MIT students get frank about race
Just before he took a dinner break at work earlier this month, MIT senior Vincent Anioke scanned the Web for news and stopped on the graphic video of the July 6 shooting of Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer.
As he read comments below the video, Anioke grew angry. He forgot about his dinner. Instead, he sat at his desk at Google in Kendall Square and in 45 minutes, pounded out a strongly worded essay about his own struggle as a black man in the United States.
“There is no nuance, there is no complication,” he wrote. “There is no subtlety. There is a problem. We feel like dogs. We feel like we don’t matter.”
His words went viral, among the MIT community and beyond — part of an uncommonly open discussion being fostered at MIT about the racial tension gripping the country.
Anioke’s post — like others that poured out after the spate of violence — appears not on Facebook or Medium, but on MIT’s official admissions website, a resource for prospective students. His became the most viewed in the past six months.
“We want to let our students speak, because we know that’s the best way to tell the story about MIT,” said Kirk Kolenbrander, an MIT vice president. “There is no decision by the institution, by MIT, about what gets printed.”
In the wake of the shootings in Minnesota, Louisiana, and Texas, the university has also encouraged other types of discussion about racial tension.
MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, wrote a letter in the days after the shootings, urging people at MIT to talk with each other about the violence, and then use their smarts to “help right the ship of our society.”
MIT held a lunch at which more than 600 students, professors, staff, and alumni sat around tables, ate chicken sandwiches, and talked. They talked about feeling anxious, sad, helpless, angry, guilty, and frustrated that they can’t change systems that seem broken, said DiOnetta Jones Crayton, associate dean for undergraduate education and director of the MIT office of minority education, who spoke at the event.
And of course, being scientists, people talked about experiments, and hypotheses, and solutions Jones Crayton said. Could technology help end racism, they wondered?
“We have expertise that we can lend to this dialogue,” she said in a phone interview after the event. Another student blogger wrote about the lunch.
Many colleges have student bloggers, but those at MIT are unusually candid. The school encourages the bloggers it selects each year to write what they want, so among entries about cooking, dormitory drama, and math problems are posts about depression and suicide, about sexual assault, and recently, about racism.
When Anioke’s post went live July 8, he was nervous about the response. He had written about his struggle to find community at MIT because, as someone from Nigeria, he didn’t totally identify with African-American culture.
“Because we’re mostly black [in Nigeria,] ‘being black’ was never a term that was part of my daily vocabulary. You were tall or short or fat or skinny or intelligent or a complete and utter idiot, but you weren’t black. It was as weird as saying ‘you’re human.’ ”
Then one day, he wrote, he was walking home from the Central Square post office in Cambridge and a white man grabbed him, accused him of stealing someone’s wallet, and hurled a racial slur.
“I can’t hide under some fancy little idea that there’s a barrier between black and African, because what matters to these people — you know who these people are — is that they can take one look at the color of your skin, and populate their minds with the entire back story of you,” he wrote.
“They can take one look at you, and before they’re even looking away, they’ve put you — they’ve put us — in this mental catalogue.”
As his post went live, he watched as the social media tickers at the bottom of the page spun. Five thousand, then 10,000, then 26,000 likes, and 1,320 tweets. His post is the blog’s seventh-most-viewed in the past six years, MIT said.
Other posts also have students talking. Sophomore Ben Oberlton’s July 11 post, “Life of a Black Person,” generated lots of conversation. In January, in response to other race-related events on other campuses, rising junior Selam Jie Gano wrote about training the eye to see color, and training people to respect each other. She followed up last week with a post called “Alien in America.”
“The difference between seeing and not seeing incidents of discrimination that happen to others is also about practice,” wrote Jie Gano in the earlier post, which even generated a comment from Reif.
For Anioke, the best part of writing was reading the comments. Unlike the shallow reactions on Facebook that had prompted him to write — comments that implied Castile was somehow partly to blame for being shot — these were thoughtful, filled with people sharing personal stories and messages of understanding.
“I sort of just kept writing and writing until I was done writing,” Anioke said in a phone interview last week. “I felt like I had spoken honesty.”
“Sometimes I wonder, can things change? Can things ever change?” Anioke said. “I do think things can change, we just need enough people to come together.”