The Continuing Conversation of Race at RIT
by Claire Fleming | published May. 6th, 2016
“It's way beyond time that whites start studying some black history.”
These words were spoken by Dr. Norman Coombs, a General Studies professor at RIT, in an interview with Reporter 47 years ago. Coombs’ words are just as relevant in 2016 as they were when they were printed in the April 11, 1969 issue of Reporter.
Coombs was being interviewed by Reporter in 1969 because he was about to do something no professor at RIT had done before. He was about to start teaching a new course called “Black History,” and was awarded a federal grant to study the subject.
While courses in college about black history or the history of other cultures may be common today, the reason this class was to be added is still relevant.
When asked if the new class was being implemented because of the growing number of black students at RIT, Coombs explained that there is more reason for white students to study black history than for black students to do so.
"What is important for the white to face up to is not so much that black people have done something, made contributions to our society, but that we have to realize the amount of white racism in our society throughout its history and now in its present," he said.
Here, Coombs is pointing out that white people should understand black history in order to understand the racist actions of white people toward black people. He made it clear that it is important for white people to understand their privilege as well as to understand the cultures of people around them. This is still true in 2016.
The question of why and how black history should be studied was considered further by Neil Shapiro, a student at RIT and Reporter's Editor at Large, in his article "Firing Line" in the very same issue. "Firing Line" was a weekly column written by Shapiro questioning authority and asking some hard questions.
Shapiro supported the idea of adding a Black Studies curriculum, writing, "More power to them," but he brought up the point that a student should also have a good understanding of history and current events regarding race in general to understand the racism in it. He noted, "Here at RIT, the students have no background to build this course on. There is no previous course on Current Events, nor is there a course dealing with the influences of recent Segregationist and Integrationist groups on present American Society." Shapiro argued toward having a more wholesome General Studies program in order to truly understand racism.
While RIT's College of General Studies is now called College of Liberal Arts, and neither Coombs nor Shapiro work at or go to RIT, it is important to understand what they and their peers with similar ideas have accomplished and what they still stand for.
RIT is now more diverse than ever, having clubs and organizations, classes and events all in the name of different cultures. RIT, as of fall 2015, has 2,635 international students from 102 different countries around the world. The university now offers 10 modern languages, having added Portuguese to its repertoire in 2013.
A student at RIT can now declare immersions or take classes in Africa and the Diaspora (11 classes), Latin/a/o American Studies (21 classes) and Diversity in the U.S. (19 classes). The Diversity in the U.S. classes not only cover different races, but different genders, language, queer identities and minority groups in general. There are also various classes centered around different races, cultures and minorities in the history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, political science, criminal justice and other departments.
Besides classes, at the core of diversity at RIT are the student-run organizations. Of RIT's 205 campus organizations, 32 are cultural organizations. These 32 organizations include Global Union, Latin American Student Association, Unity House, Black Awareness Coordinating Committee, Omega Phi Beta Sorority, Korean International Student Association and International House (I-House).
While there are many great and diverse cultural classes, programs and clubs, there is always progress to be made. The need to understand racism and other races and cultures is a need that Coombs and Shapiro emphasized 47 years ago and people on campus closely related to cultural organizations still emphasize today. One of these people is Ethelia Lung, a second year New Media Design student who is from Hong Kong, China and is the historian of I-House.
Lung said International House's main focus is "to take care of and help assimilate international students into their new environment, while also spreading the values of cultural diversity to students who are local." She asserted how important it is to celebrate all cultures and to make everyone feel comfortable on campus and emphasized the importance of both the international community and the local community being celebrated and recognized together.
It is easier said than done to bring many cultures together in such a large university. One thing that could change is placing emphasis on events that celebrate the international students and their cultures.
"I definitely think that having more awareness of the cultural events going on would help the RIT community better understand and get to know various cultures," Lung explained.
Some of Lung's suggestions to better include diversity in the RIT community are to organize larger cultural events with many cultural organizations or even having the College Activities Board (CAB) get involved in sponsoring cultural events.
"I believe that the community just needs more exposure to the diverse range of cultures on campus," she said. She explained that because CAB and other major student organizations reach out to a vast majority of the RIT community, it would help make cultural events and therefore other cultures more visible on campus.
In 2016, there is still a need for cultural visibility and for understanding the diversity that is on our campus. It is up to the community to promote ideas of other cultures, and major student organizations may just be the key to helping us learn more about and to accept each other for who we are. As Shapiro said in his column 47 years ago, "More power to them."