A Note on ‘Diversity’ at Columbia College Chicago

I was tagged to a Change.org petition from some of my former classmates and friends about our alma mater, Columbia College Chicago. Columbia is on the fast track to reducing diversity courses in the future.

I attended Columbia from August 2006 to December 2009 as a photo major/creative non fiction minor and I want to be very candid: diversity at Columbia is a fucking sham.

Now, Chicago itself is a diverse city, but it’s also the most segregated city in America. Columbia has an extremely diverse student body but why was I one of a few (maybe two, maybe three?) students of color in every single one of my classes for over three years? Sometimes, I was the only person of color, only black person, only black woman in my class.

Why?

The entire time I was at Columbia, I had ONE black female professor. One. The only other professor of color was also a women and gender studies professor and that class and that woman literally changed my life. I’ll tell you why: I took Psychology of Women midway through my second full semester of college. At the time I was taking writing classes and photo classes. One of the photo classes I took was a Documentary Photo I with Gina Grillo, who never learned my name even though I sat RIGHT NEXT to her for sixteen weeks AND mistook me for the ONLY OTHER BLACK GIRL in class, so while this bullshit was going on, here I was in this feminist studies class that was queer friendly, welcoming to people of color, and altogether challenging of white supremacy and privilege as it unfolded in Columbia and the city at large.

My professor, Maya Shewnarian, did not tolerate ignorance at all. She challenged all of us to think beyond what we’d been taught about ourselves as women, as men and unlike many of the professors I had encountered at Columbia, she did not let sly comments or microaggressions against students of color and queer students go unchallenged. She fought for us to claim our spaces, to take up space and to demand our perspectives be considered as important and vital to the growth and learning of those around us. That’s what inclusion does: give the marginalized room to be considered as important, as worthy.

I cannot tell you how frustrating my college career was because someone was always reminding me, in some way, that I wasn’t worthy. I felt isolated and lonely. I felt discouraged often. I felt like my life, my experiences were meaningless. My existence felt meaningless. I made work feeling like it would never matter because I didn’t see myself represented in my classes often enough, if ever. That class, waking up knowing I was going to be in a setting where my experiences, my voice, could not be ignored or brushed aside, got me through the rest of that semester. Learning how to speak up for myself as a person of color when Columbia professors weren’t upholding the college’s “commitment” to diversity, helped me to survive the next two years with some dignity and some fire.

But it’s telling to me that a majority of the people of color that I met who also attended Columbia occurred once I’d completed my studies at Columbia. We found one another and we all had the same complaints: Not enough representation of people of color within our fields of study, having to deal with racist professors AND classmates, feeling like the only one of whichever underrepresented group we belonged to. I don’t need to pull up a study to acknowledge the fact that classes that focus on diversity are often taught by women (including women of color and lbtq identified women). I also don’t need to point out how it helps students feel connected being taught by people who also share their personal experience or how it helps open the mind of students who don’t necessarily feel they have anything in common with their classmates and professors.

It changes things.

Diversity classes help fight against privilege and help dismantle white supremacy in our educational system. And if those terms and those words scare you, they should absolutely frighten you. If you don’t like these terms, too bad for you. I spent three years in college, eager to learn and share with the community of students I became a part of, only to have professors ignore me, attempt to fail me due to their biases, tell me that I wasn’t capable of creating the work that I was making (thus insinuating that I was cheating or being dishonest about the creation of my work), have students call me Nigger to my face or tell me that I had to be either from the South or Westside of Chicago because I was black, tell me I was being “too sensitive” while working at the Chronicle because the two men I worked with thought I was supposed to make and take calls and messages on their behalf, or be told that it wasn’t fair that a guy couldn’t submit work to a gallery dedicated to work created by women artists, or have teachers mistake me with other black students in their class because we are all fungible anyway.

That was my experience at Columbia College. That is what I am $24K+ in debt for.

THAT.

Reducing diversity classes at Columbia is damning and just more of the same. Diversity gets kids in the door, it gets money funneled into Columbia but what return do students get in the end? This world isn’t perfect and I never expected Columbia to be the Utopia of diversity and inclusivity we all want this country to be. I am realistic, however. And I am an artist, so I cannot sit by quietly when there are students whose well being is on the line, who’s potential will ultimately be stifled — if not strangled altogether — if these classes are reduced. Reduction is just the beginning. Sooner or later, these diversity classes will be eradicated altogether and then what’s next?

Create change. That’s our motto, right? How can you expect to grow artists who want to incite change, who want to challenge the status quo when the college itself is simply trying to uphold the status quo? Reducing diversity classes at Columbia could be fatal to the spirit of the college and it will certainly be fatal to the spirits of the voices of the marginalized students and professors who are working every day to create change.