Is this the place for me? Being Latinx at a predominantly white institution

Story and photos by IASIA BEH

With the latest photos to come out regarding placement of racist banners and posters on the “Block U,” it raises a lot of questions: Who are they? Why are they doing this? Why do they feel so emboldened that they show their faces when spreading clearly racist rhetoric?

One reason behavior like this is possible is because the University of Utah campus itself is isolated from communities of color. Tucked away on the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains in neighborhoods only few can afford, many white students are never introduced or interact with people of color on a meaningful basis.

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Wendy Vazquez pictured at the annual MEChA High School Conference on Feb. 27, 2019.

Wendy Vazquez is taking a criminal justice class this semester as part of her sociology and criminology degree. While the class material has proven to be interesting to her, Vazquez believes her fellow classmates have not.

Sitting on the couches with her sister in the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs in the A. Ray Olpin University Union, Vazquez talked about a white male student she has class with. Even though they have had some classes together previously, he still won’t sit next to her. This confused her until he mentioned in class that he was fearful of people of color.

“At that point, I understood why he didn’t talk to me,” Vazquez said.

She said he works in the library, which also confuses her.

“It kinda doesn’t make sense because he has to give directions to all students,” she said. “Do brown students come up and he just turns around?”

He isn’t the only classmate who has made her feel excluded. A white female student in an in-class group discussion spoke about how building the wall would stop crime.

“She basically implied that as long as the country stayed white, crime would stop because minorities are the ones who commit crimes,” Vazquez said. “She also said we need to ‘have to put these people in their place.’”

Students of color have experiences like this every day on predominantly white universities across the country. William Smith, who is the department chair of the Education, Culture and Society program at the U, describes racial battle fatigue as “the physical and psychological toll taken due to constant and unceasing discrimination, microaggressions, and stereotype threat.”

Smith’s presentation on the subject through the MUSE luncheon lecture series at the Sill Center on Feb. 7, 2019, brought the discussion to the CESA office that afternoon about times students themselves had felt drained.

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The Center for Ethnic Student Affairs is a space on campus where many students of color meet to study, socialize and meet with advisers.

One Latinx student talked about how it was hard for him to study with his study group because they were Trump supporters. He said he stopped even talking about it with them because it just “wasn’t worth it.” Multiple students mentioned how white people, mostly women in the examples they gave, would cry when confronted about  “problematic” comments. The Latinx students looked both frustrated and relieved when telling these stories, showing that they had been holding those feelings in for some time.

How are professors reacting to situations like these?

Vazquez said her professor only calls out overtly racist comments while letting ones that “aren’t as bad” slide through the cracks.

“It seems to [the students] like he’s validating their opinions when he shouldn’t be,” she said.

Karen, her sister, then spoke about her experience working at the news station at the school. She said she has been prevented from getting into events even when she had the correct credentials.

“My white male coworker even came out and said ‘she’s with me’ but they still wouldn’t let me in,” she said.

What do these stories have to do with anything? Well, everything.

If a student doesn’t feel comfortable and safe on campus, how will they ever be able to reach their full academic potential? The answer is they can’t. That is why the university has created spaces such as CESA for students of color to be able to meet and talk about their experiences in an area where they do feel safe. But is that enough? How will students be exposed to each other if they are only staying in certain places on campus? That then brings the question of whether it’s the job of students’ of color to teach white people how to be culturally sensitive.

Is it enough for the university to call out certain acts of racism but not what is happening in the classroom on a daily basis? How will it implement that? The university has begun to realize that something needs to be done, as it has added many new programs in recent years, but is it working?