The Spectrum: Fear of ‘making it about race’ stops students of color from speaking out

Mariana Alfaro, Op-Ed Contributor

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

I first realized I was Latina during my first solo trip to the United States. I was a high school sophomore visiting Kenyon College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, for a creative writing summer program in which I was the only international student in a group of 120.

On the first day of the program, a kid from New York turned to me and said, “You’re from that Latin American country where everyone wants to kill everyone, right? The really poor one?”

Before I could defend myself, he whipped out his iPhone and, with a crowd already forming around him, began loudly reading facts about my home country El Salvador including our murder rate, our poverty index and our GDP per capita.

For the first time in my life, I was the only Salvadoran in a group and I felt obligated to speak up for the more than six million people whom this boy had just offended. I could feel my eyes welling up. But because I’d never been in a situation like this, I subconsciously accepted my position as an outcast. Why start an uncomfortable argument when I could just wave it off?

I remained silent.

This moment stayed with me. That day I learned that when you’re underrepresented, it is your duty not only to speak out, but to speak out loudly.

Two years later, I began school at Northwestern, entered Medill and immediately began looking for places where I felt comfortable being myself. During my first week of school, I joined The Daily Northwestern, and tried to settle in.

I couldn’t.

I tried to find my niche in the greater scheme of the publication. It didn’t take long for me to realize that maybe, if I tried to be more like my peers, I’d feel more comfortable and accepted. I didn’t. Though I made friends and ultimately earned a few editorial positions on the paper, I never felt like I was truly a part of it. On the outside, I was a Daily reporter through and through, proud of my publication, running three articles a week and staying late at night publishing stories. Inside, I kept reminding myself that this is, after all, a publication that has produced not only a great lineage of journalists but also lasting relationships between its staffers. I didn’t want to just be there; I wanted to feel comfortable, just like the rest of my peers did.

It wasn’t until the end of my sophomore year that I finally caught onto why I felt uncomfortable.

Twice, I was the only Latina on The Daily’s editorial board. The longer I stayed on The Daily, the more I noticed how few of the top editors were students of color.

I didn’t say anything about it because I was afraid of making it about race. But as I went through these situations, I couldn’t help but think that race was why I didn’t feel as part of the community as my peers.

Whenever a fellow Latinx staffer would leave The Daily, they said it was because they were uncomfortable with how unrepresentative the newspaper is. I found myself blaming their exits on my inability to hold the rest of the staff accountable for our paper’s lack of diversity.

When I realized this, it was as if the kid with the iPhone was back, embarrassing me in front of everyone.

Northwestern is a campus with a strong, vocal activist community. However, outside that circle, I continue to see how students of oppressed identities — especially students of color — are subconsciously made to feel like they don’t belong.

Countless friends of color have dropped their Greek affiliations because they didn’t think their Panhellenic Association or Interfraternity Council sororities and fraternities understood how the world is different for students of color. Others have been passed over for leadership positions despite years of dedication to their student groups, leaving the groups with unrepresentative leadership.

I was reminded of a truism embedded in my mind since my first day of school: More often than not, students of color have to work twice as hard just to get half as far as white students.

At The Daily, it can be exhausting to constantly be the only Latinx person in the room. I know this is how the real world is, and that it isn’t going to radically change in the near future.

I am, however, also tired of student organizations promising diversity under the faux appearance of “wokeness” without giving students of color a shot at leadership or acknowledging that the playing field isn’t level. I am tired of seeing students swallow their anger and tears because they’re afraid of making their white classmates uncomfortable. As marginalized students, we are uncomfortable all the time. If there is something to be learned from our experiences, it’s that it is OK to let students with privilege feel the discomfort we experience everyday, even if it’s only for a moment.

I am not asking for “preferred treatment”— I am merely asking for leaders on campus to remember that when it comes to the privilege of being heard, not all students are on the same level. Sometimes students of color try to voice their discomforts as loud as they can, and that’s still not loud enough.

If this seems like a mic drop, or like I’m quitting The Daily, it isn’t and I’m not. I plan to stay as long as it takes for the newsroom environment to feel more welcoming for younger Latinx reporters. I hope to be the resource I didn’t have as a freshman, I hope to continue voicing my opinions and perspectives with the expectation that one day, more students of color will feel like they want to join the publication. I want Latinx students to feel comfortable with us because they are represented. I am aware that I can’t do this by myself. This is where allies, especially those in leadership positions, have to step up and recognize that it is their responsibility too.

If you’re an NU student of an oppressed identity and have ever felt like some part of your identity has been shut down by any NU organization, but you couldn’t find the courage to speak out about it because you were afraid to “make it about race,” don’t be ashamed. Make it a learning experience, like I did. It is never too late to speak out.

Mariana Alfaro is a Medill junior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.