As Belmont’s week commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. neared its end, a packed room in the Beaman Student Life Center put race and its role at the university at the center of a two-hour discussion Thursday afternoon.
History professor Dr. Peter Kuryla and the school’s MLK Commemoration Committee led the talk, wanting to hear what Belmont’s minority students have to say on about of race and diversity in today’s increasingly multicultural society.
MLK committee member Dr. Erin Pryor said listening to the experiences of minority students of race to dispel any misconceptions about different ethnicities and cultures is the perfect way to initiate a “broader, on-going (honest) conversation.”
“Since the discourse about race maintains that we now live in post-racial society, issues of race are typically not discussed and if they are, they tend to be couched in these color-blind notions,” Pryor said in an email before the event. “Therefore, with the re-election of President Obama and Belmont’s institutional goal of increasing diversity, we feel it is important to be in continual dialogue about race.”
Moderating the event with Kuryla was Gary Hunter, a staff member who had moderated similar discussions for four years with Real Talk, an organization that focuses on facilitating these discussions on college campuses. Hunter encouraged the audience to be straight and open with their comments.
“These discussions can be awkward, but once we get to talking, we get all over the place,” he said. “There are no wrong answers.”
Hunter and Kuryla opened the program by conducting a poll on the audiences’ feelings about topics surrounding race as several survey questions ranging from issues about racial progress and diversity in general to questions specifically regarding ethnic and racial diversity at Belmont flashed upon a projector screen.
When asked whether they thought there was much diversity at Belmont, nearly all of the people in the audience shook their heads.
Recent numbers confirm that feeling, as Belmont’s current student population consists of a overwhelmingly white majority with a few groups of minority students. According to collegedata.com, Belmont’s population of Caucasian students stands at 86.0 percent, while 4.3 percent are African Americans, 3.2 percent Hispanic and 1.6 percent Asian students.
While these statistics are nothing new, Kuryla and Pryor both believe those numbers need to change and that the change could start with comprehensive discussion. Pryor said Belmont’s diverse population is not large or representative enough, and that the idea that we live in a post-racial society is “simply a false conception that reinforces and perpetuates the status quo of racial inequality. Therefore, this conversation is intended to be a starting point not a conclusive end.”
Despite the current figures, most seemed to be optimistic about the growth of diversity at the school. Most people at the event also seemed to all agree that the best way to solve the issues of diversity and race was to openly talk about in close, intimate settings.
By the end of the session, Dr. Kuryla said he was impressed by the overall turnout and level of discussion.
“This is the first time I’ve hosted a convocation like this so I really wasn’t sure what to expect,” he said. “The discussion was frank, honest, constructive, and positive. I’d say it was generally good overall.”