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SUNY Potsdam talks racism in YouTube video

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POTSDAM — Four years ago, Tamara T. Jackson was a high school senior living in Jamaica, Queens.

She was sending college applications, looking for the right place to continue her education.

She settled on SUNY Potsdam because she was ready to move on from the busy city life, meet new people and get the full college experience.

But she said what she found when she got to the north country was surprising.

Here, she said, she found a community that struggled to accept individuals who were black or minority. Both during her time on campus and in the community, Ms. Jackson said, she has seen, and been the target of, a number of racially motivated incidents.

She even recalled being told she couldn’t enter a party because they didn’t want her “kind” in the building.

“It came as a surprise. I didn’t expect it to be this way,” the speech communications major said.

In an attempt to shed light on the issues and begin to educate those around her, Ms. Jackson joined a group of SUNY Potsdam students, faculty and staff who have taken their fight against racism viral in a diversity dialogue video.

During the eight-minute YouTube clip, created as part of the university’s Black History Month celebration, students share their experiences and the challenges that people of color face across the country and in the region.

One black student talks about how he had a drink thrown on him by someone in a moving car while he was walking down Pierrepont Avenue.

“I didn’t know the people, I didn’t know what I had done or anything for that matter,” he says in the video. “But I was just like ‘wow.’ It’s a culture shock. I’m not accustomed to having drinks thrown on me anywhere.”

The students talk openly about ignorance, tackling topics like prejudice, misunderstanding and the need for open discussions in order for diversity to grow.

“I thought it was a very important topic that students in Potsdam and the community as a whole needed to be aware of,” Ms. Jackson said.

And they talk about what racism does to a person who is the target of the attacks.

“It kills a piece of you inside,” John D. Youngblood, an associate professor of English and communications at the university, said in the video. “If anyone could feel racism for one moment, they would never be a part of it.”

Nearly all the students and staff who appear in the video agree that racial issues in Potsdam and throughout the north country stem from a lack of knowledge and understanding of different cultures.

“Coming up here, it’s a culture shock for us and as well as to them (local residents),” Ms. Jackson said. “It’s a sense of ignorance, not in a bad way, but plainly not knowing or being knowledgeable about the culture we’re from.”

Demetrius Dowell, a 2010 graduate of the school and current admissions officer at SUNY Potsdam, said the university is making an effort to increase its minority student numbers. And it’s working.

For the first time, in the fall of 2011, more than 10 percent of students at SUNY Potsdam identified themselves as students of color.

That number could continue to grow as SUNY Potsdam continues its push for a more diverse campus, he said.

While that number may seem small compared with other schools, it’s a big step for a university where it wasn’t uncommon to have only one minority student in a class just a few years ago.

But diversifying a campus is a slow process, Mr. Dowell said.

“We want people who want to be here and who believe in the Potsdam learning model and who can interact in the community,” he said.

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