On Edge: Students of color combat campus apathy
LSA sophomore Tyrice Grice Jr. was eager to kick off football season at the Big House, ready to get started on his classes and to meet up with his friends after a summer spent apart. Like any other student at the University of Michigan, Grice was looking forward to his fall semester. What he didn’t expect was to wake up on the second Sunday of the school year with a racial slur written on his and his roommates’ dorm room door.
Grice’s experience was one in a series of hateful acts committed against Black students on campus this year. A few weeks after Tyrice’s dorm room nametag was vandalized, flyers advocating to “Make America White Again” were found near Stockwell Residence Hall and videos circulated of individuals defiling the #BlackLivesMatter slogans chalked on the Diag — all a part of the emerging large-scale backlash against students protesting for racial equality. Additionally, discontent rose from the University’s lack of official response to these incidents — from not finding the perpetrators to the consistently low levels of minority enrollment.
The editors of Michigan in Color responded to the palpable racial tension created by the racist incidents over the past month through reporting the unique stories of Grice, LSA freshman Cydney Gardner-Brown and LSA freshman Amen Al-Moamen. While three voices cannot fully capture the feelings of all students of color on this campus and across the University system, their testimonies are nonetheless important. These three wanted to be heard — not only to show support for those struggling, but also to provide insight for students unaffected by these heinous acts.
“As a former student, I can see that students are confused, uncertain, hostile and … overwhelmed and tired,” Fiana said.
To her, the racial tension on campus is unmistakable, and she was far from alone in her assessment.
“I was surprised that this would happen in the first three weeks,” Gardner-Brown said. “We didn’t even get a chance to (un)pack our bags, and we are already being attacked. But at the same time, why would I be surprised?”
Gardner-Brown had barely settled into college life when she was forced to confront the unpleasant reality of life on this campus as a Black student. For her, the tense racial climate that dominated her first month at school allowed her to connect with her Black peers. But this came at the expense of feeling isolated from the greater campus community.
All those interviewed emphasized the uneasy atmosphere in the classroom, in residence halls and even the library. What was surprising, however, were reports of a campus climate that ebbed and flowed between heightened tension and relative calm. To many students, these seemingly random spikes are perhaps more damaging to their day-to-day lives than a campus that’s constantly on edge.
In the past, moments of tension on campus have led to increased activism and awareness. But when things calm down, these movements struggle to be heard — a fact most damaging to students of color.
“I feel comfortable, but then suddenly the campus reminds us that we shouldn’t ever be complacent or comfortable,” Gardner-Brown said.
Grice echoed this sentiment, emphasizing his concern for movements of racial equality.
“We don't want (these movements) to back down. We don’t want #BBUM to go down.”
In times of heightened racial tension, these issues are often addressed head-on. When these topics leave the forefront of our minds, they tend to be ignored. His solution: “Fight until we know we are secure on this campus.”
Students of color feel the administration is not providing them with adequate support during this turbulent time. Last year, Students4Justice sent out a list of demands directed at the University's administration, including harsher penalties for oppressive hate speech, a process for changing the names of buildings named after controversial figures and an increase in Black enrollment. These demands largely have not come to fruition. Recently, students protested the University's continued lack of progress in an effort to rename a building named after C.C. Little, a known eugenicist and former president of the University. In addition, undergraduate Black enrollment is currently under five percent.
Though Gardner-Brown acknowledges non-Black students are supportive, she does not feel content, citing she feels a prevalent sense of complacency among non-Black students.
“They can walk away and feel like nothing is happening,” she said. “The community is left to fend for themselves. No one else feels attacked. No one else feels like it’s their community too.”
Grice also sees a similar trend of detachment and responsibility when it comes to allyship.
“The campus doesn’t invoke action on their own, and they need to be proactive in reaching out to me. There is nothing here to get done,” he said. “I don’t see any white student leaders standing up with us. We need leaders to provoke other students to build that community.”
To bring sustainable change in the face of racism on campus, students want a multipronged approach: one that calls for a willing administration to listen to the pain of students and faculty of color, not one that puts this work on the shoulders of an individual, marginalized group.
Each of the students who spoke stressed the need for the administration to take concrete, tangible actions to openly denounce acts of hate and racism and support students of color.
“[There is] a big mistrust between these communities and the administration,” Amen said, explaining that this issue is a direct consequence of administration inaction.
Grice highlighted the lack of people of color, particularly Black people, within the administration and Ann Arbor’s local government.
“Since it’s primarily white advisers who are the ones in power, we need to find a way to convince them to help us and to speak out on issues.”
There is an urgent need for change at both local and community levels. Gardner-Brown pointed out three urgent advancements: the need for more safe spaces, the need for increased Black student enrollment and the need for consequences for acts of hate and racism. She believes these developments are necessary for sustainable and long term change on campus.
“It’s about increasing diversity in the campus. Not something that can change within a school year. It’s something to be incorporated for the future.”
From us to you:
College campuses and communities across the country are grappling with debates over diversity, equity, inclusion and safety. While the past month’s incidents have created a very specific climate on the University’s campus, it’s important to remember that we do not exist in a bubble. If an issue affects students at the University, chances are it also affects students at universities across the nation.
All three students noted that though racism is not strictly a problem in Ann Arbor, it is still the job of the University to address it on campus.
“There’s no sense of comfort," Amen said. "To enjoy and excel in college, you need a sense of comfort without paranoia. You need to feel comfortable here. This is a nationwide problem. Whether in college or not, you have to be able to feel free to walk down the street and feel comfortable.”
While the University may not be able to solve structural racism by itself, the three believe it is the University’s job to protect and support students of color on campus.
Life at the University has always been a balancing act. Students juggle the pressures of schoolwork, jobs and their social lives. For students of color, tense climates on campus add yet another level of stress to their daily lives.
Yet, despite the hate crimes Black students experience, they are expected to push through. They are expected to do better and rise above. They are expected to believe that somehow these incidents will work themselves out and that tomorrow everything will be better. For many Black students, that’s simply not the case.
Black students are left wondering if they will ever feel at home. Along with their allies, they’re left challenging the University’s administration to enact change.
As for what’s next, only time will tell. These blatant acts of racism and threats to the emotional and physical well-being of students of color at the University must stop. As “the Leaders and the Best” we should be better than this. We are better than this.
Michigan in Color stands in solidarity with the Black students, and all students of color, affected. We are here for you, and we will be your mic.
Mission Statement: Michigan in Color is a designated space for and by people of color at the University of Michigan, where they are encouraged to voice their opinions and reconcile their perspectives and lived experiences that may be overshadowed by dominant narratives on campus.
Michigan in Color is a writing initiative meant to foster a more elevated discussion on campus about the role that race and ethnicity (intersecting with our other identities including socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religious identification, nation of origin, ability status, etc.) shape our social interactions and lived experiences at the University and beyond.