Image vs. Reality: How Emerson Co-Opts Student Voices

The day after the student protest in October, I scrolled through Twitter, reading stories from fellow students marked with #ThisIsEmerson. I was overwhelmed with pride, admiring the bravery and strength of my peers, when one tweet made me stop cold. It was from the Emerson Graduate Admissions account, using our hashtag in a tweet that linked to a post on the admissions web page. The tweet, and the linked post, touted Emerson as a diverse and inclusive institution, with the Teach-In on Race—an event conceived of and organized by a black professor—as a prime example.

I was stunned. Was this the response I could expect after pouring my time and energy into provoking action? My frustration, my pain, my exhaustion after years of enduring microaggressions and battling higher ed bureaucracy, was being spun into a marketing tool for the very institution I had just marched in protest against. I was shocked at how little time had passed before the phrase #ThisIsEmerson had turned from a rallying cry into an admissions slogan.

This is what it looks like when marginalization is co-opted by an institution. It looks like the home page of our website with smiling faces of black and brown students who have long since graduated. It looks like images of Flawless Brown performances being used in school brochures before the organization was granted SGA recognition or funding. It looks like the labor of students of color, whether as tour guides or activists or simply added color to a classroom, being exploited by an institution that mistreats us.

Emerson may be classified as a nonprofit, but the college cannot function without making money. Maintaining a steady income of donations and our tuition dollars is the number one priority, and that means image is everything, regardless of reality. Using the faces and voices of students of color to promote the school shows us the college cares more about its bottom line than what we experience within its walls.

This may have been a one-time social media blunder, but it’s representative of a problem that permeates the way Emerson presents itself to the world. It reveals the great discomfort of speaking out against an institution whose public face is very different from the lived experiences of its marginalized members. It imbues a fear in students that our words will inevitably be twisted, that our individual bravery will be held up as a testament to the school – as though we are speaking up because of, not in spite of, what Emerson has taught us. It’s great that Emerson cares about appearing diverse and inclusive, but it’s time for the reality of what students experience to match the projected image.

Lucie Pereira