“Racism at Penn is usually subtle,” wrote Abreu, who declined to comment. “It is a way of life, something that minorities come to accept. In class, it’s usually sly comments about us. In the dining halls, it’s people talking really loud, complaining about us to their friends. I overhear it. But this was the first time it was so blatant. ... I don’t know which experience was worse that night. Being called a ‘nigger’ or being questioned about belonging here.”
Class, of course, also plays a role at a wealthy school like Penn.
“You have to understand that Penn is extremely different from most schools, in that the vast majority comes from a much wealthier background,” writes Abreu. “I grew up in the projects, surrounded by crime and drugs.”
Chad Dion Lassiter, who lectures about racism at Penn and West Chester University, criticized the whole notion of “belonging” at Penn. Lassiter is president of Black Men at Penn, which does anti-racism and violence prevention work throughout the city.
“He [Abreu] buys into his own privilege by saying ‘I’m a Penn student.’ You might be a Penn student, but they didn’t recognize you as part of the exclusive club,’ Lassiter says. “I understand what Chris is going through, but you don’t get a pass because you’re a Penn student, as if, ‘I’m a part of this elite group.’ In the eyes of some, you are still rendered invisible.”
For Lassiter, the bigger question is how this elite institution operates in the world around it, particularly in neighboring black West Philadelphia.
The students have come up with a list of things they want to change, including the recruitment and retention of minority faculty members and cultural competency events during orientation.
“The response was really a product of the fact that [Abreu’s] story really resonated with us on campus. A lot of students of color and other marginalized groups felt like it was important to take a stand,” says Ryan Jobson, a senior anthropology and Africana Studies major. “We understand that we have the support of the administration on this issue. ... We know that we have their ears, so we just want to bring our agenda and demands to them.” But to date, University officials have yet to respond for comment.
Even so, University president Amy Gutmann took her place amidst the clasped hands at Wednesday’s vigil.
The circle continued to grow as curious onlookers like Raya, a white student and sophomore, joined in.
“One thing that surprised me about Penn was that it’s a lot less diverse than I thought,” Raya said.