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Black History Month kick off prompts conversations about race and identity

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On Feb. 1, students gathered in the Black Cultural Center to kick off Black History Month and talk about the experiences of black students at Swarthmore. The event was organized and led by Shiko Njorge ’21 and T. J. Thomas ’21 and covered topics such as what it means to be black, black representation in the media, and what Black History Month means to students.

The meeting began with a brief summary by Thomas about how Black History Month was created.

In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson pioneered Negro History Week because he felt that black individuals and their accomplishments were not recognized. Negro History Week was the second week of February, purposely coinciding with both Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays. It wasn’t until 1970, however, that Black United Students at Kent State University proposed an entire month devoted to black history. Six years later, in 1976, Black History Month was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford.

After an introduction about the history of Black History Month, Thomas led the conversation by asking  students the question ‘What is blackness?’.

Maleya Peterson ’21 shared her experience growing up in predominantly black area in Brooklyn.

“I got the nickname ‘the whitest black girl,’” Peterson said. “I think that people thought that knowing how to express myself clearly and appearing eloquent made me ‘white.’”

Another student, Paul Buchanan ’21, talked more about the effects of these stereotypes and how he sees blackness.

“I think that blackness is something that is defined individually by black people. When people try to put black people in a box, they try to rob someone of their comfort in their black identity,” Buchanan said. “This creates a tendency to conflate success with whiteness. Success shouldn’t be just seen as whiteness.”

The conversation then shifted to perceptions of blackness on Swarthmore’s campus.

Peterson talked about how she felt the need to code-switch, or to change the way she expresses herself according to her setting, at Swarthmore.

“It feels like I’m a whole different person here than when I’m at home. I’m scared that people will judge me as ‘just another black girl,’” Peterson said. “I try hard to hide certain parts of my personality when I’m here.”

By contrast, Brie Dinkins ’21 expressed that she felt a stronger need to code-switch at her predominantly white private high school than at Swarthmore.

“I had never really fully embraced myself [in high school],” Dinkins said. “Now I’m starting to see people [at Swarthmore] that look like me and am finding spaces where I belong.”

At Swarthmore, black students make up 6 percent of the student population. Some students conveyed dissatisfaction with the size of the black community on campus. Buchanan shared that he had initially been excited by the diversity offered at Swarthmore but was disappointed when he found out about how few black students there were on campus.

“Most of the schools I was looking at were majority white,” Buchanan said. “I came here and I saw that there weren’t as many black people as I thought there were. It’s been an adjustment to reckon with that.”

Despite Swarthmore’s small black community, Buchanan believes that it’s important for black students to attend schools like Swarthmore.

“I think that it’s important for black people to go to predominantly white institutions and show that black people are just as capable as others,” Buchanan said. “6 percent is not what I want to look at when I leave. I want that percentage [of black people at Swarthmore] to be higher.”

According to Buchanan, it’s the administration’s responsibility to expand their reach and make schools like Swarthmore more accessible to black students.

“I think that if Swarthmore were to expand their reach to different areas of the U.S. we would get a lot more interested black students,” Buchanan said.

To wrap up the conversation, students talked about the representation of black people in the media.

Pempho Moyo ’21 believes that the few opportunities in Hollywood for black actors and actresses leads to better performances from them.

“If you put black people in movies, they’re going to thrive because there aren’t opportunities for us to be represented, “ Moyo said. “When you have a majority black cast and a history of not being represented, they’re not going to give 100 percent, they’re going to give 150 percent.”

The conversation moved onto the representation of black people in the media.

Buchanan shared his own thoughts on how black representation can be problematic.

“My big issue with tokenism is that it puts one black person on a pedestal. It makes that one person represent the whole black community,” Buchanan said.

The conversation on Monday was just the beginning of a string of events held throughout February for Black History Month. In the upcoming days and weeks, there will be movie screenings of “Pariah,” “Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” a poetry reading by Dr. Eve L. Ewing, talks about Queer African Studies, the relationship between African Americans and Quakers, and queerness in the black community. The Black Love Formal will then be held at the end of the month.

The Politics of the Grocery Store Utopia

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Think about your local grocery store. It could be some independent seller, a Vons, Trader Joe’s, or even the Swarthmore Co-op. You probably can easily conjure images of its glossy, white-tiled, hyper-compartmentalized aisles, denoted by a celestial numbered sign, suspended in fluorescent skies.

Envision yourself mindlessly Pac-manning about the aisles to your desired product — Aisle 1 for PopTarts, three modules to the right to Aisle 4 for Popchips — programmed like a cog in a machine in what is probably one of the most desperate expressions of capitalist zeal.

Utopian conceptions of the grocery store regime derive just from this, the ease and simplicity of navigating about these pathways. In deconstructing the biology of your local grocery store, in parceling the nodes of its hyper-rationalized, operationalized organs, you probably don’t really stop to consider how there is a Fordist framework at play, an attempt to achieve utopian systematic efficiency with every “Breads” or “Ice Cream” delineation. Not here to be the girl who screams “CAPITALISM” but, CAPITALISM.

Ok, pero like, this is a column on how you grapple with the intangibility of multi-racialness in contemporary power monopolies, and as much as we love to play the capitalist blame-game, what do grocery stores have to do with race?

I was at a friendly neighborhood Whole Foods in Tucson, Arizona over spring break. My friend was looking for coconut milk (@TheCityofLosAngeles) and I was aimlessly meandering into Aisle 4: “Flour/Sugar,” “Baking Mixes and Oils,” “Pie Crusts” (Yes, just the crusts), “Cereal,” and other mundane food items were featured in this aisle. However, as I walked closer to the illuminated number four towering from its seat in the heavens, I took note of a category I had never seen before: “Hispanic Foods.”

Now honestly, I should be thanking Whole Foods for satisfying my Hispanic palate — after all, the coconut milk was becoming too commonplace for my leche likings. The “Hispanic Foods” section housed all of my Chilean fancies: black beans, tortillas, Cholula and pan dulce, even though conchas in Chile are actual shells, not sugary pastries.

And that was it, with one swift, technocratic strike, Whole Foods had reduced the entirety of the Spain-related and Spanish-speaking world to a 5-foot long section of Aisle 4 in the only Whole Foods in Tucson, Arizona.

According to Food Marketing Institute’s count in 2005, Hispanic consumers spent more on groceries than average U.S. consumers: an average of $133 per week per household versus $91. Doesn’t it make more fiscal sense to streamline the grocery market process and provide these consumers their own food niche, even it if it offshoots further minoritization? A system that assumes that Cholula is the ethnic iteration of hot sauce and tortillas are just exoticized white bread?

“I think there is an increase in appetite across the board for more international experiences, particularly in Hispanic grocery,” said Stephen Palacios, executive vice president at consulting company Cheskin Added Value. “The ethnic-specific aisle is eventually going to evolve into everybody’s aisle.”


What disturbs me in this grocery store utopia is not how management fails to realize an integrative social landscape in the American public, not how “Hispanic” merely delineates a historical link to a major imperialist power, but mostly how we were placed right next to the “Pie Crusts” and not the “Asian Foods” niche in Aisle 6.  

Handling of missing D.C. girls cases exposes racist tendencies, sparks national dialogue

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In the past two weeks, ten children of color have gone missing in Washington, DC. The fact that this story is not consistently making national headlines reaffirms the existence of discriminatory racial biases, both implicit and explicit, perniciously permeating into the way institutions operate, specifically with respect to crises.

The Associated Press reports that D.C.’s recent missing person cases “at first garnered very little media attention.” In response to lack of coverage, on March 23, a local resident posted on Instagram claiming 14 Black teenage girls were reported missing in D.C. in 24 hours. Although that statistic was proven to be false, and I in no way support the dissemination of fake news, this post, as Colin Dwyer of NPR notes, it was the reason people began to treat this situation with the gravity it warrants. The post sparked a much-needed conversation about the disparities with respect to race present within the way in which missing people are perceived in this country based on their race.

It was not until this past Friday that Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a statement promising the city will dedicate more resources to finding these girls. These resources include augmenting the number of police officers assigned to the cases and creating a task force that will help identify social services from which teenagers could benefit. The social services aim to stabilize components of the teens’ home lives that could potentially be driving them to run away.

But even this response—the Mayor’s presumptive classification of these girls as runaways—is problematic. As Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness surrounding missing persons of color, expresses in her USA Today interview, “A lot of African American children that go missing are initially classified as runaways.” This, Wilson professes, prevents them from receiving “Amber Alert or media coverage.”
According to an Associated Press report, last week, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond and D.C.’s nonvoting congressional representative delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote to FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting an increase in resources allocated towards investigating this spike in disappearances.

Instead, yesterday afternoon, the FBI released a statement promising a reward of up to $25,000 to anyone with information concerning the whereabouts of Amy Lynn Bradley—a missing white woman from Virginia who was last seen on a cruise ship in 1998.

Although action with respect to any missing person case should be regarded in a positive light, that the FBI is doing more to find a woman who has been missing for 19 years than they are for ten children of color who have been missing for less than two weeks— and are therefore far more likely to still be alive points— to the prominence of what is commonly known as “Missing White Girl Syndrome.”
Sarah Stillman’s essay “The Missing White Girl Syndrome’: Disappeared Women and Media Activism” identifies this term as “an oft discussed phenomenon among scholars and journalists: how the media is more likely to mine a sympathetic response from a white woman’s disappearance than the disappearance of a person of color.” Replace flaxen curls with ivory braids and the urgency these cases require handled vanishes.

On the website known as “The Missing,” a database of missing individuals in New York, an aggregate of stories published under the umbrella title “Race and Gender: Media Bias in Coverage of Missing Persons” further fleshes out this phenomenon.

Heather Hodges, 22, and Sage Smith, 19, were both reported missing in Virginia in 2012. Hodges was white and cisgender while Smith was a black, transgender woman. Hodge’s disappearance was covered by local, national, and international news networks. Information on her case was reported up to three years after she went missing.

Meanwhile, Smith received little media attention; only the Huffington Post along with GLADD, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, published anything about her case.

These racial biases exist within the transgender community as well. According to Trans People of Color Coalition Executive Director Kylar Broadus, “A white trans person is far more likely to get press than a trans person of color. When they go missing or when they die, it becomes a public debate and there are conversations all over the States.”

America’s inclination to toss aside morals when it comes to people of color, specifically Black girls, is deeply entrenched within our history and manifests itself in various factors and theories, one being the criminalization of Black girls in schools. As defined in Melinda D. Anderson’s piece in “The Atlantic,” “The Black Girl Pushout,” “Society’s deeply entrenched expectations of black girls—influenced by racism and patriarchy—has led to a ritual whereby these young women are often mischaracterized and mislabeled because of how they look, dress, speak, and act. In short, black girls are devalued based on how others perceive them.”

It is this devaluation that could be one of the contributing factors to the implicit nature of Americans to care less when the missing little girl is not white. In a polarized, and, in many ways, racially divided city such as Washington D.C., this can be especially harmful. The criminalization of Black girls institutionalized through schools combined with the District’s inherent divisions has socialized us into implicitly internalizing the discriminatory biases on top of those preexisting, external ones within our governmental, legal, and policing institutions, causing staggering disparities within the communal responses to seemingly identical cases.

When someone you know goes missing, the feeling is an icy, gut-wrenching emptiness that will dissipate with time but will never completely disappear. Closure is critical; until the person, or their body, is found, nobody knows what to think or how to feel or even for what they should hope. Those charged with our protection doing anything but everything they can to find someone who is missing, or caring less because that person happens to be Black or Brown, is unforgivable.

Global Citizenship in the Humanitarian Aid Regime

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As a catastrophe-based project, humanitarian aid in post-conflict settings is a tactful, transnational pursuit. To justify humanitarian impulses, I have heard many invoke racist images of downtrodden shantytowns of the Global South in crisis, reaching at the charitable hands of the White Savior, only to disguise this structural inscription of Orientalism as “philanthropy.”

I, myself, have grappled with the politics of humanitarianism and international aid, and while ostensibly it is a commitment to human development across geopolitics, I wonder how it may reinforce a reliance on Western markets, effectively undercutting local industries through the monetization of American goods. And on a more interpersonal level, how may it encourage a projection of the Western logos, effectively undercutting the potential of local strengths and capacities?

If we expand the dynamics of these oppressive idiosyncrasies to include all places in crisis, how do we determine who is given priority, i.e. who is able to induce a more “urgent” state of emergency?


The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs implemented a specialized digital service, ReliefWeb, to serve as a resource to document global crises and disasters. ReliefWeb lists over 3,000 participating organizations (both governmental and nongovernmental), from 305.org to the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society.


Some time ago, I would have looked at this figure and invoked Derek Gregory, who calls humanitarian aid the “velvet glove wrapped around the iron fist of colonialism.” If the practice of humanitarianism emerged in a Christian and Western ethos, per Gregory, how would a robust aid network of this magnitude reconcile humanitarian impulses and the legacy of colonialism?


In my efforts to problematize humanitarianism, historicity places a critical role in examining the foreign aid paradox. In regions where colonial etchings are still embedded within local psyches, most notably countries in the African region, humanitarian aid can be envisioned as an extension of the imperial hand, reinforcing the notion that there is one solution to development, one means of relief, one standard to rebuild a fractured state.


I looked at a case study to further understand these implications.


The U.S. African Development Foundation is an independent U.S. federal agency that works with African communities to cultivate community enterprises by providing seed capital and technical support. It targets communities in fragile states, typically post-conflict sites, throughout the Sahel, Horn, and the Great Lakes region.


By serving communities at the start of the development pyramid, we identify and target Africans who need various levels of support, and use our targeted and patient capital to ensure a complete financial, technical and grassroots approach to their success,” the USADF website reads.


“Targeted and patient capital,” of course, is expressed as monetary grants. The USADF invests in grants of up to $250,000 to underserved community enterprises to sustain job markets, improve income, and alleviate food insecurity.


However, in the teleology out of the armed conflict, post-conflict sites have especially fragile security apparatuses, nascent economic systems, and weak political institutionalism. These vulnerabilities make the state especially susceptible to and dependent upon foreign influence. Assets as innocent as “targeted and patient capital” could have serious repercussions for the longevity and sustainability of state infrastructure.


In her book “Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace Or War,” Mary Anderson challenges aid providers in war-torn societies. She mentions the problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the aftermath of the Dayton Peace Agreement. As convoys halted, local drivers delivered imported food and supplies to civilians across the country. While superficially a “peacetime” occupation, this aid system is underpinned by the “wartime” experience.


“Driving the aid convoys during the war was dangerous, but this seems like nothing next to the dangers of peace,” one driver reports, per Anderson. “Not only my immediate family but also my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins depend on my income. I almost dread this peace and wish for war again.”


“War distorts economies,” Anderson opens in her chapter on aid’s impact in resource transfers. This could be by unintentionally reinforcing the conflict at hand by promoting war economy markets and reinforcing local interests to perpetuate it. In the event that aid takes the form of material items and goods, like in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it can inadvertently support militarization efforts because an industry emerges around that product.


Within this industry, profits and wages must be allocated to local peoples, which undermines the emphasis on local peoples to sustain their own facilities and goods when the aid agency leaves. This creates a system of dependency on the aid agency to bolster local economies solely as a war-related enterprise. In essence, state viability and efficacy is understood solely as a function of its “post-war” status.


The USADF provides programming safeguards to ameliorate these unintended consequences. Firstly, it establishes itself as the “first mile of development,” reinforcing the stance that they are not the telos, but just one point in the teleology of state development. Secondly, they are exclusively “demand driven,” operating solely upon request, and “African-led,” providing financial support and setting internal audits for specialized projects.


Foreign aid agencies should adjust their programming efforts to empower local groups to build their own industries. This means that in order to ensure sustainable peace outside of the war context, recipient countries should be able to sustain economic activities in the agency’s absence by relying on local capacities and what resources are directly available to them.


Similarly, a strategic emphasis on technical assistance over material resource aid could also be more sustainable. For example, in the case of the driver in Bosnia and Herzegovina, aid was a disruption, distorting the normative means of local help systems and imposing a “dangerous” alternative to the war-time scenario that makes peacetime unfavorable.


It is important to be critical of humanitarian aid projects, especially when facilitated by foreign actors, to reimagine state membership as global citizens. Peace can be engineered, but a central feature of international aid should be influence building to find consonance between belief and practice — for foreign agencies to be transparent about interests, vigilantly demonstrate their neutrality, and denaturalize their infatuation with global leadership.


However, this is not meant to discredit the contributions governmental and nongovernmnetal organizations have taken to provide in the post-conflict setting — I pose a formalized rejection of professionalized humanitarian practices that discount the public artworks of local communities; I challenge the standardization of relief aid that assume an “apolitical” edge. Ahistoricization of this sort assigns legitimacy to certain narratives and denigrates that of the alterity.

Shifting narratives: a conversation on justice with Bryan Stevenson

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  • JR-3-min.jpg
    Woodley, Stevenson, and Reeves make their way to the reception dinner.
  • JR-2-min.jpg
    Stevenson meeting John.
  • JR-min.jpg
    A token of thanks: Reeves gifts a Miles Davis album to Stevenson.

“My mom just texted me to make sure that I tell you she saw you on “60 Minutes,” and she says thank you for helping Mr. Hinton,” I laughed to Mr. Bryan Stevenson as we waited for sound check to begin. He smiled and called her all too kind, with a humble softness that surprised me.

The man in front of me is arguably one of the most important criminal justice advocates of the moment. As the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson works daily to eliminate unfair and excessive sentencing, exonerate death row prisoners, and shine light on inmate abuse, including abuse of juveniles and the mentally ill. He recently won a critical ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, which deems mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger unconstitutional.

Ray Hinton, the man my mom excitedly texted about, recently served 30 years in prison on death row for a crime that he did not commit. Today Hinton is free because Stevenson fought tirelessly for justice as his lead attorney for 16 years.

And now he is here at Swarthmore. According to scholar in residence Arto Woodley, the planning process to bring Stevenson to campus has been in the works for about two years. Ben Roebuck ’17 is credited with the initial vision, and the organizing itself was a collaborative effort of Woodley, the President’s Office, Maurice Eldridge ’61, Executive Director of the Lang Center Ben Berger, and Keith Reeves, Professor and Chair Political Science and Faculty Director of the Urban Inequalities and Incarceration Program. The work hasn’t stopped with them. The Black Cultural Center, Lang Performing Arts team, Communications, Media Services, Public Safety, the Bookstore, and the Inn at Swarthmore all labored to make today flawless. Woodley particularly connects the significance of Stevenson’s visit with Reeves’s work in incarceration, research with the Chester Community Charter School on the impact of children who have an incarcerated family member or parent, and with Swarthmore Black Alumni Urban Fellowships to connect students to research and learning opportunities in the field. Through this engaged scholarship approach, there is hope to foster opportunities for deep learning, grounded action, and social change.

As for myself, Stevenson is a long time hero of mine, and so I walked into our interview with a great sense of honor, wondering if I will be able to get anything out besides admiration. I also wondered if it will feel like I’m listening to a famous TED-talker who’s been watched by over 4 million people. It did.

Stevenson and I first spoke about about his critically acclaimed memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”  I spent last semester in an Inside-Out style class called Urban Crime and Punishment, facilitated by Professor Nina Johnson and Philadelphia Programs coordinator Kristi Polizzano,  hosted in nearby Chester State Prison. Half of my classmates are “outsiders” or current college students and half are “insiders” or current inmates. Here, Just Mercy was on our reading list.

I had read the memoir in the past, but the context added unforeseen dimensions. We were in a prison, it was during the election season, and, on a personal level, someone who is near to my heart and had been struggling recently ended up in this system of pain and confusion. The concept of mercy took on a whole new meaning.

A central theme of the read is a commitment to understanding that none of us are the worst thing we’ve ever done. An inside classmate of mine brought up a revelation that would stick with us all. Opening up, he admitted that there were stories of injustice and abuse that made him put the book down and cry. However, he found it more important to recognize which individuals he did not find himself crying for.

“Why do we automatically humanize some people more easily than others?” I asked Stevenson, somewhat rhetorically. “More importantly, how can people actively work towards embracing mercy for everyone equally?”

He paused from autographing the stack of “Just Mercy” copies in front of him, many of which will be given back to incarcerated members of our Inside-Out classes.

“Well I think that’s the thing I’ve been most burdened by during my career,” Stevenson admitted.

“… when I leave the prison or the jail, and when I go into the courtroom I hear people talking about ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers’ and ‘robbers’ and’ ‘drug dealers’… as if these are the only words you need to understand that person, and what their value is, and what the appropriate punishment is.”

“When you reduce people to these labels, it makes it very easy to be hostile and punitive and harsh,” he explained. “You’re not being honest if you only focus on that one moment when something violent happens and [not] all the moments that lead up to that, and all the moments that follow that.”

The work starts with getting people to see that there is always a larger story, even when someone does something bad or violent. He admitted that it is indeed easier to identify and sympathize with folks who have done nothing wrong, most notably children. However, our sympathy must extend even to those who we feel are most unworthy of it. Stevenson appreciated my use of the concept “radical humanization” to process this sentiment, a term coined by our very own Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan.

“I’m in more of a role as a prosecutor … I want to indict our country for its silence on this history: the fact that we have enslaved people with very little accountability, or lynching, or segregation. But I want to do it with an awareness shaped by my criminal justice work, which is that we’re not just a ‘genocide nation’ or ‘slave nation,’” Stevenson said.

He draws a powerful analogy between our nation and our nation’s many prisoners.

“Nobody gets out of prison or on parole without showing signs of remorse and acknowledgement. I do ultimately want liberation [for this country] rather than just punishment,” he said with firm kindness.

To my fascination, Stevenson describes his subversive interest in increasing our collective shame as a tool for societal progress.

“One of the challenges in this country is that we’ve become such a punitive society. We don’t feel comfortable acknowledging our mistakes because we fear the punishment that comes with wrongdoing,” he said.

“What we do to people in our jails and prisons is frequently shameful. If we experience that shame, if we recognize that shame, it’ll motivate us to do better. Shame is not a bad experience, it’s not a bad motive, it’s not a bad consciousness … if it leads to something restorative, redemptive.”

“Children are obviously an important part of your work. Right now in Philadelphia, advocates are working to overturn Act 33, which was a 1996 amendment to the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act …” I began.

Act 33 says that children under the age of 18 are to be automatically tried as adults and placed in adult facilities if they’re accused of a violent crime. I recently learned about this unusual, “tough-on-crime” era legislation from Philadelphia’s Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project. In some instances under this act, children, who often cannot afford bail, will sit in holding cells for years before their case moves to trial. And this is without even being convicted of a crime. In this political climate, how do we go about changing these dangerous laws and norms?

“I think we have to change the narratives that gave rise to those policies,” Stevenson nodded. “We let people come through our country, and say that some kids aren’t kids, and we allowed [them] to label these children as ‘superpredators’. So if you’re making policies for ‘superpredators,’ its very easy to say put them in adult jails and prisons and treat them like the worst of the worst.”

But that whole notion of a superpredator is a lie, originating in the “tough-on-crime” political discourse of the 1990s. “It’s actually kind of a racially influenced lie,” Stevenson acknowledged. “We’ve got to get people to confront that and understand that. And once we do, we have to make a new commitment to children.”

We discuss the current state of education: how our commitment to children is formally measured by how we treat privileged children. Stevenson advocates that we radicalize education through reorientation: we must first look at how we treat the children who are dealing with trauma and abuse, neglect and poverty.

“I want the Department of Education to make suspension rates and expulsion rates one of the key metrics of whether a school is good or bad [as opposed to the current metrics of test scores and performances]. Because if you suspend a lot of students and you expel a lot of students … that means you’re failing some of the children who most desperately need education as a mechanism for changing outcomes.”

I was reminded of a recent presentation by Princeton University Professor Ruha Benjamin, who specializes in the very-interdisciplinary study of science, medicine, biotechnology, race-ethnicity and gender, health, and biopolitics. She demonstrated that if you type in the word “underserved” and then the word “overserved” into Microsoft Word, one of the words will appear with a red line under it. You can guess which one, and what that says about how we accept some communities as problematic and others as natural.

In terms of the concrete challenges marginalized students face, Stevenson says that they are in some ways greater than they’ve ever been.

“I had to deal with segregation as a child, but I didn’t have to deal with a school system that was determined to criminalize me and demonize me,” he said.

Conscious of time, I know that there is one last question I need to ask him. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ultimately wanting America not to become post-racial, but to become post-racist.

“[Ta-Nehisi] Coates articulates this as ‘we should not seek a world where the black race and the white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning.’” I invited Stevenson to comment on his colleague’s vision and how realistic is it that we’ll one day reach a point where such racial terms are essentially apolitical.

“I agree that the objective is to not eliminate racial difference or diversity, but to make it not meaningful in a ways that burdens some and benefits others,” he explained.

“You should be able to live in a world where … if you have a son, you feel great. If you have a daughter you feel great. If your child is black you feel great, if your child is white, if your child is brown … we don’t live in a world like that. There are preferences and challenges that you’re going to have to meet and overcome. As long as that’s true, none of us can really claim to be free,” Stevenson said. This invokes for me a sentiment reminiscent of late voting rights activist, Fannie Lou Hammer: “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

The logic here is compelling. If you have something that you didn’t earn, while you’re standing to next to somebody that doesn’t have anything and who is suffering, it should implicate your ability to enjoy what you have. You’re burdened by that (“if you’re a human being with decency and compassion” Stevenson clarified, but with the optimism that most human beings indeed are.)

“So we all have an interest in creating that world. And I do think it’s achievable,” Stevenson encouraged.  “We’ve seen narratives shift. We just have to see on this issue.”

Domestic violence seems to serve as one such case of shifting narratives. Fifty years ago, we did not as a society value the victims of domestic violence like we do today. We gave voices to women who are suffering, we began to recognize how they’re not responsible for the violence they receive; all of which serves as powerful evidence for the capacity to change. Stevenson argues that we have to become the same way when it comes to race and racial equity.

At the end of our conversation, Stevenson thanked me for taking the time to interview him. I cannot overstate his genuine humbleness.

In the all-too impressive company of Reeves, Stevenson, and Woodley, we made our way to the Inn at Swarthmore, where I joined former classmates, local community advocates, and others involved in Stevenson’s campus visit. Here, we’re hosting a dinner in Stevenson’s honor.

I was greeting others when I notice an older a man with a pink shirt and glasses, smiling brightly and laughing with some friends of mine. As I’m introduced to him and shake his hand, a strange sense of familiarity comes over me.

“Where do I know you from?” I immediately ask.

“You look familiar too,” the man beamed.

A few months ago, I had participated in a think-tank style workshop hosted in Graterford State Prison, where insiders and outsiders came together to discuss juvenile justice. John* was a juvenile lifer, meaning that the state had intended for him to serve his life in prison for a crime he committed as an adolescent.

After decades of waiting, John was released from prison two weeks ago. And now here we were — together on the outside — celebrating the work of Stevenson and those like him.

After dinner, we returned to campus to find hundreds of people eagerly awaiting the main event: Stevenson’s talk to the community. The hour of storytelling left many of us feeling as inspired as ever to do our part in the collective struggle against excessive punishment, mass incarceration, and racial inequality … all while keeping mercy at the forefront.  

“His lecture was a perfect capstone to Black History Month because of his work with injustice in the U.S. of incarceration and Swarthmore College’s tie to that same phenomena,” Woodley explained. “[He] reminds us that this country still struggles with recognizing and dignifying the humanity of people, with people of color and especially African Americans. The injustice in the system of incarceration is a proxy for the larger societal challenge America has yet to conquer.”

While it’s impossible to share all of Stevenson’s insights, I find it important to reiterate the four solutions he offered to our legacy of injustice and inequality. First is to “get proximate” to the communities most in need. Second, as mentioned earlier, is to change the narratives that sustain unjust practices and policies. His third solution is to stay hopeful as a form of power. Finally, Stevenson dares us all to make the conscious decision, to become more comfortable with doing uncomfortable things for a greater good.

He speaks of great losses and wins. From heartbreaking goodbyes with clients who are executed, to the feeling of purpose when he’s able to walk a client to freedom. We responded with tears and standing ovations, even from those of us who had heard many of the stories shared before (myself included).

“What is it about us [as a society] that we want to kill all the broken people?” Stevenson finally asks the audience, invoking the sense of desperation needed to address this reality.

“I do what I do because I’m broken too, but there’s a power in brokenness.”

Go See Hidden Figures

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I do not pretend to be a film critic, but what I do know is that “Hidden Figures” is the movie the entirety of America needs to go see right now.

The story centers around Katherine Goble — married name Katherine Johnson — Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, three Black, female mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race. At the time, the Langley Research Center was racially segregated and a highly sexist workplace. The three women are initially employed as “human computers,” tasked with calculating launch and landing trajectories for all rockets sent up into the atmosphere. However, due to their exceptional minds and tireless ability to push past the seemingly interminable layers of discrimination, each woman worked her way to transcend the occupation of a calculator and used her brilliant analytical mind to become an integral, invaluable component of the organization’s success.

In the film, we see the protagonists bombarded with horridly intentional discrimination from all sides. Dorothy is continuously disrespected by white, female counterparts in the East Computing Group. Katherine is forced to run for miles just to use the restroom because the one near her desk is reserved exclusively for whites, Mary must appeal to a judge in order to take classes at an all-white school to become an engineer, Dorothy is thrown out of her local public library by police officers because she was searching for a programming book in the white-only section.

“Hidden Figures” brings to light the innumerable, explicit, and overt elements of discrimination women and minorities experienced working as mathematicians, programmers, and engineers. While we have come a long way from the days where Jim Crow reigned legally supreme and there existed no protocol for women attending Pentagon Briefings, remnants of that time still linger and can be seen quite clearly in the severe lack of women and minorities in the majority of professional STEM fields.

One of the main implicit biases found against both women and minorities in STEM fields is the lack of role models and historical figures who look like them. My calculus classes continuously reference a series of white men — Euler, Pythagoras, Lagrange, L’hopital — who made various advancements in fields relating to integral calculus. I have never been in a math class where the teacher mentioned the name of a famous Black mathematician or one who was female.

Though the discoveries of the men listed above may have been relevant to the lesson, only mentioning white, male names sends the message to the subconscious of females and people of color that we are lacking some instrumental intuition necessary for the acquisition of a great mathematical mind. In the same light, the fact that I and so many others had no idea Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary existed until watching a movie made decades after they changed the world is problematic and extremely unsettling. Simply shedding light on the existence of diverse mathematicians will help derail this implicit bias.

In some ways, Swarthmore works hard to counteract biases such as these. Bulletin boards featuring women and minorities in various STEM fields grace nearly every department hall of the Science Center, and my Linear Algebra Professor Alexander Diaz-Lopez from last semester, continuously reminded the class that none of us should ever be afraid of pursuing our passions, even if those passions lie within in a field where we don’t see a lot of people who look like us.

Recognizing the importance of “Hidden Figures,” Swarthmore has provided students with multiple opportunities to view the film, including a free, Friday night screening in Trotter and free tickets for our college’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. Additionally, this past Wednesday, the Women’s Resource Center held an event titled Majorly Underrepresented, which was a dinner and panel featuring students who are underrepresented in their respective fields.

Yet, while the movie’s lessons are some that Swat has been trying to implement, it also exposes some faults within our own STEM programs. As much as Swarthmore does to counteract implicit biases in STEM fields, the school does reflect a percolation of some issues “Hidden Figures” illuminates. Take our own engineering professors: there is only one woman and one person of color in the entire department. The rest are white men.   

With regards to the impending Academy Awards, like I said before, I am neither a film critic nor a self-proclaimed cinematic expert. I do strongly believe, however, that this movie should win because it is an empowering story told through a beautiful piece of art. Whether the experts will concur with this assessment, I have no idea.

With respect to box office results, Theodore Melfi’s masterpiece has achieved impressive numbers, earning $144.2 million so far. “Hidden Figures” has the grossed the most to date domestically out of any Oscar contender, surpassing even incoming favorite “La La Land” with. But after two years of #allWhiteOscars, nothing is a guarantee.

Personally, I found the film to be extremely impressive on all fronts. Performers beautifully executed their characters, and the seamless progression of the story was well supplemented with entertaining background music. But most importantly, it unearths a story that has the power to influence children who love numbers, who are sitting in math class wondering why none of the famous mathematicians look anything like them.

Yet the movie’s most noteworthy point is its ability to achieve a feat natural science teachers, professors, and organizations across the country have been failing at for so long. This intricately crafted piece provides those who are severely underrepresented in computational fields that people like them can and have historically achieved excellence. And if that isn’t greatness — cinematic or otherwise — I don’t know what is.

Browning America: Into the alterity of mestizxs

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In the colonial lexicon of Latin America during the 19th century, mestizos were perceived as subordinate iterations of the white, European self. This class in the caste system consisted of people of mixed Spanish and indigena lineage, occupying the intermediate space of colonial society: not white enough, not brown enough.  

Mestizaje describes this process of interracial mixing and its cultural entanglements. By 1825, mixed bloods constituted 28.3% of Spanish America, according to Pew Research Center, and continued to threaten Spanish sovereignty.

Out of the precepts of colonial Latin America, however, mestizaje became less of a cry for assimilationism and more of a call for unification. It was instrumental to the new, Latin American states as a nation-building ideology to reject subaltern constructions of the colonial caste system and invigorate new diverse, social realities.

All history lessons aside, the concept of mestizaje has shifted once more in the contemporary era, evolving to be more than just a function of the state. It has become a social movement that has generated complex aesthetic dynamics and the recombination of structural realities.

This holds true even in the United States; according to another study by the Pew Research Center in 2008, 1 in 7 new marriages in the US were between two spouses of different races or ethnicities. Not only is this kind of relationship becoming more common, but also more normalized. In another study, Pew found that as of 2009, 83% of millennials approved of interracial dating.

And while the growing prevalence and acceptance of mestizaje shows prospects for changing social norms, mestizxs, or multiracial peoples, face new psychological conundrums. Here, we depart into the alterity of the contemporary mestizxs.

“I am not 100% anything.”

This is what Jordan Reyes ‘19 said to support his multiracial identity. With a mother from El Salvador and a father from California, Reyes was raised with an array of cultural influences. I asked him how he was able to reconcile his diverse racial and cultural origins.

“It’s hard to do so because I didn’t have a lot of El Salvadorian influence growing up. More than anything I had a lot of Cuban and Islander influences growing up,” he explained. “We lived in Miami for a couple years which is a highly Cuban area.”

For Reyes, he parallels his disconnect with his Salvadorian identity with his detachment from the cultural “aesthetics.”

“I can point out more aspects of my Mexican cultural identity; things like food, music, dance, history, art. I just don’t really know what makes up my El Salvadorian identity,” he said.

In confronting his multiracialness, Reyes finds that his challenges primarily manifest in linguistic barriers.

“Spanish was my first language, but after my mom came to this country, she was harassed a lot for not speaking English properly — she thought it was really important for her children to know English and to speak it without an accent. I was thrown into English classes from the get go,” he said. “After that, I kind of stopped speaking Spanish altogether.”

Growing up, he was targeted as being “not Mexican enough” for abandoning his Spanish proficiency. He saw the legitimacy of his identity begin to dissipate.

“You are not legitimately Mexican, you are not legitimately El Salvadorian, you don’t have a legitimate Latinx identity,” he said, echoing the sentiments of his childhood friends. “Yeah, I am El Salvadorian; yeah, I am Mexican. I take pride in both of them. I remember feeling like I always stuck out from my Mexican friends at home because I knew a lot about salsa and merengue and other cultural aesthetics.”

Similarly, he grapples with the idea of a “legitimate” cultural or racial identity in itself. Is there a set criterion that delineates inherent “Mexicanness” and “El Salvadorianness?” In what ways does this criterion manifest itself?

“Thinking about legitimacy in terms of who you are and what you are: does knowing more make you more?” he questions.

“Speak Spanish? Check. Have brown skin? Check.”

From Reyes’ experiences with his own interracial complexity, we see that interracial mixing describes more than just the hybridization of cultural practices and fusion of disparate communities. It describes the psychic status of the multiracial person, grappling with contending narratives.

“We are not exactly what used to be, and we are not exactly what is here now. There is growing consciousness of an ‘other’ and recognizing that I am that ‘other,’” he said.

While terms like mestizxs and mestizaje are entrapped in colonial vocabulary, in the contemporary era, the alterity of the mestizo class persists, even in the United States. Its story is fraught with visceral fears of displacement because of their failure to conform to either extremity of their racial and cultural identities.

“What am I? I don’t know.”

Browning America: The New Dialectic of US Citizenship

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My parents used to call me a “Chipper,” much like the homespun terms “Blackanese” or “Korgentinian,” except for a half-Chilean, half-Persian. It was not only a testament to my complex cultural and racial origins, but my brownness: caramel skin burnt by the LA sun, bouncy curls dipped into cafecito, and sepia eyes sprinkled with sabzi.

My first confrontation with colorism and discomfort with my brownness was the first time that my brown body became a vessel. It is truly an intimate form of violence unlike any psychosocial stressor when you feel so viscerally detached from the body that carries you. These feelings of visceral detachment only heightened in the wake of the Trump election.

Now more than ever, the growing ethnic, racial, religious, and linguistic diversity generated by transnationalism, migration and interracial mixing has incited fierce discourse over national identity and social cohesion. Trumpism, a movement built upon deep-seated anxieties toward a browning America, was a cry for the reversion to a 20th century industrialized capitalist society that attempted to combat these sorts of demographic changes.

In the classical sense, Trump rejected the paragon of conservatism. What made him attractive to the American electorate was his authoritarian inclinations that privileged normative practices by rewarding conformity and punishing deviation. His “us vs. them” rhetoric and strong, uncompromising demeanor appealed to many in the white, rural working class; people who had a psychological need for epistemic certainty amidst an increasingly globalized landscape. This insistence on sameness in rural white America only reinforces the institutionalized rejection of difference.

As a multiracial amalgam and the product of immigration myself, I have had truly visceral experiences with colorism — experiences that cannot be captured in one sweeping narrative. Instead, it is constituted by an array of narratives, both compatible and incompatible. I was inspired to spearhead my own exploration of diverse experiences with color by engaging with people of color in the Swarthmore community in hopes of addressing the perennial question: What is “Americanness” and what does American citizenship mean to immigrants and people of color?

This intersectional approach will engender new avenues of discussion surrounding diverse experiences with color, bringing about an acknowledgement of varying colored experiences. This will also ensure that there is cognizance of individual complicitness in the victimization of others within the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. In this way, we avoid the presumption that white supremacy affects everybody in the same way and that strategies for liberation are similar.

To kickoff this profile series, I spoke with sophomore Saadiq Garba ’19. Born in the northern part of rural Nigeria, a historically nomadic society, Garba was adopted by relatives living in the U.S. when he was nine years old and moved to Washington D.C.

“I didn’t know much English then so I had to work hard for the first couple of years to learn English and try to fit in. I was accepted to a very prestigious high school and that paved my way to Swarthmore” Garba said.

Garba’s blackness was initially drawn into the forefront of his consciousness when he started to become familiar with the geopolitical landscape of D.C.

“D.C. is very segregated. There’s northwest Washington which is predominantly white and the northeast is majority black. I grew up in the part of town that was primarily white people. Traveling through D.C. going from northwest to northeast, you could see drastic changes in the quality of public areas.”

When Garba began playing recreational soccer on a primarily white team, he became even more aware of the structural inscription of black subordination.   

“We were playing this team, an only black team, and we won. At the end when we went to shake hands, one of the [opposing players] shoved me in the stomach and said, ‘Traitor.” It took me a while to figure out what they meant by that. I didn’t realize there was such a separation in regard to color here,” he explained.

So what does American citizenship mean to him? For Garba, being a naturalized citizen allows him to have an education.

“American citizenship is key to do just about anything in the States in terms of education. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be able to go to school or find jobs” he said.  

And while he acknowledges he has been privileged in his educational experiences going into his second year of higher education, he has become increasingly more on-edge with respect to his naturalization after the Trump election.

“My citizenship protects me but it’s not always a guarantee —  I can still get deported. I have to be careful with certain activities I engage in just to make sure I don’t raise any red flags and get into trouble,” he said.

Garba’s sentiments are echoed by many black and brown migrant Americans — a heightened sense of awareness and cognizance of how their bodies move through public spaces. Is this the new conception of American citizenship? A citizenship that is conditional and in a constant state of negotiation with the sovereign?

Are bodies under this doctrine “the citizens,” or merely “the governed”?

Systemic issues regarding colorism persist and fantasies of post-racial America are just that, distant fantasies. In sifting through profiles like Garba’s, we create a structural analog on how the new American citizenship is defined: through residence, allegiance, political voice, or perhaps just mere visibility to a sovereign. These narratives are testaments to the individual and collective effects of colorism in a dubbed “post-racial” society.

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