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A Seat In The Honors Academy

By Jesi Taylor

Published: May 17th, 2017

(Students’ names have been withheld or changed upon request for their protection)

(*Denotes changed name)

A note from the author: This piece barely skims the surface due in part to the heaviness of the subject matter. It was exhausting to write, and it was painful to learn about the experiences of my peers. Many stories were unavoidably left out. The underlying message of this piece is: this is a narrative in progress. Be mindful.

“What’s irritating is when somebody says, you know, ‘They’re racist!’ ‘That’s reverse racism!’ or ‘They have a Black History Month, but we don’t have a White History Month!’ Well, all we’ve ever been taught is white history; so why are you mad at that? Why does that make you angry? That is to suppress me and to make me not be proud.”

–Tina Lawson, Interlude, A Seat at The Table by Solange Knowles

The Honors Academy at Brooklyn College is a hostile and exclusionary environment. To some of you, this may come as a shock. To some of you, this may be difficult to believe. To some of you, that claim may seem ridiculous for any number of reasons that, most likely, stem from some type of privilege that you don’t realize you have. This piece is an open letter to all faculty and students at Brooklyn College that seeks to tell, not ask, you to refuse to be silent about the ways in which the transphobic, Islamophobic, racist, sociopolitical climate negatively impacts your life, health and well-being.

Outside of the walls of Brooklyn College, the country itself is in a constant state of civil unrest. Party lines are blurring; ideologies, as opposed to reason, are driving discourse and belief-formation; people, not ideas, are attacked; identity politics cradles and traps people of all sides of a political spectrum that has evolved into more of a kaleidoscope than an organized classification system; and echo chambers are the new safe space. Since Brooklyn College is but a microcosm of this larger culture, these issues unsurprisingly permeate the campus culture as well.

Before I continue, I want to state that appeasing the gatekeepers and making white faculty and students on campus, and particularly in the Honors Academy, feel comfortable is not my intention. The amount of racial slurs, transphobic comments and Islamophobic jokes heard in passing in the Honors Academy do not go unnoticed. We hear you. We see you. We might not speak up due to fear or exhaustion but don’t let that make you think that we won’t remember your names in the future when we are no longer tokens and actually occupy spaces of power in the academy. That is not a threat; that is just something to consider.

I’ve intentionally only had experiences with folks in the Honors Academy in passing, myself. What could probably be considered “self-segregation” I consider self-preservation. I try to avoid any space where the occupants seek to make me feel unwelcomed with their awkward silences. This is a common practice when I walk into the lounge space. In addition to my own personal experiences, I’ll also reference testimonies from BC Honors Academy students collected over the last several years.

When speaking to one student about his experiences in the Honors Academy, he began by claiming, “The Honors Academy is an institution that serves the purpose of maintaining white mediocrity and framing it as excellence.” He asked that I be clear in this piece about how anti-black racism is the biggest problem within the Honors Academy.

Another student said, “The Honors Academy, with the exclusion of MMUF (Mellon), is a clubhouse for racist whites and South Asians where they can be told that even their shit smells beautiful. It coddles them and reaffirms their belief in meritocracy. [Most] didn’t get there from working hard; they got there from going to elite high schools in segregated school districts. Schwebel and a lot of others coddle these students and give their disgusting behaviors a pass. White students there saying ‘nigga’ all the time is the least of the foul shit that goes on there. I’ve heard male Macaulay students joking about beating women, so many students’ accents being mocked, students saying that Flatbush is dangerous and they’re scared to walk to the dorms late at night.”

This person continued, “My experience in the Honors Academy and with Macaulay has been nothing short of traumatic. Before, I didn’t have the words for what I was experiencing there. I thought I was not good enough to be there. I was told I got in to be the token ‘Latina queer’ back when I was cis-identified, just because my SAT scores were much lower than all the whites coming out of Brooklyn Tech HS. They claimed it wasn’t fair that I got in just because I was ‘different.’ I’ve been referred to by advisors by my GPAs and my failures and not my name. Literally called ‘the one that got the 1.6 GPA.’ I’ve been spoken about behind my back as being ‘unadvisable’ because I had a ‘problem with my advisor as a white woman.’ She claimed she could not help me and that I would be better off in a program for ‘people more like me.’ When I started trying to call out/in other students in the Honors Academy they all swore I just had a problem with them. They don’t know how to be critical of their behaviors and [took] all criticism of how they act as an attack on their personhood… They all want to ‘help poor brown people’ in Nicaragua but can’t even take a fucking second to think about their anti-black/white savior complexes.”

So why make a big deal about the hostile and exclusionary environment that exists in the Honors Academy? Because it’s about time someone drew some attention to an issue that students have been too afraid to speak up about for years. If BC wants to exploit our bodies and stories in articles and plaster our black and brown faces on posters while refusing to ensure that we aren’t being subjected to harassment, then someone needs to break the silence.

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  1. This isn’t poorly written, and sounds like a bunch of cry babies. If people are assholes, they’re assholes. Let’s not play who can be the biggest victim on campus.

  2. To the Editor,

    Honors Academy directors, faculty, advisors, and staff have zero tolerance for discrimination. The Honors lounge is designed as a space of hospitality and safety for all honors program students. We are grateful to Ms. Taylor for bringing this to our attention and welcome the opportunity to meet with her and other students to make changes and improve the Honors Academy experience for all students.

    Lisa Schwebel,
    Honors Academy

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