The expression of racial frustration in University of Wisconsin’s black students was at its peak at the Black Lives Matter die-in demonstration during finals week in December. As a new semester starts, students and university officials seek to keep momentum going in the movement to change race relations on campus.
After national episodes of racial injustice entered mainstream American conversation, students of color at UW are seizing the opportunity to make their demands known as a national conversation is brought to the campus realm.
Rosalind Dawson, a graduate student in the English department, said she has had her own struggles as a black student as well as those she has heard through students crying in her class expressing their experiences of racism on campus.
“There’s no acknowledgement of the racism, of the pain,” Dawson said. “The feeling of exclusion, I’ve known quite a few people who have completely left campus.”
The first day of the semester was symbolically used by university administration to kick-off the conversation with a Union South event “UW Voices,” a forum that welcomed students and faculty to openly discuss diversity problems on campus.
Along with other students at a discussion led by the newly formed “About Race UW” group Tuesday night, Sangay Sirleaf said she got involved in the movement to bring her struggles as a black student at UW to the attention of university officials.
“The fact that it took students marching in the streets and protesting silently for the university to finally realize that this is an actual big deal to students is unfortunate,” Sirleaf said.
The event hosted 400 students and members of the campus community, with the administration aiming to include those not adversely affected by acts of racism and discrimination.
Interim Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Patrick Sims said that most discussions centered around the first question posed: “What brought you or enticed you to participate in the conversation?” Sims said he heard a desire from students of color to be acknowledged and recognized, something that hit home for him, an African-American man who had felt their pain during his own undergraduate experience, he said.
“I know for a fact that my colleagues and I are scrambling like crazy to figure out what to do differently to create an environment that makes all students welcome and included,” Sims said.
Into Student Hands
Students who led the catalyst die-in event also stepped up at the start of the semester with a meeting of “About Race UW” to discuss plans on moving forward to make real demands from administration.
DeShawn McKinney, a black student at UW who organized the Black Lives Matter die-in demonstration, was also a leading student facilitator of “About Race UW” and its discussion that took place after the university forum. McKinney, along with other students involved in the student-led movement, expressed frustration with the fact that university administration did not put enough effort to reach out to students involved in the organization of the die-in.
“It’s like them using us as university propaganda,” McKinney said. “I don’t know if they realize the irony and hypocrisy in it.”
Some organizers from the student group “About Race UW” asked the campus community not to attend the university-sponsored forum at Union South via Facebook post because of this “irony.”
At the “About Race” discussion, flyers containing a provisional list of demands were handed out for students to add on to and critique. McKinney emphasized that the list of demands was only to spark a conversation and was subject to change. Some of the ideas included on the list were the adoption of a zero tolerance policy for acts of racism, the creation of a UW Race Relations Committee composed of students and faculty of color and the preservation of UW ethnic studies departments.
Other items on the list served more as food for thought, such as removing the statue of President Abraham Lincoln from the top of a Bascom Hill—a demand which was brushed as too extreme within the black community at the event.
Sirleaf, who attended the “About Race” discussion, had some of her own ideas to improve the lack of understanding among white students toward their peers of color. She suggested making the ethnic studies requirement larger and more engaging, making intercultural dialogues a requirement for all students and implementing a program similar to AlcoholEdu to make students aware of the struggle and experiences of students of color on a college campus.
Dawson said with these issues being so close to students personally, administrators could benefit from letting students take the lead.
“We’ve got a crop of young people rising up who are not interested in just putting up and shutting up,” Dawson said. “They are claiming and owning and demanding. The old people need to step aside and let these young people have their day. We did that in the 60s, now it’s their turn.”
Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the university is dedicated to addressing issues of diversity. One issue is the the disparity between the percentage of black students attending UW, 2.3 percent in 2013 being the most recent data, with the percentage of black residents in Wisconsin stands at 6.5 percent.
While the university is working on programs and policies aiming to address diversity, larger societal issues of race, like the K-12 education system in urban neighborhoods, are also complicating the university’s efforts, Blank said.
“One of the things we’re very actively doing is a series of pipeline programs in lower income Madison and Milwaukee schools and some of the tribal areas where we’re trying to identify students in the 8th and 9th grade and give them support and tutoring so that in four years they are ready to apply to some of the top colleges in the state,” Blank said.
Dawson said after years of diversity forums, she is uncertain that anything different will come from another. Still, she said seeing the chancellor at the event was a surprise to her that showed UW’s dedication to the issue.
“She came, and she stayed. I was at one of the tables she sat at and she listened very carefully,” Dawson said. “Maybe we are turning a page, or at least getting to the bottom of the first page.”