By Robert Leitner
After the first few questions, junior music education major Destiny Cooper told the room of a dozen people of color and three white students, “We’re not bashing white people here, because both races are racist.”
During an open discussion on race held on Feb. 17 in the Seabrook Lounge at Westminster Choir College, discussion leader Cooper put everyone at ease and encouraged participants to be open. The discussion centered around race relations on a collegiate and national level.
“Discussing race is important to me because I started to realize that to shrug it off and let it be a ‘thing that happens’ is just not OK,” Cooper said. “The poor relations we have today can’t be one of those things that we stand by and watch. It needs to be addressed and talked about openly — not behind closed doors.”
The students were sitting in a circle as Cooper constructed the ground rules for the discussion. One person could speak at a time, and while he or she was speaking, there should be no interjections.
“We broke this conversation up into four different sections,” said Cooper. “We are going to discuss: who we are, where we are, where do we want to be and how do we get there.”
The discussion started by the students saying what race they identified with. Then the conversation focused on what might be causing the prejudice that is prevalent today.
“One cause of the racial relationships is who people are influenced by,” said Cooper. “You can be taught to hate or be ignorant towards a group of people just because you’re in an environment and surrounded by people who have these ill feelings.”
Freshman bachelor of arts in music major Sofiya Nayda offered a different answer.
“I think the cause of our racial problem is silence,” said Nayda. “Also, we are taught as children to avoid controversial topics. Controversial topics make people uncomfortable, so people stay silent to not offend anyone.”
Students were asked what they thought about the racial relationships on Rider’s campuses.
“I think the interracial relationships are good at Rider University,” said Nayda. “It is a very diverse school. However, I see better interracial relationships at the main campus than at the Westminster campus.”
Then the discussion shifted to “Where do the students want the racial relationships to be?” Cooper said she wants things to be more open. She expressed the importance of facing uncomfortable situations and talking about them.
“I want the community to be closer, but not because we are a ‘diverse’ group, but because we are all human,” said Nayda. “I personally never liked the word diverse when it is used in a racial context. It suggests that different melanin levels in our system is what makes us different. The word ‘diversity’ in a racial context stresses the differences and therefore separates us.”
The discussion ended with Cooper asking the students “what they would do” in order to help strengthen racial relationships. This is a complicated process and “it can’t go away overnight,” she said.
Most people agreed that open dialogue needs to continue.
“I hope you learned a lot from this conversation today, because just talking about it can make you feel much better,” said Cooper. “There were some stiff silences but there were some laughs too, and I think that’s important in a healthy conversation.”