Are black graduations at traditional colleges 'reverse racism'?

theGRIO REPORT - While a handful of detractors call these ceremonies discriminatory, a large number of students and professors laud these events...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Graduation season has arrived. Students across the country will be skipping across the stage, shaking hands, and receiving their diplomas. In surreal astonishment, students will cheer for their friends and maybe even shed a tear or two with their families for reaching a major milestone.

African-American students at several universities across the country have the option of attending an additional ceremony — one that recognizes their academic achievements. Sometimes planned by the black student organizations, or by multicultural centers on campus, these ceremonies open their doors to family members of black students to share in their last college moments.

While a handful of detractors call these ceremonies separatist or discriminatory, a large number of students and professors laud these events as efforts to promote diversity and inclusion on college campuses.

Several schools across the country have this option for students, including Ohio University, Columbia University, Temple University, University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford University.

At Ohio University, the ceremony is called Kushinda, and is a combined celebration with black, Latino and some Native American students.

The ceremony was initiated in 1998, and like all of the ceremonies’ at every school—its optional for students to attend. In the fall of 2010, 4.5 percent of the student body were African-American, and 81.6 percent were Caucasian on the Athens campus.

“Only about one third or half of our African-American students participate,” said Dr. Brian Bridges, Vice Provost for Diversity Access and Equity at Ohio University. “This is only one event, it serves to be part of a tapestry of events that helps to make the whole climate welcoming, nurturing, and affirming.”

Black students not feeling like they were apart of their campus life is one reason why they decided to start these ceremonies at some schools, decades ago.

“In the sixties black students were coming onto traditional white campuses,” said Dr. Nate Norment, Chair of the African-American studies department at Temple University. “Many of these schools were in black communities, but black students did not have access to them. So when they came to the campus, there were very few black faculties, or things that black students could identify with. ”

And black academic ceremonies and even homecomings were a way for black students to celebrate their achievements with one another and their families.

At Temple, students wear traditional African kente cloth and their parents give them African names during a naming ceremony that is apart of the program. They pour libations for their ancestors, and sometimes drummers or African dance is included in the celebration. Norment describes it as “a coming together of black families and of black communities. This is a great moment, to have a college graduation.”

R L’Heureux Lewis, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at CUNY says these ceremonies are celebrations, they aren’t graduations.

“They are celebrations at different communities,” said Lewis. “Ethnic minorities in particular, have historically been underrepresented in these predominantly white institutions. Over time, we’ve had a growing body of students, but in comparison to other students, people of color are still a smaller number.”

Lewis explains how people can misread these ceremonies and not only think of them as black graduations, but mislabel them as strict separatism.

Columbia University has had a black graduation since the early seventies. Senior Maggie Johnson, 21, who is Caucasian, doesn’t have a problem with the black, Latino, Asian and LGBT graduation ceremonies that take place on Columbia’s campus, but she doesn’t understand why they are necessary.

“If we are being progressive, and trying to stop discrimination, why would people pull away and see themselves as different,” said Johnson. “Everyone should feel welcomed to attend these ceremonies, but I don’t.”

Another senior agreed with Johnson, calling them “reverse discrimination.”
Ward Connerly, founder and President of the American Civil Rights Institute, called the ceremonies “part of a well-intentioned but counterproductive approach to diversity. They are part of an infrastructure of programs aimed at making students feel welcome. The problem is that this whole entourage of efforts has formed to isolate students in cultural ghettos” in a 2003 Washington Post article.

All students on the different campuses are welcomed to attend the ceremonies to support their classmates. But living in a post-racial America causes some to question whether the ceremonies are even a necessity.

“They are very necessary,” said Dr. Norment. “You can affirm your culture without being anti anyone else. At graduation and at a homecoming black alumni have separate events. It is very needed, and very positive.”

Michigan State University has about 36 thousand undergraduate students, and 16.2 percent of them are people of color. The black ceremony at the university was founded in 2002. Mary Phillips helped organize it as a senior then, and is now the advisor for the African American celebratory at the university.

“It was extremely important to us to start this,” said Phillips. “Particularly as African-Americans to celebrate our academic success, it was immeasurable. I don’t think it was or is promoting separatism. It was about celebrating our community. We do a lot of African traditions that we have embraced and put in the black graduation- libations, induction and family.”

And at many schools now, it isn’t just black students who are celebrating their achievements. Many universities also have ceremonies or events during the graduation season for other minority groups on campus including Latino, Asian and LGBT students.

At UPenn, 40.8 percent of those accepted for admission to the Class of 2014 are Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American.The Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH) has a senior reception for students. It is an informal event that allows the UPenn PAACH staff who often become like family to meet the real families of their students who have been involved in various activities throughout the year.

The PAACH event is more personal than the school wide graduation, and the Pan-Asian students who decide to participate celebrate the space they have visited over the years where they shared and overcame their challenges.

“Students describe PAACH as home,” said Dr. June Chu, Director of PAACH. It speaks to acceptance at an institutional level, to have these opportunities.”

Joanna Wu, a graduating senior at UPenn is attending the ceremony and is looking forward to being rewarded and acknowledged by PAACH, the group she has worked diligently with over the past four years. She’s participated in peer mentoring for incoming Asian-American freshmen, has organized events for heritage week, and participated in the Pan Asian dance troupe.

“I have really had personal development in terms of understanding my racial identity, and I was really able to grow in terms of leadership, organizational, personal and professional skills,” said Wu. “Programs like PAACH allows for people to get involved and adds to their personal fulfillment.”

Aside from serving as a center for developing, Wu has several friends from working with PAACH over the years, and is looking forward to celebrating her graduation milestone with them.

But some see additional celebrations as a way of fragmenting the students on campuses.

William Prasifka, 20, is a junior and President of the Columbia University College Republicans. Earlier this year, he was a part of a debate surrounding “safe spaces” on Columbia’s campus – two lounge areas, one for black students and one for LGBT students.

Similar to his viewpoint on safe spaces, when it comes to the celebrations, Prasifka doesn’t have a problem with students gathering on their own, but he does not support the university subsidizing the graduations.

“With separate ceremonies, it almost says, you can come to our university, but it is not necessarily for you, and what you need is a some separate thing to make you feel welcomed,” said Prasifka. “It says that the only way we can make it up to you is to give you this other ceremony… you assign people into boxes, and that hurts a liberal academic environment. It is a very complicated issue.”

But for Ohio University sophomore Seyi Odunaiya, 20, it is about celebrating common ground.

“The majority here at Ohio is so huge, you kind of have to find where you fit in, and its nice to see other people who are going through what you are,” said Odunaiya. “People who plan the programming throughout the years, they’re saying, you have a support system here, we’re going to be here for you until the end, and they’ve really helped us throughout our four years, and we want to congratulate you.”

Karlene Burrell-Mcrae, Director of the Makuu Black Cultural Center at UPenn that puts on the black ceremony at UPenn says the ceremonies serve as a way to thank their students for their work and contributions, and honor the senior students.

Makuu has hosted the event for the nearly ten years, but black ceremonies at UPenn have existed for almost 25 years.

“This is a celebratory event,” said Burrell-Mcrae. “Students invite friends of all ethnicities. More schools need to do this, don’t shy away from finding wonderful ways to acknowledge students of color. There is still a challenge of being black at a predominantly white institution, and struggling to feel connected. Our students have significantly contributed to bettering our community, and we have to celebrate them.”

A celebration that some students look forward to from the moment they step on campus.

“I think it’s a great tradition,” said Crystalyn Thomas-Davis, an Ohio University senior. “I knew it existed when I was younger, and I was looking forward to it because I had upperclassmen friends and I went and supported them. You bring everyone together for the last hoorah, and recognize everyone in one last place.”