If you’ve taken a psychology class, one of the first things you learn is the hierarchy of human needs. It is said that the needs lower down in the hierarchy must be met before we can face other higher levels of need. Second to physiological needs, like food and water, is the need for safety and security — a home. Third on the hierarchy is the need for belongingness.

Black students, Indigenous students and students of color struggle to meet these needs at the University of Wisconsin, as they navigate through a campus where racism has deep roots that linger and white students make up a majority of the population.

Black, Indigenous and people of color at UW have voiced that places they feel welcome and safe on campus are few and far between. This issue extends into the residence halls students are supposed to call their home.

Nile Lansana, a senior studying journalism and creative writing at UW, emphasized how important a secure and comfortable living space is.

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“If you don’t have a safe and welcoming environment, it affects your sleep, it affects your mental capacity, it affects your physical and emotional well-being. At the end of the day, it’s the University that is supposed to protect students, and it affects your ability to function as a student,” Lansana said. “It’s exhausting to exist in a space where you don’t feel wanted and it’s exhausting to function in a university that doesn’t make you feel valued. The University makes me feel like my Blackness is a burden.”

A House is not a Home

Lansana came to UW from Chicago as a First Wave Scholar. His freshman year, he lived in Sellery Hall in “the Studio,” a learning community meant to foster creativity.

Photo by Fatoumata Ceesay | Nile Lansana, a senior creative writing and journalism major at UW.

He said on multiple occasions, his friends were accused by house fellows of smoking marijuana when they were burning incense, something he believed to be racially motivated. He also recalled an incident of a non-Black student saying the N-word on their floor.

“There are things that happen every day in different dorms where there is not the level of accountability that there should be,” Lansana said. “I know people who have been racially harassed and sexually harassed within the dorms, and it’s this culture of white privilege that is within UW-Madison that allows people to think they can move in a manner of disrespect and that there won’t be a lot of accountability for it.”

A sophomore student, who has asked to remain anonymous, opted for a random roommate in Chadbourne his freshman year. He had heard that particular hall was more diverse, but was met with prejudice within the first week of living there.

His relationship with his roommate was normal until he left his Quran — a religious Islamic text — on his desk.

“That was the day he stopped talking to me at all,” he said.

As not only a Black person, but also a Muslim coming to Madison from a more diverse city, he said he was cautious of how open he was about his religion, knowing that he could be faced with discrimination.

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After his roommate ended all communication, he felt uncomfortable and spent as much time out of his room as possible, going on bike rides or staying at friends’ dorms.

After a few weeks of living in Chadbourne, his friends helped him move to the Multicultural Learning Community, a section of Witte Hall meant to be a safe space for multiculturalism, which helped him feel more valued and safe.

“It does something to you psychologically when you’re next to someone who you think could harm you or doesn’t like you based off of your skin color,” he said. “If I had been in the situation that I was in last year during COVID, I don’t know how I would have gotten through that because it would have been torture being stuck in a room with someone you don’t feel safe with.”

Lansana said while he doesn’t think it is a House Fellow’s job to educate students about these issues, there should be more training for housing staff and residents on how to deal with racism and anti-Blackness.

According to Assistant Director of Residence Life Cleda Wang, this year’s housing staff went through two weeks of training on inclusive language and microaggressions, gender and sexuality, implications of COVID-19 on socioeconomic status, social media and oppression, as well as education about Ho-Chunk and Indigenous communities.

Wang also said each residence hall staff member goes to ongoing meetings on various topics related to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice.

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Djamal Lylecyrus, a sophomore at UW who is Black, came to UW from Los Angeles through the Posse program. As a freshman, he was assigned a random roommate in Witte Hall.

From the beginning of his time there, Lylecyrus said he felt uncomfortable as his non-Black roommate freely said the N-word when singing along to songs. The only thing that kept him going was the community he had outside of his room, he said.

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Wang said the best way for students to report incidences of hate or bias in the dorms is through their House Fellow, who will formally report it. Students can also fill out the Campus Bias Reporting Form. If students fill out a report and are not anonymous, they will be contacted by an official who can connect them to resources.

“Each case is unique and we take into account how residents want to be supported through each incident. It ranges from individual educational conversations, the conduct disciplinary process, a letter to the community, to a restorative dialogue,” Wang said.

Lylecyrus, Lansana and the anonymous student all said the reason they have never reported an incident is because they don’t trust the University to follow through with an investigation, and this isn’t uncommon.

A recent survey from Gallup found the majority of college graduates, especially those who are Black and Hispanic, reported they were not confident their university would have fully investigated discrimination complaints while they were still students

In June, Lylecyrus, alongside classmates Brooke Messaye and Jordan Joseph, created an Instagram account called “BIPOCatWisco” where students anonymously share their personal experiences with racism on campus. After seeing similar accounts pop up at other schools, they wanted to create a platform for themselves and their peers.

The dozens of stories shared on the account paints a completely different picture of a university from the one that white people experience, Lylecyrus said. Scrolling through the posts, you’ll find accounts of racism in all areas of campus, including where they live, classes, Greek life, social gatherings and simply walking down the street.

One student shared that they, as a biracial and Jewish person, endured racial slurs on a daily basis from their roommate who they said was a holocaust-denier. It took housing two weeks to remove them from “an increasingly dangerous and uncomfortable situation,” they said.

Campus Culture 

The racism occurring in the residence halls is an extension of the culture that permeates the UW campus as a whole, made possible by the actions, or lack thereof, of university administration as well as the students, Lansana said.

“If you think about systemic racism as an illness, it’s not just attacking your liver, it’s more like a cancer. It’s going to spread and be all across your body,” Lylecyrus said. “Racism is present in all aspects of campus.”

UW’s track record with racism is long and goes far back, even housing the Ku Klux Klan as a student organization in the 1920s.

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In the past few years, UW has seen numerous racist incidents such as students writing racial slurs on school property, a Homecoming video that included no Black people and a man who wore a costume depicting a noose around Obama’s head at a football game at Camp Randall, along with the dozens of incidences of bias reported to the University.

One occurrence that hit close to home for BIPOC students was the firing of UW junior Chuefeng Yang, a House Fellow in the MLC, due to complaints from students claiming that white residents felt unwelcome based on race. Yang had asked MLC residents to limit white visitors in an effort to protect the intentionality of the space.

The MLC is intended to create a safe space for a diverse group of students to come together and explore multiculturalism, diversity and social justice, according to University Housing.

“For so long, students of color on this campus have been begging and complaining and emailing and rioting and protesting for their needs to be met and yet for some reason, when five to six white students complain, all of a sudden it results in a person of color being removed from a space,” Yang said to NBC15.

The University said the decision was based on the fact that discrimination is counter to the University’s values and the law prohibits the University from discriminating in its programs and services based on race.

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The anonymous student who moved to the MLC his freshman year said that it was hard to see Yang, who had made him feel so comfortable, get fired for the comfortability of his white peers. He, along with several other students, protested in front of the Housing office after.

A space that is truly intended for BIPOC and people who share similar ideas is important, especially within a predominantly white institution, he said.

“Being on campus and being a student of color can be isolating already,” he said. “If you have a bad roommate situation, they could be racist. It is kind of necessary based on the way that we’re being treated here to have some safe spaces for people of color to live.”

The lack of spaces where BIPOC students feel welcome and safe is something they are forced to reckon with daily, something their white counterparts are not, Lansana said. Organizations like the Multicultural Student Union, the Black Student Union and The Black Voice are some of the only places he feels “at home.”

“Coming here, I didn’t think I was going to have to create space for myself and people like me. Not a lot of it was just there for me. I had to work with other people to make that space and to find that comfort,” Lansana said. “We’ve had to struggle to be here, and also had to grapple with a university that does not care about us.”

According to Wang, based on feedback from residents, they expanded the MLC this year to accommodate more students and started reserving several open rooms for residents in other communities to move into the MLC upon request.

In many instances, race relations at colleges are microcosms of society, according to a 2017 study of racism in residence halls by the Journal of College and University Housing. Findings indicated that residents suffer from perpetual homelessness due to an absence of Blackness reflected in residential halls and having to locate safe spaces. Resilience and grit, to an unhealthy point, was a strategy of self-care for students of color to avoid being traumatized.

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Resilience has long been glorified as integral to being a successful student, but research shows that Black students have to employ more grit than their white peers if they want to achieve both in the classroom and outside of it, where they have to overcome stereotyping and blatant racism.

W.E.B. Du Bois coined the concept of “double consciousness,” whereby marginalized groups in an oppressive society adapt by looking at themselves through the eyes of their white peers and often “negotiating” their identities. That psychology may be uniquely strenuous for BIPOC students today and may even put them at higher risk for mental health problems.

“It’s affected my mental health, it’s affected my mental capacity, but it’s also made me extremely resilient. I think I’ve had to be resilient,” Lansana said. “The mental resilience that Black students and students of color have to have on a daily basis on this campus is something that is not acknowledged.”

Finding Solutions

Because racism in the world and on campus reverberates into places BIPOC students live, in order to fully ensure that students can experience the safe environment they need, big steps need to be taken by the university administration, Lansana and Lylecyrus said.

“When you’re sitting on Bascom, you don’t know what is going on with your students on a daily basis,” Lansana said. “The lack of reaching out, the lack of transparency and the lack of immediate action is complacent, and it is ultimately harmful, especially to Black students, students of color and non-cis students on this campus.”

In response to the outpouring of voices demanding justice and equity for BIPOC on campus, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced a range of initiatives in July aimed at addressing systemic racism in the university infrastructure — increasing diversity, engaging students in more cultural education and advancing research on racial inequities, to name a few.

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A new anti-racism training program, Our Wisconsin, which aims to provide students with an understanding of cultures, identities and differences is also now required for all incoming undergraduate students starting this fall.

“Each year about 10,000 of our students leave and another 10,000 new students arrive. Hence there are always large numbers of new people arriving on campus and we must engage with them afresh. All of this means our work will never be complete. We have to marshal the will and the persistence to embed these efforts into the fabric of the institution,” Blank wrote in her statement.

Lylecyrus said the best way the administration can show they care about students of color is to accept the demands presented by the UW BIPOC Coalition.

The coalition, which launched at the beginning of the fall semester following a summer of protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, released a list of demands in partnership with several other organizations as a jumping-off point for UW administration to make campus better for BIPOC students.

In addition to the push for a Moral Restart in opposition to the current Smart Restart plan, they are calling for the removal of the Abraham Lincoln statue and the Chamberlin Rock for their racist histories, the abolition of UWPD, recognition of UW BIPOC student organizations with permanent funding and several other initiatives aimed to address systemic racism.

As reported by The Black Voice, UW Black Student Union President Nalah McWhorter sat down with Blank to discuss their demands. Blank said the Lincoln statue would not be removed, but agreed to the removal of Chamberlin Rock.

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Blank also declined to meet with BSU more regularly throughout the semester, McWhorter said. 

“As the face of the University and the Chancellor of the University, you should want to make sure that your students are okay,” McWhorter said. “She kind of put us off to her Vice-Chancellor and Chief of Diversity and said that’s what they are there for.” 

UW spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said while these stories can be difficult to share and difficult to hear, more open discussion about student experiences is an important part of making progress in improving campus climate, and added that this work can’t and shouldn’t be solely the burden of BIPOC students.

While Wang emphasized that housing is dedicated to the safety and sense of belonging of their residents, students and university administration together must make real, tangible and long-lasting changes to equity within academics, dorms and within all campus spaces in order to make UW a safe space for BIPOC students, Lansana and Lylecyrus said.

“Black people are tired of being alone in the fight against racism. As many diversity statements as they want to make, as many Black Lives Matter emails that they want to send, that’s chump change to me. We keep saying what we need, and we keep being met with nothing,” said Lansana. “There is home, but then there is safety and just feeling like you matter.”