Willie Burnley said his story actually feels old. He said he has been seeing it unfold throughout his first year at Emerson.
But for thousands on the internet, his story about racial bias on campus has started a heated dialogue on the issue of discrimination at the college.
Burnley, a freshman writing, literature and publishing major, wrote an essay for online Isis Magazine — an Emerson publication — titled “The Race Problem at Emerson,” sparking impassioned arguments in the post’s comment section and other forms of social media.
In the three days the story has been on the website, it has received 254 comments, and 1,400 Facebook likes and shares, according to Isis’ webpage. Rachel Simon, a co-editor-in-chief of Isis, also said the site has surpassed 20,000 page views since it was launched over four weeks ago, which she credited to Burnley’s story.
Burnley’s article comes in the midst of a series of graffiti incidents on campus, which have involved messages surrounding race and religion that college officials have said are hate-motivated.
“Frankly, what I’ve seen is a lot of pompous white students who only seem to base their left-leaning status off of their acceptance of the LGBTQ community,” he wrote, “and who allow that to stand as the sole signifier of diversity at Emerson.”
For Burnley, the attention his story has received came as a surprise.
“I knew obviously some people would see it,” he said in an interview. “After the first comment came, I knew more comments would come, but I had no idea it was going to expand so fast. It has over 1,000 likes, so the fact so many people I knew back home in California shared it — it spread over there and over here at the same time — it makes me feel really amazed.”
Simon said the Isis editors were prepared for a strong response to the story.
“The fact that it was about race, we hoped that it would elicit a reaction that could be controversial,” Simon said. “But we stand behind it completely in the sense that it’s an eloquent piece, it’s well written, and he raises a lot important points that, if people want to debate them, we welcome that.”
Burnley said he wrote the piece two weeks ago, and thought it would be posted earlier.
“I submitted it to Isis Magazine; they were going to publish it soon, but then they forgot, and it got lost in submissions,” he said. “Upon reminding them, they posted it quickly, and the responses just flooded in.”
Simon said it was always the editors’ intention for the article to be published.
“We got that submission and we definitely liked it, and thought that it deserved to be published and get out there,” said the sophomore writing, literature and publishing major. “But we had just had a ton of submissions the last few weeks, and each one takes a few days to process.”
A San Diego native, Burnley said his expectations of racial tolerance at Emerson were not met in reality.
“I knew Emerson wouldn’t be as diverse racially,” he said, “but I thought it would be more accepting and tolerant, and that people would be more educated — educated to the point where it wouldn’t be as big an issue here.”
Some online comments support Burnley’s argument; others said the culture he was describing doesn’t exist.
“I feel like this is an attempt to create a mountain out of a mole hill,” wrote an anonymous commenter.
“I just feel like it is a quick jump and a lofty accusation to say that many of the white students at Emerson are racist,” wrote another anonymous commenter.
Simon said Isis had been moderating comments on the site, and said it has taken down a few which she characterized as being “hateful or discriminatory.”
In the 1,414 word essay, Burnley also chose to address the recent incidents of graffiti on campus, and more specifically, the actions that administrators have taken in response.
“The response was deracialized, and I was talking a lot about color-blindness [in the story],” he said. Burnley added that the emails to the Emerson community from President M. Lee Pelton, Dean of Students Ronald Ludman, and resident directors didn’t get to the problem’s root.
Pelton said he was pleased to see that Burnley had the courage to write the article for Isis.
“I’m also pleased that it has engendered discussion and warm debate, though, of course, our hope is that disagreements will be carried out with active listening and respect for different points of view,” Pelton wrote in a statement to the Beacon.
Pelton is Emerson’s first African-American president.
“Clearly, we do not live in a post-racial society,” Pelton wrote in the same statement. “Nor is Emerson post-racial just because I am its president.”
Sylvia Spears, vice president of diversity and inclusion, said she has a plan to improve Emerson’s diversity efforts.
“I have to applaud the student for his willingness to share his experience,” Spears said. “He reveals some complexities about issues on diversity.”
Spears said in the wake of both the multiple graffiti incidents and Burnley’s piece, an educational series was launched for staff members, providing faculty with background knowledge and instructional strategies to effectively teach diverse groups of students.
During spring break, a program titled “Sticks and Stones” will be offered to faculty, and will focus on how to deal with hurtful words. The same program will be available to students when they return from break, according to Spears.
Additionally, Spears said she hopes to launch a faculty fellows program this summer, which will focus on developing instructional strategies to create effective learning environments for a diverse community of students.
Burnley said while he was crafting the piece, he had no idea where it would go, and had no desired end-product. However, he said some elements of his argument could have been more clearly articulated.
“This wasn’t an attack on all white students, but it is an attack on most,” he said. “Because I do believe as a general society America uses colorblindness to hide racism.”