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How Historically Marginalized Students’ Desire for Radical Growth Conflicts with Diversity Initiatives Built Around Tolerance

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Student criticism about University statues, monuments, and named buildings that pay reverence to those who gained power through colonialism and slavery is not new. What is new is students’ urgency for action. Students from historically marginalized groups and their allies are now openly stating what they have been mumbling for generations; that they don’t buy the argument that the statues are apolitical remembrances of times gone by with no bearing on the present. No statue, monument, or named building is simply a “record of its time,” each is part of the ever-changing conversation about present day values.   

As Tyler Stiem noted, monuments “normalise the past, for better or worse. They make injustices easier to defend and, more insidiously, harder to see. For another, it’s the people most likely to defend those injustices who ultimately decide what is or isn’t threatening, not the people who have been most affected.”

My book, Campus Counterspaces: Black and Latinx Students’ Search for Community at Historically White Universities illustrates how students’ sense of campus belonging and ability to claim full membership in the institution is negatively affected by explicit and implicit devaluing of their identity. These statues, monuments, and named buildings are present-day incarnations of our present-day willingness to value only voices of power.

For generations, Black and Latinx students have been sold a false promise by historically White colleges and universities. As described in my book, colleges have been falsely promising historically marginalized students that if they come they will experience a cosmopolitan community: “a calm environment of equivalent, symmetrical relationships”. For generations, less than half of Black and Latinx students who enrolled have obtained their degree. For generations, Black and Latinx students have been assuming full personal blame for this outcome. But increasingly, they are holding their institutions accountable for reaping the benefits of their enrollment while also doing little to change the culture of hostile campus climates that undermine their likelihood of success.

For generations, Black and Latinx students have been sold a false promise by historically White colleges and universities.

Current generations of students from historically marginalized groups are less willing to ignore the everyday ways that their institutions remind them that these schools were not built with them in mind. The statues, monuments, and named buildings that they are pressing their institutions to tear down, relocate, or rename are simply a focal irritant of being forced to inhabit an educational context in which they rarely see themselves, their history, and the intellectual contributions of scholars from their communities represented in the institution’s cannon.

Administrators’ resistance to tear down, relocate, or rename these objects is consistent with an understanding of diversity as tolerance for difference on the margins, which says to students from historically marginalized communities: you may pay to attend our institutions and use our resources, but leave our institutions largely unchanged by your presence.

Current generations of students from historically marginalized groups are less willing to ignore the everyday ways that their institutions remind them that these schools were not built with them in mind.

Given higher education’s claim to fostering critical thinking, another option is to remake some of these indefensible statues and monuments into critical objects. Statues and monuments that were once objects of unquestioned reverence are made critical by putting them in direct conversation with new objects that pay homage to previously silenced voices.



Micere Keels is an Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on understanding how sociodemographic characteristics (race-ethnicity and poverty, in particular) structure the supports and challenges that individuals experience. She has been tracking a cohort of Black and Latinx students who enrolled at historically White universities in 2013 to advance our understanding of postsecondary persistence.    

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