In 2008, former College of Charleston President P. George Benson spoke at an event honoring the 40th anniversary of the school's desegregation. The celebration came just days after thousands packed the Cistern Yard to hear then-Sen. Barack Obama campaign during his run for the White House. Citing the progress that had been made on campus, Benson recounted the history of the school's struggle with integration and the brave students and faculty members who played a role in the process. But he knew there was still progress to be made at the college.
"We are not where we want to be in terms of the percentage of underrepresented students at the college," Benson told the crowd. "It will take the energy and commitment of all of us — the administration, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends — to encourage students to come here, stay here, and graduate from the college. I commit my office to this important task, and I'm asking each of you to help us. We need your ideas, your energy, and your open and active advocacy of diversity."
Since that time, the College of Charleston has launched numerous efforts aimed at improving diversity on campus. In addition to approving the college's first diversity strategic plan, the Eddie Ganaway Diversity Education and Resource Center, named for the school's first African-American graduate, was dedicated in 2013. But with a student body that remains around 7 percent African-American, some students still feel marginalized or under-represented on campus. Hundreds of students protested the appointment of college President Glenn McConnell in 2014 due to his history as a Confederate re-enactor — many feeling that the selection process had ignored their objections. Recently, a group of students launched an effort on Twitter to voice their experiences, and their perspectives on what problems still linger at the school.
Using the hashtag #BeingBlackAtCofC, students have begun a frank discussion of race on campus. The project was launched March 21 as partnership between the Lambda Psi chapter of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and the school's Black Student Union. Lambda Psi Vice President Hammed Sirleaf said the idea for the project came from similar efforts at colleges across the Southeast, which he felt could serve a role here in Charleston.
"Because there have been so many instances in which black students have been fighting for their rights at The College, I felt that my chapter should provide a vehicle for students to share their experiences and stories so that the campus could see the inequalities and racism that we face on the daily, and try to spark some change out of it," says Sirleaf. "I just thought it would be a simple event, but it has grown to be so much more than that. I told my chapter brothers about this idea, and they were instantly on board. Social action is one of our fraternity's global programs, and service is at the core of our organization, and this event helped to marry these two concepts together."
Sirleaf and many of the students who contributed to #BeingBlackAtCofC say that they are often put into situations where they feel they have to act as the "black representative" in their classes. As a College of Charleston graduate and staff advisor for the BSU, Marla Robertson says this is an experience that she hears from students all too often and one with which she is sadly familiar.
"I've been in a class here when I was a student where I was tokenized. The only black person in the class, my professor was like, 'Hey, Marla, this statistic is for you: Black women are the least likely to get married out of any other demographic.' Kind of making me isolated in that way and then saying something that's not necessarily in a positive light," she says. "So it makes you uncomfortable and sometimes it can be difficult in a learning environment to get past that and feel comfortable with your peers and your professors now that you've kind of been isolated and someone said something negative about your background."
According to Robertson, many students of color are confident they can navigate through different environments around campus where they might face racial tension, but once in the classroom they feel debilitated due to the student-professor power dynamic. In her opinion, the key to improving the climate on campus is a matter of maintaining the current programs that cater to minority students, while expanding the number of staff and services specifically aimed at helping these young men and women.
"I'm on multiple different groups and organizations that service marginalized students because we don't have a lot of people who are hired in that capacity so that it is their primary job to service students that way," says Robertson. "When I was a student here, one thing that I don't see now, is there were lots of events and lots of programming that serviced all types of marginalized students on this campus. ... Now I see that's not as prevalent as it was 10-plus years ago on this campus, and that's what students are missing is that type of environment where there is an additional place to go where they feel at home, especially when they are coming from different backgrounds."
Another staff member at the college who sees the benefits of the #BeingBlackAtCofC project is Tom Holcomb, director of the Reach Overcome Achieve Results Scholars Program, better known as ROAR, which offers academic and advising support to first-generation, low-income students and those with disabilities. The program was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, but that money was pulled in 2015. A third-generation counselor, Holcomb originally started college to study pre-veterinary science until a serious car accident almost cost him his life. After that, he changed majors, eventually receiving his masters degree in human development and college student personnel guidance. As director of ROAR, Holcomb believes it's important for students to voice their experiences, but he doesn't think it should stop there.
"I believe in the College of Charleston. I believe we've done amazing things, but, for me, I really believe we could do so much more. Kids are tired of talking. Faculty and staff are tired of talking. Now is the time for action," he says. "Does College of Charleston want to be on the wrong side of history or the right side of history where we move forward and we have an amazing, outstanding campus where people are talking about the campus on a regular basis about their experience? When you talk to students and they tell you that they won't recommend students to come here, I mean, that impacts you."
And as one of the students working to raise awareness on campus, Sirleaf sees #BeingBlackAtCofC as just the beginning.
"We need to have more conversations with faculty about our inequalities and then make goals to eradicate them," he says. "It's great to always have conversations about what we experience, but if we do not work to change things, we are only going nowhere faster."
Last month, College of Charleston students launched the #BeingBlackAtCofC hashtag on Twitter to voice their experiences as African-American students on campus. What followed was an honest look at what these students face both in and out of the classroom. Here are just a few of the comments posted online:
"Being told that you matter, but then losing the only program that actually supported minorities. #BeingBlackAtCofc"
"Please don't try to touch my hair. Yes, it's thicker and healthier, but this is not a petting zoo. #BeingBlackAtCofc"
"#BeingBlackatCofC being here 2 yrs just finding out there's a program to aid you (ROAR) but it's being discontinued."
"#BeingBlackatCofc It's knowing that someone will see this trend and ask 'What about #BeingWhiteatCofC?'"
"Getting the "apologetic side eye" in class whenever racism or slavery is discussed. #BeingBlackAtCofC"
"#BeingBlackAtCofC telling other young people of color not to attend because they will be very alone."
"When everyone ignores your college president romanticized the Civil War. #BeingBlackAtCofC"