"I hate it when people say African-Americans never have to
In the last few days of house fellow training, University of
Wisconsin Housing had turned the diversity dial from "frank discussion" to
"tolerance bombardment." Standing in front of this statement and others like it
in the upper gulley of Carson's, I thought to myself, "Well, can't argue with
that." Forget rational dialogue. Remain silent and accept it.
After slogging through several eight-hour days dedicated to
this invisible pillar of housing called "diversity," we were directed to walk
through a silent gallery of students' thoughts on their own race. Black,
Latino/a, multiracial, Asian and American Indian students put their thoughts on
construction paper under headings such as, "What I hate hearing about my race,"
"What makes me proud of my race" and
"Misunderstandings of my race." All the house fellows were sent through
the room, told to look at each statement, but to remain silent. Just let the
statements sink in. "Think about them."
Diversity it was. One black student noted his pride in
having, "the best music" and "defining cool." Asian Americans lamented the
stereotypes of pack movement and inherent intelligence. Multiracial students
seemed both frustrated and proud of their inability to be categorized in the
American race Rolodex. However, the last comment I read resonated as much as
"I am proud of my race because we never have to tan!"
With such a thought-provoking contrast, I went into
discussion with the rest of the Sellery Hall house fellows and drew my
conclusion. After mentioning the two statements, I remarked, "It's interesting
how two people of the same race took the same comment in completely different
ways. It really shows that the issue of race is still an individual and
personal issue, one of interpretation."
Wrong answer. I got strained looks from the proctor of the
discussion, who moved on to a discussion of how we further the stereotypes
mentioned in the gallery. Once again, I did not fit the mold. Yet, that's all
part of the self-defeating contradiction of UW Housing. Diversity is promoted
across every category with the exception of the one category that underpins the
rest: diversity of thought.
No unit of UW has done more to promote racial diversity and
educate incoming freshmen on the subject. Housing has a separate budget for
diversity-related programs, house fellows are required to engage their
residents in at least one diversity-related program each semester — though more
are encouraged — and all employees are put through a rigorous boot camp of
diversity training that ensures a healthy statistical background to promote
various aspects of social justice. With the Multicultural Student Satellite
providing a safe haven for the university's minorities — racial, social,
sexual, etc. — UW Housing was one of the only elements at Madison to make a
proactive effort to break the white majority out of any intolerant malaise it
may have contracted in the pale suburbs and towns of Wisconsin.
Yet, it never really worked. The stories of black residents
being asked what sport they play and racial slurs scrawled on someone's
whiteboard still exist. While those who come in as house fellows may appear
champions of social justice and defenders of equality and some residents may
attend the never-ending presentations on race in society, there is one element
During the second semester of my time at Sellery Hall, I
created a presentation for my Frisby house on minorities in the media. While I
certainly interspersed questions between my highlight reel of pundits like
Glenn Beck asking a Muslim congressman if he was in bed with the enemy, it was
mostly a lecture. For at least 35 minutes, I went through each clip and, rather
than asking for response, asked questions that could be summarized as, "On a
scale of one to 10, how racially insensitive is this?" Certainly, students
later chimed in with similar sentiments, but I couldn't help but feel I was
telling them what to believe.
And the biggest problem is I didn't fully believe what I
said. Incoming house fellows are put through hours upon hours of diversity
lecturing that reaches the same point: "diversity." Whatever that means in the
long run is unimportant as long as it results in a hyper-tolerance by housing
employees and a promotion of social justice at some avenue. While working at
Sellery, I didn't feel like a purveyor of social justice; I felt like a
lobbyist, a politician, a walking box of talking points.
That's where UW Housing has it wrong. Social justice is not
a religion; it's an idea — an idea that deserves scrutiny. UW Housing needs to
accept the criticism and address race with an honest public forum and change its
model in the process.
First off, Housing needs to focus its efforts rather
throwing every event conceivable at the student body. It's a noble thing to try
and pop the bubble that students live in, but they'll never take anything
seriously if Housing continues to foist a daily barrage of heavy topics upon
students. They need time to digest and contemplate.
Also, bring in lecturers, experts and community leaders to
talk about how we interpret race. Housing does this occasionally, but not
enough. We can't just leave it up to students and administrators to proctor
discussion with a jumble of data at their side; believe me, it doesn't work.
More importantly, the discussions need to bring reluctant
students into the fold. Not everyone will have an open mind, but nearly
everyone has a mouth to open. If those who disagree with the methods of social
justice want to speak up, let them do so. Encouraging counterarguments might be
detrimental to the case for diversity efforts at UW, but then again, who ever
said we're doing it right?
Racial tension at this campus cannot be mitigated by movie
nights and outward displays of multiculturalism. In fact, until this campus
reflects a racial diversity closer to that of the country itself, racial tension
can never truly be addressed. However, we can at least accept our limitations
and voice our true opinions — not our self-censored concessions, not our
politically correct attempts to avoid offense, but our heartfelt personal
assessment of how race should be treated in America. Until we do that, all
these efforts will remain nothing more than products of a buzzword we
Jason Smathers ([email protected])
is a senior majoring in journalism and history.