We Are Calvin [too]: Daniel José Camacho
I don’t blame the ones who leave and I never hold it against them. I, myself, contemplated transferring during every semester that I attended Calvin. As a second-generation Latino with darker skin, my desire to leave was largely due to my experiences of racism and cultural isolation. Every time another friend, staff member or professor of color left Calvin — which was far too often — it rippled through my world like a small shock wave. There were already few people I could identify with.
So why did I stay? The short answer is that I felt God calling me to be at Calvin. I had decided to go to Calvin because I wanted an education that would both respect my faith and allow me to study broadly. And for the most part, that’s what I received. I found professors and staff who nurtured me intellectually and spiritually. Yet, in the process, I also ended up learning what it meant to be a student of color at a very white Christian college. I stayed because I felt called to witness in this environment and to make this a better place for all students who would come after me.
During my first year, I remember an orientation event held at chapel in which we, as an incoming class, were asked to find two or three students from another culture to interact with. Not a terrible idea in principle, except that I was clearly outnumbered, felt cornered and felt objectified by students not shy to share with me that they had never interacted with Latino people apart from those who provided services to them. It was hard to sometimes feel commodified, like a little bit of flavor being used to spice up somebody else’s main dish.
The awkwardness continued when people asked “what” I was, when white people tried to act “gangster” around me, when they asked if I was an “illegal,” when some international students didn’t understand why I wasn’t more grateful, when I was surrounded by enthusiasm for concerts and events that didn’t connect with me, when I heard the annual backlash from white students during UnLearn Week who claimed that they were being oppressed. I learned the art of laughing it off because I didn’t have enough time to cry.
The worst part is that I thought there was something wrong with me. When I addressed an incident in which a student drew swastikas on my dorm floor, I was met by silence or made to feel like the problem. I was too sensitive. I was too angry. I learned how the Christian virtues of love and patience could be used to paper over wounds and justify inaction.
Microaggressions, paternalisms and cultural appropriations were not limited only to a handful of “conservative” students making jokes in dorms or “progressive” students loving the poor in Africa. I also witnessed people of color slighted by a highbrow intellectual racism that kept diversity concerns at arm’s length.
I share my story as someone who loves Calvin. It enriched my faith and gave me amazing friends and mentors. It opened my path to graduate studies. I also share my story as someone who has been hurt and seen others hurt at Calvin.
How can Calvin improve? There is a rich legacy of faith and a reformed identity to uphold. Yet, there are requirements and barriers for people of color at Calvin that make this feel like a one-way street. Is there a way for us to honor Calvin’s heritage and reformed identity while also making room for diversity and transformation?