The Problem of Minority Retention

For many at Amherst College, without an institution like a sports team, prominent club, fraternity or group with great social capital, it is not uncommon to feel naked and constantly exposed to the elements. More often than not for people of color on this campus, this exposure feels especially acute. Subtle erasures of our bodies, slight yet sharp jabs from the ignorant, interrogations of whether or not we are deserving, a continuous feeling of homelessness — “Are you sure this space is really mine?” we ask. “They tell me that it is, but I feel so uncomfortable.”

These erasures can feel like the loss of home to natural disaster, and similar to loss from an earthquake or hurricane, it’s hard to place blame on a single will. Individual losses hurt, but we are expected to be tough and weather those storms. But collective ones, the catastrophic disasters, are especially difficult to cope with. Unlike more natural catastrophes, however, they are generally predictable. In my time as a student here, one has occurred each year without fail.

My first year, computer components and furniture were stolen from the health center and spray paint was used to damage the room and to draw swastikas. Three months later, an unidentified offender carved the word “nigger” in the snow on top of a car parked on the street just north of the Lord Jeffery Inn. That same year, two-thirds of the student body voted against the relocation of the game room to make room for the Multicultural Resource Center on the first floor of Keefe. My sophomore year, swastikas and a racial epithet targeting black people were drawn outside a dorm. My junior year, a group of students hijacked the well-intentioned “Black Lives Matter Awareness Week” for an “All Lives Matter” campaign, in which participating students defaced posters and equated black lives to fetuses. This year, many of our minority faculty and staff have left the campus for personal or professional reasons. These losses take place in the blink of an eye and hit students of color the most haphazardly and unremittingly, like great sheets of rain. Most prominently, Mariana Cruz, director of the Multicultural Resource Center and Chief Diversity Officer, resigned last week, citing personal reasons.

There are very few faculty and staff members that reflect the diversity of the student body. As a result, the access to mentorship that many of our more privileged counterparts have on campus is not there for us. Minority role models with similar life experiences are far and few in between. Perhaps when compared to the race-based tragedies of the past, the most recent tragedy of minority faculty and staff retention proves to be the most catastrophic because it sends the message that maybe everything won’t be OK.

The importance of mentors with similar life experiences should not be discounted. Minority mentors attempt to comfort us. They challenge us to make homes out of homelessness. Often they tell us what their mentors told them, or if they didn’t have one, minority mentors share what they had to find out the hard way. To paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates: That this is our world, that this is our country, that this is your body and that despite the confusion that may come from self-doubt we must find some way to live within it all.

But what message does the loss of a minority mentor send? Perhaps the environment was too hostile after all? Maybe the hope of living free and safe from the elements was a pipe dream? Maybe the distance between the world of the elite, littered with seemingly endless opportunities, and the galaxies that many of us come from is too vast? Minority mentors are the guides that help us to overcome this cosmic distance – a tenacious gravity, according to Coates – of a world that shackles our bodies.

The Friday before Mariana Cruz tendered her resignation, about a dozen minority students gathered in the Multicultural Resource Center to hear her life story. In the question-and-answer session that followed, Mariana recounted that one of her greatest failures was not having a mentor to offer her the guidance and help that she was able to give to students. Mariana wasn’t as fortunate as many of us were. On this campus barren of minority exemplars, there remain a few, and they must be safeguarded. As a community, we have an obligation to provide the resources and mentorship that minorities need to thrive. Everything must be done to retain the diverse faculty and staff that we have and to find more.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in “Between the World and Me,” “In all our phrasing — race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land with great violence upon the body.”

The racial chasm only deepens when we ignore the poor retention of minority exemplars in a school that prides itself on diversity. We cannot continue to avert our gaze as minority exemplars continue to be erased. We cannot keep reducing these losses to mere personal or professional reasons, nor can we continue accept them as costs of business. At the end of the day, these losses affect the vulnerable bodies on campus the most, the same bodies on which this institution built its foundations, the same bodies that this institution uses as fuel to thrive today. Minorities cannot continue on as diverse bricks in Amherst College’s road to redemption or preeminence. We are real people with needs that must be prioritized.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article contained references that were not properly attributed to their source, Ta-Nehisi Coates. This was an error on the part of the editors. This page was updated April 25, 2017 at 7:22 PM.