Dear Rutgers: Is this your idea of inclusivity and diversity?

By Jada Anderson

You and your friends just took a dope picture: everybody is smiling, nobody blinked, the lighting is just right. This must be posted on Instagram for everyone to see and revel in this beautiful, captured moment! But, you cannot post this image with just any caption. In this age of social media, writing the best caption for a picture is imperative. It can certainly make–or break–your post.

On February 19, a member of the Rutgers chapter of Phi Sigma Sigma Sorority, Amanda Slomkowski, posted the following image to her page, unaware that this “innocent” picture would blow up the following day:

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In an attempt to be funny, Slomkowski called her friends’ tanned skin, African, in comparison to her pale skin color. As I sit here in my brown skin trying to find an eloquent way of expressing my feelings, I am truly at a loss for words, not because this is something new, but because something like this is always happening. The notion that browner skin makes one “just African” has deeper implications than it just being a “harmless” joke.

Because I am an English major, I always pay attention to one’s diction choice, so let’s pretend we are analyzing this as if it were a sentence in a piece of literature. She is implying that her pale skin is not what is the problem with this image; it is that her friends’ complexions are African darker than hers. And instead of saying tanned, she chooses to say African. Now let’s break down what this means: she says African instead of tanned because African (which, by the way, is not a country, Amanda) is associated with Blackness and darker skin tones. Therefore, those with an “African” skin color are problematic. Her pale skin is not the issue here.

As Kelsie Thorne, a Senior here at the University, so eloquently wrote in an email to the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, “Ms. Amanda Slomkowski’s caption holds various points of insult: 1. That Africa can be reduced to a singular country; 2. That anyone can be “African” as long as they can afford a spray tan; 3. That “African” is a benign term that does not also come with its own identity, history, culture, and people.”

Even if I weren’t an English major, I would still look at this and forever wonder why she just could not say that their skin is tanned.

I find it ironic that my brown skin is being both ridiculed and envied (because they try to tan themselves to look less pale and have more color) in her post. I have every right to feel angry because my skin color is always a problem and seen as different and odd. They will never know the feeling of walking into a classroom where you are the only brown face, like a drop of black ink against a white background. They will never carry the burden of what having this skin color meant once upon a time.They will never have to worry about having to be twice as good in everything that they do. They will never understand why we have prided ourselves in loving our skin color with hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic and slogans like “Black is beautiful.”

Although she has since removed the post and issued a public apology, it still highlights an issue that needs to be addressed, especially when Rutgers has been priding itself in its mission to be diverse and inclusive of everyone. I can’t help but wonder if this were a student of color what the repercussions of their actions would have been (individually and for any other affiliations) had he or she said something as offensive.

Dear Rutgers, is this comment a reflection of what you mean by diverse and inclusive? Does she represent the very values that you preach on a daily basis? This should not be limited to brown faces on your brochures but should also include the way in which the University educates its students. Recently, a group of students started the Cultural Competency Coalition whose goal is to establish a diversity requirement in the core curriculum so that every student at Rutgers is required to take a course about a non-white culture.

Junior Taqwa Brookins, one of the students who began the Coalition, said, “This entire Instagram post could have been avoided if students at Rutgers were forced to learn about someone with a different background and identity different from their own. [Slomkowski’s] caption was filled with micro-aggressiveness, thinly veiled racism, and just plain ignorance, which could have been avoided if Rutgers actually cared about the education of their students.”

Members of the Coalition have been meeting and conversing over the last few weeks to discuss strategies on how this can be implemented. This incident has happened at such a perfect time, because it can now be used as leverage to push for what the Coalition is demanding.

“That post is not the only instance on campus of ignorant, or hateful, or insensitive speech,” Brookins said. “It serves as a prime example of one of the reasons why my peers and I came together to form the Cultural Competence Coalition. We wanted this to be a coalition that was about more than simple ‘diversity’–because honestly Rutgers has shown that word to mean nothing more to them than a statistic and a face on a brochure. Amanda’s comments demonstrated her ignorance about how her identity, history, and privilege as a White American woman, along with any prejudice she personally carries, affects her interactions and perceptions of, in this case, peoples of African descent.”

Certainly I do not believe that Amanda is a horrible person because of this caption. I do, however, believe that requiring every single Rutgers student to take a class or two in Africana Studies or Women and Gender  Studies or Latin American Studies can be quite beneficial.

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