Junior Chris Tarpley singlehandedly ignited a fiery, vigorous debate at the most recent Elon University SGA meeting, sprouting an animated conversation about race with three simple words: Where were you?

What was originally scheduled as a hearing of a potential resolution in opposition to House Bill 2 quickly evolved into a discussion of the lack of inclusivity toward minority students.

Tarpley, an academic senator for the College of Arts and Sciences, was frustrated because he recently attended a race education event without any other senators. Tarpley implied his colleagues were hypocrites because they adhere to the wishes of the LGBTQIA community but continually neglect the concerns of African-Americans — a vastly outnumbered portion of Elon's population.

“We say we’re leaders, but if we’re not doing anything to be leaders and to make progress on this campus, then we're all talk," Tarpley said. “I wish we didn’t have to have that conversation, but I’m glad that we were able to because people were open and saying how they really felt.”

Tarpley, who stepped out of SGA's April 14 meeting early to hear George Yancy speak at Elon, said he was disappointed he was the only SGA representative in attendance. Yancey, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, talked with Tarpley after the lecture and challenged him to confront the issue of race with his colleagues. Though SGA members have an obligation to be at meetings, he argued learning about essential inclusivity issues was more important to attend than the lower-energy weekly session.

What ensued after Tarpley's assertions was a passionate discussion about how SGA could address racial problems. Throughout the fall semester, many minority students voiced their displeasure about the underlying divide between minority students and white students on campus, which was reflected in a presidential task force report in September 2015. 

Despite these findings, many members of SGA argued little progress has been in the time since.

Some African-American SGA members, who account for a small portion of the total number of members, said their constituents feel SGA does not have their best interest at heart. As a result, they are fearful about approaching  SGA with their concerns. Another point of contention was addressing discrimination on campus. When freshman Kenneth Brown was re-elected president of the Class of 2019, he argued that some males in his class thought he would not be capable of representing them because he was a part of a minority group. Junior Executive Secretary Alex Hunter said she was deeply disturbed after hearing Brown's comment. 

“That comment really struck me because not only are those boys [who don't think Brown would be an adequate representative] ignorant, but I think I’m ignorant for thinking that doesn’t happen at Elon," Hunter said. "This is an important message to spread. We are ignorant for thinking, ‘Oh, that doesn’t really happen at Elon. People don’t really say that.’ No one should be saying that, and I think we need to be working toward a community where that sort of stuff doesn’t come up as an issue.”

Highlights from the SGA discussion about racial inclusivity on Elon's campus.

While SGA cannot control other people's prejudices, SGA Faculty Adviser Jana Lynn Patterson challenged members to be more outgoing and intentional about solving this dilemma. She said the intensity and fervor of this discussion encouraged her, but  added the next step is for more action instead of words.

“You grow when things are off-kilter," Patterson said. "You grow when things are uncomfortable. If we don’t challenge these things, then we’re not going to grow."

Junior Executive President Kyle Porro said he was extremely thankful Tarpley brought up the issue because it encouraged other senators to rise out of the shadows and express their reactions. 

“The biggest point that stood out to me, regardless whether it's about race or HB2, is that the general consensus is that people do not feel comfortable coming to SGA if there is a problem,” Porro said. "Student government is only here to make change upon what the students want to see, and if the students don't feel comfortable or safe with us, then that defeats the purpose because why are we here?"