Low Attendance at African Ancestry Month Events Sparks Critical Discussion

Photo by Pauline Park

African-American History Month has served as a catalyst for faculty members and student leaders to air their dissatisfaction with overall student attendance at events aimed at promoting awareness of racial issues on campus.

February represents a month-long celebration of black achievements, allowing for a national conversation on issues facing people of color. Student-organized events attempting to facilitate such a dialogue are failing, according to college professors, as the majority of the student population fails to attend.

“It’s because white students — the racially privileged — don’t recognize their own privilege," said professor of Social Issues Brandon Martin, who is white. "I certainly didn’t throughout my college experience."

The student president of the Diversity Action Committee is disheartened by the lack of student involvement during African-American History Month, but ultimately agrees with Martin.

“I feel to some extent we should be reaching out to people who wouldn’t normally attend these events, like white people or people who aren’t people of color, but I also feel you can’t put the onus on black people to go out and educate white people,” Kevin Hurtado said.

Professor Paul Reck, convener of the sociology department and member of the College’s Africana studies group, shares Martin’s views.

“One of the problems with pegging certain events as being associated with particular groups is that they are then perceived by the majority of people outside of their groups as ‘something that has nothing to do with me,’” Reck said.

African American History Month began in 1925, according to africanamericanhistory.gov. Created by Carter G. Woodson with the intention to defeat prejudice through the propagation of black achievements, the event has now long been nationally recognized.

But perennially, social commentators ask if African Ancestry Month continues to remain relevant in contemporary America. Answers in the negative appear in opinion columns across the country every February; actress Stacy Dash, who is African-American, called for the event's termination earlier this month.

The Black Lives Matter movement has rechristened February "Black Futures Month." The name change is accompanied by BLM-sponsored events "committed to ending state-sanctioned violence against Black people; violence like environmental racism as illustrated by the man-made Flint water pandemic and the systemic murder of Black people by law enforcement," according to a press release. 

In light of the outcry made by prominent leaders of color, Martin, Reck and other student leaders believe the heritage month is now more important than it has ever been.

“Our country’s leadership is not having the conversations we need to be having in order to achieve what we need to achieve, which is equity and social justice … in 2008 there was so much hope and optimism [due to Obama’s election] but I would venture to say we are in a worse place now than we were in 2008 [in terms of racial equity],” Martin said.

Martin finds fault in the concept of a post-racial society, the goal of many who would dissolve African Ancestry Month.

“The argument that African Ancestry Month further separates — instead of includes — is based upon a post-racial society, and is that really what we want? Are we ready in 2016 to call this a post-racial America?” Martin asked.

“I’m fearful of a post-racial, colorblind society where we’re all gray … I think that actually takes away from the uniqueness as a country, from the melting pot, from our embracing of multiple cultures and religions and backgrounds,” Martin added.

Reck and Martin, who have both served as advisors on multiple heritage month committees, worry about the scant crowds drawn in by Ramapo’s African Ancestry Month events. Attendee demographics tend to be restricted to the racial or ethnic minority represented by the event.

“Do I think that a lot these events reach a broad audience and are successful in that respect? The answer is no,” Reck said.

Martin is adamant that white students need to make an effort to attend events highlighting cultures other than their own in order to improve race relations both on campus and in the wider world.

“Once you identify that you have privilege, no matter what it is, I believe you should use your position to either amplify the voice or speak for groups whose voices aren’t recognized or heard, " Martin said. "If you can be that ally … ask yourself how can you help others. That’s the first step.”

In his role as faculty advisor for DAC, Reck hopes to increase the impact of diversity-oriented events by broadening their appeal.

“If you’re just preaching to the choir, there’s a lot of folks who really could benefit from learning about this history, this culture, about the mistreatment and social problems that certain people face,” said Reck.

"But the thematic, ethnic, religious and racial elements tend to enforce segregation because people think, ‘this has nothing to do with me.’ We have to phrase and market these events in ways that show these topics have ramifications for all of us. We need to draw parallels between our own cultural experiences and the cultural experiences of others,” Reck said.

“DAC is beginning to co-sponsor with a broader range of student organizations so that we can ideally increase turnout. For example, our event #OscarsSoWhite will be co-sponsored by both the Black Student Union and Alpha Psi Omega, which is the theater honor society,” said Hurtado.