Civil rights activists who risked their lives to racially integrate American schools must be turning in their graves as Virginia Tech proudly offers 10 segregated graduation ceremonies based on race, sexuality, and... sobriety?
Virginia Tech may be the most extreme example, but it's hardly alone. The school exemplifies a relatively recent trend in US higher education in which student identity groups demand and are given their own facilities, programs and (safe) spaces. While legally-mandated racial segregation under the 'separate but equal' doctrine was struck down in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, a National Association of Scholars survey of 173 colleges published last month revealed that fully 72 percent now offer segregated graduation ceremonies, with 43 percent boasting segregated student residences.
Unlike the enforced segregation of old, this kinder, gentler discrimination is couched in the language of empowerment, strength in diversity, and tolerance. Only there is no diversity within a single-race dorm, and no tolerance learned by mingling solely with one's own kind. Certainly, there is nothing empowering about claiming a bottom-of-the-barrel identity like "recovering addict" because as a straight white student, you have no advocates planning a special graduation ceremony for you at Virginia Tech.
While the 'Cultural and Community Centers' program that runs Virginia Tech's identity group ceremonies encourages students to attend as many as their multiplicity of identities allows, it's physically impossible to attend the "Gesta Latina" Hispanic-Latino achievement ceremony and the Lavender Commencement Ceremony (for LGBT students), and the Recovery Community and Veterans ceremonies overlap as well in a particularly unfortunate coincidence, given that 1 in 15 vets were diagnosed as substance abusers in 2013.
The ceremonies are technically open to everyone - to watch. However, the American Indian/Indigenous ceremony invites only "indigenous students, faculty and staff" to participate, just as Aliyah is a "celebration of achievement" only for Jewish students and the Muslim event celebrates only Muslim students. Certainly, only black students can "Don the Kente," a brightly-colored Ghanaian cloth that black VTech students have been wearing to separate themselves since 1995. Those without a designated ethnic or religious group can probably try to join the catch-all International Student Achievement Ceremony - bonus points if you can fake an accent - but for white kids, it's the all-school impersonal graduation ceremony only - unless you're a vet or an addict.
A 2013 Economic Policy Institute report on segregation in public schools post-Brown claims black students are "more isolated than they were 40 years ago" thanks to racial economic disparities and discriminatory policing that disproportionately locks up black men. Why, then, would universities consciously choose to perpetuate such segregation, adding the sick joke of framing it as empowering?
Reflexively mocking those who object to institutionalized identity politics as victims of "white fragility" misses the point. A university education was once about exposing young adults to new and challenging ideas, often communicated by people unlike themselves, in an effort to prepare them to make their way in the world and develop their own values. The current university model instead resembles an exorbitantly-priced adult daycare in which all rough edges have been sanded down to avoid uncomfortable learning experiences which might force the student to change, question, or develop as a person. Students emerge from safe-space chrysalises less prepared for "real life" than when they went in - and are usually saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt besides, ensuring they are both psychologically and economically crippled - pardon me, handicapable - before they even begin their journey in life.
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