Finding a roommate can be a gamble. No matter how they are screened, a roommate is essentially a stranger being invited to live with someone who may not keep the same hours, be messier, practice a different religion, and look different. So, when some black college students in California placed an ad for a non-white roommate, they spurred an acrimonious debate on when discrimination is acceptable, racism, and creating safe environments on university campuses.
The discrimination controversy started when three students at the Claremont Colleges posted an item looking for a fourth to share an off-campus residence. They specified they wanted someone “POC only,” i.e. person of color. Or, as one of the trio, Karé Ureña, an Afro-Caribbean woman who is a junior at Pitzer College at Claremont, has since stated, “I don’t want to live with any white folks.”
One of Ureña’s roommates has indicated the group has received hate mail and been harassed since the story broke. However, they wanted people to understand that their perspective in not about racism or discrimination. “There’s an amount of shared experience … as people of color that I would like to have with my housemates,” he said.
Pitzer’s President Melvin Oliver called the ad “inconsistent with our Mission and Values” in a message to the campus community. Appointed earlier this year, Oliver is the first African American named as head of a Claremont undergrad campus.
Oliver and Ureña represent a very small minority at the school. According to the university’s data from Sept. 2015, only 5 percent of Pitzer’s 1,067 undergraduates are African-American. (Note: More than 9 percent are identified as two or more races.)
Given the small population, the issue is really one about creating a feeling of “safe spaces” for marginalized communities – of all kinds. This fits into heated discussions about race, identity, culture, freedom of speech and campus safety affecting colleges across the country.
On the surface, the Claremont Colleges story brings to mind images of segregated restrooms and acknowledgement that similar ads stating “No blacks” would be incendiary. While it may simplistically seem like a conversation about racism, the real motivation for the roommate ad is clearly a desire to live with someone with commonalities; it is about security and feeling accepted. No one would think twice if the ad was for a female roommate or a male one!
In today’s “politically correct” age that is fraught with racial and religious tension, is it wrong for someone who is a minority on a campus to want to live with someone else who could relate to being an outlier in the college community? Is that really discrimination? It is a tough issue with sound arguments on both sides.
Take away the color spectrum and change the conversation to one about religion or other discriminatory divisions. The Nazis may have posted “No Jews allowed signs,” but plenty of American businesses, country clubs and neighborhoods had similar unwritten policies for hiring and belonging. Muslim Americans who have no ties to terrorists feel the strain of suspicion and fear discrimination. Would it be wrong for religious Jewish or Muslim students to feel more comfortable living with someone who shared their beliefs? What about gay or transgender students? Where is the line between blatant discrimination and wanting someone who, as one student phrased it, “looks like you and kind of know where you’re coming from” drawn? While the Pitzer students have gotten a roommate and taken down their ad for a non-white housemate, the story and reaction to it continues to spur dialog and debates on when discrimination is acceptable and when it is not.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Christian Science Monitor: Black students seek nonwhite roommates, spark race debate
New York Daily News: Request for non-white roommates sparks uproar at Claremont Colleges in California
Washington Post: Debate flares after black college students seek a non-white roommate
Pitzer College: Student Demographics
Photo courtesy of Tulane Public Relations Flickr Page – Creative Commons license (note: photo is representative and not of Pitzer students)