On Wednesday night, around 80 students gathered in the Tauber Colloquium to discuss the history of power, privilege and stereotypes as a person of color. Spearheaded by the United Asian American Organization, the panel was a coalition of four POC organizations on campus: UAAO, Black Student Union, La Casa and Arab Student Association. The panel featured faculty advisors and staff in multicultural leadership roles throughout campus.
Titled “Beyond Black and White: Marginalized Identities in Academia”, Business senior Chandra Sahu told The Daily after the event that she thinks it’s unique to campus.
“I haven’t seen a collaboration with organizations of these identities in all of my four years,” Sahu said. “I think it’s easy to feel that there is a divisiveness between different kinds of students of color so it’s nice to have a reminder. Because coalition building is how change happens.”
Robert Sellers, Chief Diversity Officer and vice provost for Equity and Inclusion, served as the moderator and began the event by discussing the need for solidarity among people of color. He asked the panel how their respective communities would respond to hate crimes perpetrated on other marginalized groups. The question came amid recent hate crimes directed towards minorities on the University’s campus and a report from the FBI which claimed U-M had the second most reported hate crimes in 2017.
“How do you, as a panel, think your community can include sources of support when something happens to another community?” Sellers asked. “What are some of the displays of solidarity that you have seen?”
Jad Elharake, faculty advisor of the Arab Student Association, responded by emphasizing the importance of the panel itself.
“Fundamentally, it starts with relationship building across the executive board members of these communities,” Elharake said. “The type of support that you get are your close friends and family. I think for us to even know the type of support to provide for each other, we need to get to know each other a little bit more and this is a great start with this event.”
Catalina Ormsby, faculty advisor of La Casa, cited a moment in the beginning of the year when members of multiple POC communities came together to paint the rock in honor of the Latinx community. She explained how it created powerful coalition and community building, as well as a message to members of the Latinx community that they are not alone.
“It was such a big moment and a moment to remember that together, we’re stronger but also that we can do this together. It was a message to respect the latinx community,” Ormsby said.
Breanna Hernandez, LSA junior and La Casa member, commended the panelists for realizing the importance of the communities coming together.
“We did an event last year with only the BSU and it was really great to have the two communities come together,” Hernandez said. “This is something we have been doing recently. We’re talking about how it’s important to start building a community with all the other communities of color on campus because we haven’t focused on that in the past.”
Sellers then directed the panel discussion to potential underlying structures that often divide or prevent people of color from working together. He addressed the competitive nature of academic which can turn students against each other.
“Oftentimes people talk about the fact that the University of Michigan creates a sense of competition that can make it difficult to collaborate,” Sellers said.
Elizabeth James, faculty advisor of the Black Student Union, explained that competition inevitably exists between different student groups because of the lack of resources on campus. She encourages the audience to work across these different groups and connect to those outside of one’s respective identity group.
“We may never realize how we are trying to fit into a system that was never meant for us,” James said. “So that means that we need to break out of these boxes that we have been put into and look across at each other. The collective is always stronger than the individual. I don’t adhere to the idea of the victors and the best. I think that we’re all striving to be the best of what we can be. The only person you should be in competition with is yourself, to be a better person.”
Marie Ting, associate director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University, believes organizations on campus should designate specific officer roles to specialize in external relationships and their role should entail bridging the gap between different social groups. Despite facing challenges, Ting encourages communities to be courageous and vulnerable.
“That is how relationships are built — reaching out, no matter how hard it is,” Ting said.
Sellers also asked the panel to speak about the relationship or difference between their identities and society’s perception of their identities.
James cited a time when her identity was presumed and consequently met with a violent reaction.
“Recently, I was at the market and I was wearing a scarf,” James said. “Someone slapped me because they thought I was Muslim. I think perception is reality. I cannot say with 100 percent accuracy what any of us are because we never know how people identify. We still try to fit into these boxes but we are so much more.”
Ting described a moment when her identity as an Asian American was pigeonholed into a stereotype. She emphasized the need to go beyond the boxes that society puts many people of color in. She cited a moment in the University’s history when the school faced lawsuits regarding affirmative action. At that time, she explained that many people expected all Asian Americans to be against affirmative action. Such issues try to separate people of color and the only way to fight back is to present a united front, she said.
“I think there’s often discourse that Asian Americans don’t support affirmative action. What people try to is separate people of color and put us in boxes but it’s important that we show unity around these issues,” Ting said.
The panel moved to address the lack of diversity within academic classes and programs, as well as the representation on faculty and staff.
Mary Rose, program manager for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, majored in Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She described how influential and formative the experience was during her time at college.
“I don’t think I would have been able to even successfully finish college if I didn’t have something to study that I felt was meaningful and relevant to my life,” she said.
She encouraged the audience to take classes that are specific to their cultural experiences and identities because that is how administration decides what to keep and what is interesting to the student body.
The panel ended with a reflection from James on how to activate allies and create a positive difference in the immediate community.
“Ignorance is rampant in academic institutions,” James said. “If you go out into the world, it gets even scarier. But that doesn’t mean it has to be something that brings you down. I’d rather be about love than try to handle all this hate.”
After the panel, LSA freshman Erin Ospina, a member of La Casa, said she felt the event was an opportunity for her to become more aware of the role of her identity at the University of Michigan.
“I feel like I’m not appropriately or even represented enough on campus,” Ospina said. “I came to this event because I felt like it was necessary to have these types of discussions in order to get closer to what we want. It’s making me reflect more on my identity.”