Column: We actually need to talk about diversity


Jasmine Heyward, columnist

And that starts with recognizing that Northeastern is not a leader in diversity and inclusion with regard to students of color, queer students, disabled students and students with physical or mental health concerns, who are constantly made uncomfortable by faculty and staff who simply don’t know better.

In many classes, conversations about race, gender and sexuality are key, especially in the context of the current sociopolitical climate. However, few professors seem to acknowledge the power imbalance these conversations create in the classroom.

A discussion about mandatory minimums and the War on Drugs is a policy debate for some students. For me, it’s a reminder that I meant to ask my dad about my uncle last time I was home. My uncle had a history with drugs and died after jumping off a bridge while being pursued by law enforcement a few years ago, but my parents never told me the full story because of my age at the time. I do remember my dad saying that he’ll never know if my uncle thought he could survive the jump or chose to end his life.

My father left the Washington, D.C., suburbs for college in 1987, just as the crack epidemic was arriving in the nation’s capital. I can’t talk about the War on Drugs and mass incarceration without thinking about how my life could have been different. How have these policies impacted my own family? Who would I be today if my dad wasn’t able to leave Washington?

I discussed a class assignment on mass incarceration with a black friend, and she realized that her family had been impacted as well, in ways she didn’t initially recognize.

We need to have these conversations about identity and policy, but they need to be handled with cultural sensitivity. This means creating spaces where students can choose how they engage. Even simple questions like, “What surprised you about this reading?” can be insulting to students who weren’t surprised by the reading because the policies discussed have directly impacted their families.

In departments where Northeastern’s faculty is overwhelmingly white and straight (like journalism), students of color and queer students are constantly asked to educate their peers and their professors. This makes interesting courses exhausting for some students, and the best way to avoid it would be hiring a more diverse faculty. But if that’s too ambitious, cultural sensitivity training for professors would be a start.

That sensitivity training needs to be informed by focus groups with students who actually know what the problems are. Marginalized students across the university are interested in advocacy, but the university has not made any meaningful attempts to engage with them other than a handful of multiple-choice surveys.

The issues with professors carry over to UHCS clinicians who lack basic cultural competency, co-op advisors who shame students that can’t take unpaid jobs and a university health care system that punishes students whose families live further from Boston. Northeastern’s faculty and staff aren’t acknowledging the needs of marginalized students.

While student groups try to fill the gap, it’s not enough. Like many affinity-based groups, gatekeeping and a lack of intersectional thinking plague Northeastern’s student groups designed for students of specific races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and gender identities.

While there are five recognized student organizations for LGBTQA+ students on campus, two of them are limited to students in specific disciplines, and one of them is for graduate students. This leaves the LGBTQA Resource Center — which isn’t really a student group, though it holds great events for Northeastern’s queer students — and NU Pride. While NU Pride’s current executive board is addressing its problems, the group has a history of catering toward white, cisgender gay and lesbian students. Many queer students of color, transgender students and non-binary students are hesitant to engage, leaving them unsure of where to find people like them. Additionally, five LGBTQA+ student groups isn’t a lot. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities has 11.

We can’t have a conversation about diversity at Northeastern if we don’t address the true state of the university in regards to diversity and inclusion. It’s hard to be a marginalized student at Northeastern, and this campus (and this city, though that’s another column) isn’t as progressive as its marketing likes to pretend.

We need to be better, and we can. But we can’t get there if we pretend that everything is great at Northeastern without speaking to those who are most impacted.