On October 25th, Eden Louis was walking to class like she does every Tuesday: admiring the view as she crosses the bridge, passing the little shops that line the sidewalk, looking forward to her class with Associate Professor of Theatre Alex Picard. As she passed Sonny’s and began to cross the street, a car slowed to let her go by. She thanked the man with a wave; by the time she arrived at the end of the crosswalk, the man in the car stuck his head out the window and screamed: “f-ing walk faster you stupid nigger!”
“If I’ve ever experience racism it was always subtle,” said Louis, “very passive–nothing outright and hateful like that.”
When she arrived at class and relayed her experience to Picard, Picard went into “full mama bear mode,” crying and imploring Louis to report the incident. According to Louis, the incident had “ruined any lesson [Picard] planned for that day;” for the rest of class they discussed racism and the violent nature of the language that surrounds it.
Later that day, Picard posted a status on Facebook about throwing out a “language of love” in retaliation, and also expressed her appreciation to the students in that class for “[understanding] that the conversation was more important in class today than any lesson plan I could have taught them.”
The language used towards Louis troubled her–it exemplified that racism is very much alive in American culture today. It was not that she was screamed at from a car, though that was surprising as well, but that she was called a word that “comes with a lot of blood”–a word that many African Americans have tried to change into a word of empowerment and friendship. When a white person says it, she said, they don’t use it in the same way, because of its association with slavery.
“I can call my friend the ‘n’ word because she will understand the oppression that I went through and I’ll understand the oppression she went through,” said Louis. “We can use that word with each other because we understand what it means to us. When white people try to use it, it’s one of those things that’s just not for [them].”
According to Picard, “words are powerful. They can strip you of your own power when used in violence against you.”
Louis blames both the eruption of underlying racial tension and the language that surrounds it, particularly towards African Americans, partially on the current election and Donald Trump’s abrasive and candid commentary.
“It’s almost like he gives people the opportunity to say things that they should never say out loud; he’s almost made them feel comfortable enough to say things that they shouldn’t, to feel the way they do,” Louis said. “All of the things that used to be quiet, the things that you used to keep to yourself–it’s like he’s given them permission.”
Picard things that “between social media and the political race we’re seeing it more, hearing it more, dealing with it more.”
Another problem is pretending racism doesn’t exist. Many people, according to Louis, simply don’t see racism–they believe that because they don’t see it, hear it, or experience it, and because society has seemingly progressed past it, that it isn’t real.
“This particular incident was very harsh and blunt,” said Picard, “[but] racism can often rear its head in subtle, but equally ugly ways. Progress doesn’t mean the problem is solved, it’s just progress, it still needs work.”
Progress, especially in regards to both diversity of race and ideas, is something that New England College prides itself on. Last year NEC was featured in a Times article entitled “These Are The Colleges That Have Diversified the Most,” in which it was ranked 21st with a 34.5 diversity increase. Despite this number, Louis feels NEC is still not where it should be.
“I don’t know how comfortable New England College is with talking about race, because I’m not sure they really see it that much,” said Louis.
“I can go to Gilly right now,” she continued, “and there’s the white hockey and lacrosse players, and there’s the Asians sitting in one group and there’s the whole black basketball team, then there’s the white-girl field hockey team. I guess we are diverse, but it’s still segregated.”
Louis doesn’t know how relations can improve or how NEC can offer greater insight on the subject of racism. Although Aspiring Minds is a good first step, she doesn’t know how effective just sitting around and talking about it will be.
From Picard’s perspective, “conversations on difficult and emotionally charged topics are hard to have. We get nervous about saying the wrong thing, offending each other, or unintentionally hurting someone–or perhaps even coming face to face with parts of ourselves that we’re not proud of. NEC has started, through the Office of Diversity, to have these conversations, and we simply need to keep having them.”
Although Louis didn’t think her experience would get this much attention, she recognizes that this is an opportunity to bring awareness to racism: “I feel like maybe it could start with me. I don’t want too much attention, I don’t want to be victimized, I don’t want to stretch it out because at the end of the day it was just a comment and I’m just going to have to move on. But it could start with me, and I feel like if other students know that this did happen to me, they might be more motivated to address the subject and come forward and talk about it.”