The Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center’s Bystander Intervention and Community Engagement program, which hosts workshops to equip bystanders with the necessary skills to intervene, held a panel discussion about racism and safety at the University of Michigan Thursday night. The event aimed to serve as an open space to discuss the experience of students with marginalized identities following the divisive results of the 2016 election on campus.

The panel, which was open to all faculty, students and staff, as well as those not affiliated with the University, was attended by roughly 50 students.

SAPAC volunteers and LSA seniors Nick Suarez and Jasmine Rubio, who organized the event, said they wanted to address the political issues unfolding on campus and educate students on possible constructive roles they can take moving forward.

“I’m hoping we get some solid ideas of how to be a proactive bystander and how to be a good ally,” Rubio said.
Suarez agreed, adding, “I hope more than anything that this an educational experience.”
The organizers pointed to a divided climate both on campus and across the nation as a catalyst for the event.   

“It came because tensions have been so much higher, not necessarily because of a political outcome but because of a recent climate,” Suarez said. “We’ve been demanding a conversation and demanding people listen to our voices, but we haven’t had a place for students to speak unfiltered.”

The panel’s time was divided into a discussion about the experiences of minority students and their feelings toward the current campus climate, a conversation about the changes minority students would like to see and a segment allowing audience members to pose questions to the panel.

Six panelists, including undergraduates, graduate students and a recent graduate from different marginalized identities, spoke at the event. Panelists were first asked whether or not they feel safe on campus because of their respective identities.

“There’s different types of safety,” said LSA senior Alyssa Brandon, who is also Michigan in Color editor for The Michigan Daily, in response.. “There’s physical safety. There’s mental and emotional safety. Even before this election, people of color had to strategize their existence. What I mean by strategize their existence is when you’re going into classrooms and meetings, but it’s more like a battleground … The current political climate has normalized a lot of those behaviors that target people of color.”

Jonté Jones, a recent graduate of the Department of Biopsychology, detailed the frustration he felt in the face of racism in Ann Arbor, recalling a night walking downtown while he was still a student at the University. On his way home, several men in a pickup truck drove by Jones and yelled racial slurs at him, he said.

“This is supposed to be a safe place for people; this is not a place where this kind of thing happens,” Jones said. “After the election, it became very normalized. It does feel like a very unsafe area.”

LSA senior Misba Saleem drew the connections between safety, religion and a recent hate crime perpetrated against a Muslim woman after the election, referring to an incident last month where a man threatened to set a female student on fire if she did not take off her hijab. Saleem highlighted the intersection of gender and religion, as well as the emotional and spiritual ramifications of a woman being forced to remove her hijab.

“It’s a part of you,” Saleem said. “It’d be like someone forcing you to take off your clothes. It’s very much a gender-based violence. For a woman to be forced to take off her hijab is to be forced to expose yourself. There’s an intersection there that isn’t often identified.”

The panelists also discussed the ways in which the 2016 election has changed the way they view racism in America. Overall, the panel agreed that racism has not become more prevalent, but rather racist behavior is getting more attention and recognition because of social media.

They also considered how they are treated in their everyday lives and what they would like to change about their interactions.

“I think the most offensive thing is being tokenized by my white friends who want to be an ally,” Brandon said. “I would challenge you to think. Are you having your friends who are people of color around to show that you are woke? Are you using your friends who are people of color to give you diversity answers? These behaviors are offensive and they may come from a good place but they’re also harmful. For this audience, I would challenge you to think about that.”  

LSA senior Sabrina Bilimoria, who is also a Michigan in Color editor at The Michigan Daily, addressed these issues at the institutional level, examining how the University of Michigan administration has chosen to consider diversity on a wider scale. She pointed in particular to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, a long-term strategic plan launched by University President Mark Schlissel earlier this year that aims to increase diversity and improve campus climate through a series of initiatives. It is benchmarked to be completed in 2021.

“The DEI initiatives are bullshit,” Bilimoria said. “You’re asking all the students of color to educate on something that’s happening in five years. So we should do all the work for you? Very little is done on an institutional level. There’s such a lack of understanding from Schlissel and many, many administrators as to a common way to talk to students without without tokenizing them and asking minority students to do all the work.”

Bilimoria’s comments were met with applause from the audience.

Rackham student Veronica Varela emphasized  to the crowd that she would prefer friends and allies to get out from behind computer screens and take tangible action to support marginalized identities.

“Stop asking how I feel,” Varela said. “Just reach out. I know people who will share all kinds of things all over Facebook, but when it comes to in-person, I never see them. Stop being just a Facebook warrior. Be an in-person warrior.” 

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