Most people are surprised when Jean E. Whalen tells them she’s the vice president of Southern Oregon University’s Black Student Union.
“They go, ‘Oh, how does that work?’ ” said Whalen. "Or they'll say, 'Oh, really?' with an incredulous look on their face."
Whalen, 43, is a senior, a single mother and white. She joined the BSU for the sake of her 5-year-old, biracial son, Jude Whalen.
“I’m the only white person regularly attending (BSU) meetings, but I feel comfortable in that space,” Whalen said.
Being black isn't a prerequisite of BSU membership because that’s not the point.
“Ultimately, it’s about sharing black culture,” said Marvin Woodard Jr., who oversees the BSU and other identity-based clubs on campus.
“It’s all relational,” he added. “The more you know about other cultures, the richer your life is because you’re able to appreciate the differences and similarities.”
Whalen joined the BSU a year ago because she wanted Jude to be around other black people, particularly black men, as “he has no contact with his dad and that side of the family.” Jude attends the weekly BSU meetings with his mom and, earlier this week, met Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers who, at the invitation of the BSU, spoke at SOU as part of Black History Month.
“He’s being exposed to things that he wouldn't normally be, and he just soaks it all up,” she said.
Since joining the BSU, Whalen said she’s become “more aware of how uncomfortable it can be in the Rogue Valley for people of color and how they experience micro-aggression on a daily basis.”
Micro-aggression, Whalen explained, often stems from ignorance and includes actions such as locking your car door when you see a black person or calling on the only black student in the class to speak when race is brought up.
“I’ve been asked if the adoption is final in regard to my son,” Whalen said. “I think a lot of it is that people are naive and ignorant and don’t understand, but it’s hard to excuse, especially on a college campus.”
SOU’s BSU is more than 20 years old and provides opportunities for students to engage in social justice work around blackness, connect with black students on campus and ask questions in an effort to be more culturally competent, Woodard said.
BSU president and SOU junior Ahsante Foree said officers hear all kinds of questions. For example, one white student wanted to know how black people feel about white people with dreadlocks.
The BSU garnered local media attention in December when it organized #OperationHandsUpWalkOut to raise awareness about the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., and bring attention to similar incidents across the country. Students gathered in front of SOU’s Churchill Hall and walked to the Stevenson Union, where they observed a moment of silence for Brown before proceeding downtown.
Members responded to questions left on media posts after the walkout but ignored those from people using the n-word, stereotyping or justifying police violence, Foree said.
“We helped to dismantle the problematic narratives that you see reproduced when things like this happen,” he said.
Foree, who was born and raised in Denver and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at the age of 9, would like to return to Colorado or California to work as a clinical social worker with queer youth of color living in urban environments.
Foree attended “mostly white schools" growing up and one semester at Oakwood University, a historically black Seventh-day Adventist institution in Huntsville, Ala., before transferring to SOU in 2013.
While 1,600 of the 1,880 undergraduate students at Oakwood are black, only 116 — about 1.9 percent — of the 6,186 students attending SOU last fall were black.
Isaac Haynes Sanstad, the BSU’s director of education, said the lack of diversity can create a feeling of isolation among minorities.
“I’m not an athlete so I’m not part of groups (sports teams) that may be more populated by black people,” said Sanstad, who is biracial.
“I've wrestled with my identity, but my involvement with the BSU … and being part of a multi-ethnic community helps,” he said.
The university mirrors the diversity deficit in the greater Ashland area and around the state. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, only about 1.8 percent of people who reported one race and lived in Ashland between 2008 and 2012 were black.
Foree said Oregon’s history of discriminatory legislation is one of the reasons so few blacks live in the state.
Years before it was granted statehood, Oregon had provisional laws in place that forbade blacks from settling in the region. At one point, blacks who remained in the state after being freed were whipped twice a year until they left. This punishment was later replaced by forced labor.
In 1859, Oregon became the only free state admitted to the union with an exclusion clause in its constitution. The clause read:
“No free negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the legislative assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all such negroes and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the state, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ or harbor them.”
This section of the constitution was not repealed until 1927. By that time, the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in Oregon, with between 14,000 and 20,000 members, according to a timeline provided by Coaching for Educational Equality. Even then Gov. Walter M. Pierce was said to be a KKK sympathizer.
“These are some of the reasons why, A, there is still so much implicit prejudice in Oregon, and B, there are so few black people in our area,” Foree said.
The BSU, he said, facilitates dialogue around blackness and black history at each of its meetings. This month, in recognition of Black History Month, the group will present “Dear White People” on Feb. 19 and “Malcom X” on Feb. 26 (Part 1) and Feb. 27 (Part 2) in Room 319 of the Stevenson Union. The films start at 5 p.m., are followed by a group discussion and are open to the public.
The BSU also will host its annual Soul Food Dinner at 6 p.m. Feb. 24 in the Rogue River Room at SOU. Tickets will be available at the Stevenson Union help desk the week before the event.
“When I think about blackness, I think about family,” Foree said. “Spaces within African-American vernacular English necessitate that people address each other as brother and sister.
"We invite people to the table and tell them to bring their whole selves and to bring all their identities," he said.
Reach reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.