A common sentiment shared by people of color is that it’s exhausting to constantly have to explain your identities, your culture and whether or not a particular comment is appropriate to say when a simple Google search likely would have provided the inquirer with the answer to the question. What is often even more frustrating is that it is obvious when you’re not actively trying to diversify what you know about social identities or you’re not seeking out the opportunity to learn more about backgrounds and cultures different from your own. While asking genuine questions isn’t to be discouraged, be aware of your intention. If you’re coming off as close-minded, then it is in itself a form of ignorance. Diversity is a complex concept and mandates effort and attention. So, making inappropriate comments, asking offensive questions or repeatedly committing the same microaggressions sends the message that the asker is choosing to be ignorant.
That said, if you’re curious about the food a peer is eating or a cultural event a friend is celebrating, be conscious of your word choice and ask questions respectfully. The general rule of thumb: Exhibiting a willingness to learn will always be celebrated. However, people of color often feel as though they’re burdened with the responsibility of educating their peers. This creates a campus climate that is uncomfortable for students and faculty of color.
It is known that people of color experience college differently than white people. It’s difficult to navigate predominantly white spaces while enduring microaggressions along the way. Back in 2017, Marist College conducted a survey investigating “Racism in the United States: Who’s Responsible for Fixing the Problem.” The results of the survey showed the majority of Americans place the responsibility of tackling racism head-on upon everyone, not just one specific race. Additionally, most Americans did not agree that the burden of ending racism should fall upon people of color. Similar to the findings of this poll, it’s important to not only address issues related to social identities like race and ethnicity as they happen on campus, but also take initiative to educate ourselves on the diversity of social identities on campus before an issue arises.
As students at the University of Michigan, we are privileged to have access to a plethora of resources: books, computers, courses, professors and educational events. Therefore, it is the general expectation we recognize that privilege and use it to better our knowledge. This means finding space on your Google Calendar to attend Martin Luther King Jr. symposiums, events, talks and dialogues. This means attending conferences and dialogue-based events on topics like racism on college campuses not because it’s an extra credit assignment, but because you’re trying to learn more.
I’ve also spoken with students who are not from marginalized communities or do not identify with minority groups who feel like they’re walking on eggshells around classmates of identities different from theirs. Even more so in courses that discuss multicultural content and topics related to race and ethnicity. Rather than avoid participating to prevent accidentally offending your classmate or to risk appearing not “woke,” take actionable steps to improve your knowledge on diversity, equity and inclusion activities and initiatives on campus as well as to further your communication skills, as you’ll likely be a part of diverse work environments in the near future. For example, take an introductory level women’s studies class like Women’s Studies 220. Take it because you’re likely to engage in relationships or conversations with women, whether in professional contact, friendships, romantic relations, etc.
Diversity, equity and inclusion events, programs and policies are, of course, important for undergraduate students’ professional and personal development. We all know that. Nowadays, the terms “diversity,” “accessibility” and “inclusivity” are found in every Fortune 500 company’s mission statement or campus initiative. This is great in theory, but it’s no longer sufficient to simply exercise awareness of what those terms mean. Instead, consider viewing these words through the lens of your peers and their lived experiences. Showing support and acting as an ally involves educating yourself, showing up and engaging with other students of diverse identities during dialogues covering controversial topics.
As University students, it’s important to support one another on our way to becoming well-rounded professionals and part of the workforce. For students of color, this means inviting your friends of all identities and cultural backgrounds to the cultural events for the organizations in which you’re involved. Don’t solely market these events to those who are already immersing themselves in DEI endeavors. It is equally important to engage in DEI-related discussions with people of diverse thoughts, experiences and ideas as well. If we all take it upon ourselves to share our lived experiences with one another, we will all benefit together as a community.
Varna Kodoth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.