“Who ‘belongs’ in college, and who feels like they belong?”
This is a quote from the syllabus of WGS 258: Belonging in College, a class I decided to take after scrolling through what seemed like hundreds of pages on the LSA Course Guide. I stumbled upon this course and the title stuck out to me — it mirrored a myriad of conversations I’ve had with myself and my friends: Do we really belong?
Western institutions can have that impact on people of color. As a visibly Muslim, Arab woman, I often question the idealization that I once felt toward higher education. Before coming to the University of Michigan, I rarely regarded institutions with a critical lens; I took them for what they were advertised as: prestigious, full of opportunity, exciting and diverse. Although I was aware that students from more privileged backgrounds had greater access to pre-college opportunities and resources than I did, I had yet to fully connect how these barriers have systemically restricted students from Muslim and Arab backgrounds like mine from attending institutions of higher education. However, since they were established, such institutions were never created to serve diverse student populations.
In the United States, higher education was created with the intent to serve a majority Christian, white, male majority population. For nearly two hundred years since Harvard’s founding in 1636, higher education would be guided by Christian ideals and values, training men to become ministers, lawyers and teachers — on rare occasions only did they serve women. In 1839, the first college for women, Wesleyan College, opened and was founded on Evangelical theologies. Of course, Christianity was not the only widely followed religion, as other religions were widely practiced in America at the time; however, we see that it has had the largest influence on the shaping of university culture and life. Currently, there are still many universities that practice Christian values in their curriculum and on campus; however, many public institutions have strayed away from claiming an official religion, welcoming students of all religious backgrounds to their campuses. Although modern higher education institutions don’t outwardly discriminate against religious diversity, Muslim students receive the short end of the stick on their college campuses nationwide. At the University of Michigan, there is a small Muslim population, but it is home to the first Muslim Students Association chapter in the United States. As a Muslim woman, I’ve often questioned why the Muslim and Arab populations at Michigan are so small — after all, Michigan is home to the city of Dearborn, which houses the largest Muslim and Arab population in the United States. At Michigan, and many other higher education institutions, anti-Muslim prejudice is not always blatant but camouflages itself under a myriad of experiences that build upon one another to create a sense of dis-belonging for its Muslim and Arab students.
In a political science class I took last semester, we examined the legality of Donald Trump’s first executive order, known as the Muslim Ban. In the following discussion section, my GSI prompted a conversation about the treatment of “certain groups of people” after 9/11. I found the way she phrased this striking — why couldn’t she say Muslims, and those perceived as Muslim, when it was so obvious that that is what she meant? The discussion was anything but riveting; it was quiet, and the room of predominantly white students seemed visibly apprehensive to speak up, becoming calculating with their word choices. One student in particular consciously chose to beat around the bush, claiming that “people with … different sounding names … were treated badly.” At this point, it felt as though my identity was jarring to my white peers; as the only Muslim in the room, my identity was a salient part of the discussion we were having. I felt a pressure to elaborate on the treatment of Muslims in a post-9/11 society. The isolation alone pressured me into silence for the rest of the period.
This instance is only one of many; anti-Muslim occurances have been rampant on Michigan’s campus for years now. In 2015, the University underwent scrutiny after planning to show a screening of “American Sniper,” a film that depicts a triggering and harmful perception of the Iraq War and condoned anti-Middle Eastern/North African and Muslim rhetoric, at a UMix event. Later in 2015, after the tragic Chapel Hill Shooting, students at the University organized a vigil for the victims and Muslim students were scared that a similar tragedy could occur on their campus. Students discussed a range of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim offenses on campus, ranging from casual microaggressions to anti-Palestinian sentiment at the University level. In 2016, “#StopIslam” was chalked in the Diag. Following this incident, students received a statement that “condemned” discrimination from the University. On that same day, students received a slow response from the Division of Public Safety and Security (DPSS), and some felt hurt that they were the ones erasing the chalk instead of the administration. These experiences are not the only anti-Muslim experiences that Muslim students have endured on U-M’s campus. Although the University is not an exception, these examples provide insight to the barriers that Muslim students face when feeling a sense of belonging at predominantly white institutions.
Even beyond universities, anti-Muslim bigotry runs rampant in our everyday lives. Even over 20 years after 9/11, Muslims continue to constantly fight against harmful biases, defending their identity against a tragedy that had nothing to do with them. Politicians in Congress spew anti-Muslim rhetoric about the only two Muslim women in Congress, targeting harmful remarks about not only them but Muslims across the nation. The violence that stems from these incidents, and others like them, is found structurally and replicated in various economic, political and social institutions across the country.
In my own community of Dearborn Heights, MI, I never felt isolated due to my religious or ethnic identity since most people looked like me and practiced the same faith as me. Now, entering my second year of college, I find myself constantly feeling isolated. I am perpetually the only hijabi in most of my courses, student organizations and social groups, which was uncommon in my predominantly Muslim, Arab community back home. In higher education, we see how larger systemic barriers restrict specific communities from receiving a comfortable education experience in colleges and universities across the country. Before attending college, I viewed it as a mutually beneficial space for all its students. Though I am still participating in WGS 258: Belonging in College, I have since been more aware of how higher education actively constructs barriers against those who don’t fit the demographic that they have been foundationally built to serve. On college campuses across America, Muslim and Arab students are stuck in a perpetual cycle of participating in a system that was never built to represent them, while actively trying to fight the obstacles put in place by said system. While higher education has become more religiously and racially diverse, it still raises the question: Do I really belong?
MiC Columnist Yasmine Elkharssa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.