By Aaron Quigly
Shock flickered for a moment across Obe Quarless', `09, face during his freshman year as a friend admitted that he is the first black person she had ever spoken to. Pressure and disbelief struck Quarless: pressure that he was setting the only impression this girl has of black people, and disbelief that any American could still be so sheltered. Quarless' disbelief melded into concern for how many other students at Whitworth don't have the courage to admit their lack of cultural exposure.
Only 18 percent of Whitworth students are not white, and Quarless is one of an even smaller percentage of black students, according to Whitworth Admissions Office reports.
"I can see how prejudice is formed by lack of cultural understanding and leads to stereotyping," Quarless said. "I fear that my actions are creating the stereotypes for how some people view all black people."
And they do.
Quarless is a member of the Act Six Scholarship Program, which provides funding to students dedicated to using their education to improve their home communities. Act Six students are active in universities around the nation and Whitworth brings between seven and 10 new Act Six scholars to the university each year. Although 79 percent of all Act Six scholars are black, race is not a primary factor of the selection process. Ignorance about the program leads to stereotyping of its students, as a sophomore Sather Gowdy experiences.
"I get asked often if I am an Act Six student," Gowdy said. "Because I am black and go to Whitworth does not mean I am Act Six."
Gowdy may stand out because of his large afro hairstyle but otherwise he is a very typical Whitworth student. In fact he is the adopted son of beloved English Professor Leonard Oakland.
Some minority students report feeling additional pressure to perform well in the classroom because of the stereotyping.
"I feel that my grades not only represent me, but every black student on campus," Gowdy said. "It's an unfair responsibility to live with."
Black exchange students can also have their individual identity removed as people stereotype them with others on campus with a similar skin tone.
"I like to lie to people that I am from Madagascar, when I am really from Kenya. No one knows the difference" Miriam Wajohi, a Kenya exchange student said. "To me, it's like a white person telling someone they are from Mexico. It's funny."
Coming from Africa, Wajohi's life experience is quite different from most of the African-Americans at Whitworth, but she has been introduced to all of them as if they share a secret friendship. Wajohi feels part of her Whitworth identity is rooted in the image of other black students on campus.
"Most people only know me as coming from Africa," Wajohi said. "They do not know where Kenya is, or what it is different from Ghana."
Whitworth has 16 African students studying on campus, and they come from very diverse backgrounds. Exchange students come from Ghana and Kenya remind others than their two countries geographically are further apart then Washington and New York. They don't even speak the same language.
ASWU President Quarless says Whitworth itself does not create of stereotyping, but rather many Whitworth students come out of the dominant culture and assume that their own experiences are normal.
"Many of the students at Whitworth share the same background, the same experiences," Quarless said. "Anything different to that is still unfamiliar to many students."
Quarless has become good friends with the girl who admitted her lack of cultural exposure their freshman year. He hopes others can share the experience of seeing stereotypes overcome. He has become a proponent for more diverse recruiting based not only on race and ethnicity but geography as well, Quarless said. "Exposure is the key to seeing prejudice and stereotyping change."