’s “what if everybody does it?” test, for if everybody did it, white students would have nowhere to live. There you have an example of where Kant’s Rule of Universality is worth musing about but often isn’t applicable. Some conduct is ethical despite Kant because the idea that it would become universal is too ridiculous. I want to live with a baseball fan. I don’t want to live with someone who is going to be listening to punk rock. If three roommates can look for a female fourth, or a gay fourth, or a Spanish-speaking fourth—and they can without nicking any ethics principles at all—then they can insist on racial or ethnic qualifications too.
Is it better ethics to be accepting of all equally? Sure it is. But not exhibiting exemplary ethics isn’t unethical. Again, it’s just human.
There is more to the story however. When some students commented on Facebook that the notice was racist, the replies from the students posting it and others expanded the controversy.
The Claremont Independent, a student paper that covers all five of the Claremont colleges (as well as two graduate schools), of which Pitzer is a member, published some of the comments, and they show the anti-white animus and double standards now roiling race relations in the U.S.
For example, Sara Roschdi, a Pitzer Latino Student Union member, stated, “People of color are allowed to create safe POC only spaces. It is not reverse racism or discriminatory, it is self-preservation.” Her statement is, in fact, racist. If white neighborhoods trying to exclude black families from moving in because they fear for their safety is racism, so is Sara’s attitude. Racism is treating and regarding individuals negatively because of their race, and it’s racism regardless of which race does the stereotyping or engages in the prejudiced activity.
Then there are the candid remarks of Terriyonna Smith (Pizer ’18), an African Studies major and Resident Assistant:
“White people always mad when they don’t feel included but at the end of the day y’all are damaging as fuck and if a POC feels they need to protect themselves from that toxic environment THEY CAN! Quick to try to jump on a POC but you won’t call your friends out when they’re being racist as fuck…I’m not responding to NO comments and NOPE I don’t wanna have a dialogue.”
Nice. Actually, not nice: the comment is racially hostile, resorts to stereotypes and rationalizations, is directly insulting, and is, in fact racist “as fuck.” They also might want to think about teaching standard English and civility at Pizer because I’m not hiring any graduate who talks or writes like that.
Or who thinks like that either.
It appears that anti-white racism is a qualification for being a resident at Pizer (Full disclosure: my niece, now attending law school, graduated from another Claremont college, Pomona). Here’s another Resident Assistant and Black Student Union member, Jessica Saint-Fleur (PZ ’18) who charmingly wrote:
“White people have cause so much motherfucking trauma on these campuses … why in the world would I want to live with that? Bring that into my home? A place that is supposed to be safe for me?”
Why, thank you for that fair, well-reasoned and constructive statement, Jessica, and the sentiment it conveys.
And fuck you.
That is the response such sentiments beg for.
For his part, Pitzer President Melvin Oliver, a sociologist and an expert on racial inequality, responded to the growing controversy with a flaccid example of academic cowardice, Authentic Frontier Gibberish and jargon, saying in part:
While Pitzer is a community of individuals passionately engaged in establishing intracultural safe spaces for marginalized groups, the Facebook post and several subsequent comments are inconsistent with our Mission and values. …This is but another example to us that social media is not an effective platform to engage in complex dialog on seemingly intractable critical issues that have varied histories and contested understandings. They create more heat than light and invite extreme viewpoints that intentionally obfuscate the nuanced context that surrounds these issues. Pitzer offers its new 2-course Intercultural Understanding requirement and dedicates new curricular and extra curricular programming to address difficult issues of racism, diversity, community discourse and national and international political conflict.
Ah. So it’s social media’s fault! No, it’s the fault of an education institution and an increasingly divisive campus culture that enables, endorses and encourages racism by “being passionately engaged in establishing intracultural safe spaces,” if that means what I think it means. Pitzer doesn’t teach or believe in its Mission and Values, since it places bona fide racists like Smith and Saint-Fleur in positions of authority.
Pitzer College’s Mission and Values state:
“Intercultural Understanding enables Pitzer students to comprehend issues and events from cultural lenses beyond their own…[Pitzer College] supports the thoughtful exchange of ideas to increase understanding and awareness, and to work across difference without intimidation. We have the right to be heard and the responsibility to listen. Communication, even at its most vigorous, should be respectful and without intent to harm.”