“Iola”: A Conversation With Kara Neal on Diversity

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“I think we need to start by questioning why we are lacking in diversity. Why is Bates not an attractive institution to more Black staff and Black students? Starting to form an answer to that question and then fixing the problems pointed out by the question can get us going in the right direction.”

Joseph Vann, Contributing Writer

Let’s all be honest with ourselves. The diversity at Bates is extremely lacking. I won’t criticize the institution too much for its “lack of Black,” as I like to put it, since we are in Maine, but for a college that prides itself on being one of the first to accept minorities, you would think we would’ve progressed past this conversation.

My goal in bringing this issue up, however, is not to draw up ideas on how to lure Black students up to Maine. My goal is to address the issues that Black students and students of color see at Bates, and what we can do to address them. 

When applying to colleges, I remember asking a current Black Bates student what it was like being Black on campus. Her hesitation to answer the question gave me all the answers I needed. While Bates has been and still is making great strides in the right direction, administrators with the power to enact change still have a lot of work to do to make this place a truly safe place for students of color. 

“Iola” was a newspaper column created by the iconic Ida B. Wells. The trailblazer dedicated her life to fighting for the equality of her people, mainly through the power of words. I hope to honor Wells’ memory in continuing her fight for equality, continuing her unapologetic methods and continuing her newspaper article, “Iola.” 

Kara Neal is a first-year student from D.C. and Hawaii. She plans to major in either Africana or Politics with a hope to help write policy with regards to public education reform in the future. In her free time, Kara likes to do community engagement, volleyball, and drawing candids of everyday people. 

Joseph Vann: How was the diversity in your high school?

Kara Neal: It was fine. Though my school was predominantly white, we still had some POC. I would say it was about 70% white and the POC made up the rest of the percentages. I liked it. It gave me the ability to interact with a multitude of people from different backgrounds without having to feel isolated or discriminated against if I had gone to a school that had no Black people or POC in general. 

Vann: Going from your high school to Bates, was there any initial shock with how white the campus was or were you indifferent to it? 

Neal: I knew coming in that the campus would be very white. It’s one of the first things I checked when looking at the school originally. I want to say that I was prepared but there’s a huge difference between reading the percentages and statistics and then actually being on campus and seeing those percentages. I remember in a graphic I saw online, it said Bates was 67.2% white. In my head, when I first saw that, I thought it would be kinda like my high school. However, once actually moving here, it felt like the campus was 99.9% white with a few POC sprinkled across the campus. So, to actually answer your question, there was a bit of a shock. 

Vann: You touched on this in your previous answer, but was diversity a big part of your college decision? 

Neal: At first it was, then it wasn’t. My school was okay with its diversity, but [in the beginning of my search,] I really wanted to go somewhere where I was the majority and not the minority for once. I didn’t want to ever have to experience being the only Black person in my class or having to be the spokesperson for everything Black ever (because that gets tiring very quickly). 

Vann: What changed? 

Neal: Well, I really want to major in education and possibly become a teacher. Now, as we know, the teaching field is not very diverse at all. So trying to avoid predominantly white spaces so early into my career seemed like a disservice to me. If I were to go to a PWI, I would know what it felt like to be in a majority white space, figure out strategies to take up space in those spaces, and then carry those strategies with me to my field (which, again, is predominantly white). [This explanation] sometimes feels like an excuse I made up; sometimes it feels like I played the system. 

Vann: Being Black, do you sometimes wish you went to a majority Black school? Like an HBCU? 

Neal: Oh, definitely. I always see the events that the HBCUs host for their first-years and they look like so much fun. Just Black people unapologetically embracing and enjoying their Blackness together. Going back to the previous question, the reason why I sometimes feel like that explanation is an excuse is because during the college process I felt very hesitant on applying to HBCUs. Any Black kid who went to a predominantly white school district knows that fear of being too white-washed to be considered Black anymore. Now the conversation on what Blackness is and how a Black person can act “non-Black” can be held for another time because that’s a whole other can of worms. But, I kinda felt like if I did apply and did go to those HBCUs, I wouldn’t be accepted because of all the “white-washing.” It may be an irrational fear but it’s still a fear of mine. 

Vann: Now that you’re here at Bates, what do you want to see change in the next four years? 

Neal: It’s hard to just say I want to see more diversity in the coming years because I know how difficult that can be. I think we need to start by questioning why we are lacking in diversity. Why is Bates not an attractive institution to more Black staff and Black students? Starting to form an answer to that question and then fixing the problems pointed out by the question can get us going in the right direction. I do remember the President saying that this year’s student body was one of the most diverse bodies in history, so that’s a start!