Students express disappointment that "watered down" Race and Ethnicity requirement does not live up to expectations

Wednesday, April 4, 2018 - 12:34am

Information senior Ibrahim Rasheed said he knows he took “two or three” courses at the University of Michigan that fulfill LSA’s Race and Ethnicity requirement, but cannot recall which ones they were. After spending a few minutes searching for his LSA audit to no avail, he decided that one of the courses was most likely titled, “The History of Islam in South Asia.” After checking the LSA course guide, he found that the course did in fact fulfill the requirement.

Rasheed, who is a South Asian Muslim, said he took the course in order to learn more about the history of his culture and religion as it explores the tensions of being Muslim in South Asia and the role of Muslims in South Asian society.

Rasheed took the course because of the subject matter, and the fact it fulfilled a requirement was a “bonus.” While he later transferred to the School of Information, which does not have a Race and Ethnicity course requirement, he said he still views the requirement as problematic.

“Race and Ethnicity is not the forefront purpose of the course,” Rasheed said. “Right now, Race and Ethnicity, it’s like the second addition, or the add-on. It’s a bonus. You don’t take Race and Ethnicity courses with the intention of thinking deeply about race and ethnicity. You take it for the subject, and it just so happens that it gets qualified as being a Race and Ethnicity course.”

Rasheed is not alone. Many students, particularly students of color, have expressed they take issue with the requirement. Most cite the watering down of what constitutes a Race and Ethnicity course, as well as the inconsistency regarding which colleges at the University require it, as a problem. Currently, LSA, the Ford School of Public Policy and the Stamps School of Art and Design require Race and Ethnicity credit for undergraduates.

The Race and Ethnicity requirement was formed after student activists lobbied the University to institute a requirement following racial tensions on campus. Public Policy junior Allie Brown, a contributor to The Daily, helped LSA Associate Dean Angela Dillard complete a public history project on the requirement, and believes the requirement has been “watered down” and does not live up to its mission.

“The purpose of the Race and Ethnicity requirement is to get white people to be a little less racist, for people to be a little bit more knowledgeable about the world they live in,” Brown said. “That’s really what it came about after the activism. Not just, ‘Oh, learn about race and ethnicity in general.’ That’s not really the purpose behind it. A lot of the courses that are counted as R&E today don’t require cultural competency, that’s the problem. It’s just like, ‘Oh, we mention race and ethnicity, thus we should be counted as Race and Ethnicity.’ ”

Like Brown, Rasheed thinks the requirement should focus on cultural competency and on helping students make present-day connections to material learned in the classroom.

“I didn’t learn from (The History of Islam in South Asia) what the intention of R&E is meant to be, which is empathizing with others,” Rasheed said. “I simply interpreted it as a history course, not as an R&E course, which is supposed to help me grow as a person. I’m not familiar with how a course qualifies as an R&E course, but I would say that it wasn’t a course that made me think deeply about race and ethnicity as a whole and how we’re supposed to take lessons from then and apply it to right now, which I think is the intention of the race and ethnicity course.”

Public Policy junior Kyra Hudson agrees and thinks it’s important for students to realize that race and ethnicity issues occur in “real-time.”

“The Race and Ethnicity requirement was born out of student activist demands in response to racism and a turbulent racial climate on campus and also in society and the world,” Hudson said. “And so the fact that somebody can take the class that doesn’t ever touch on the current racial climate, your place within it, it doesn’t ever mention how its affecting students real-time. I don’t think it’s acceptable to call it something that will fulfill your Race and Ethnicity requirement if it doesn’t engage with race and ethnicity in a real capacity. I think it needs to do more to teach people how to engage in those difficult conversations.”

Hudson said as a Black student at the Public Policy School, she often finds it difficult to separate her racial identity from her political beliefs. This is something she said her more privileged peers do not have to do.

“For me particularly, when I got to the policy school, it became really challenging to know when it was appropriate to bring my personal racial identities up when talking about policy and politics, because my outlook on life, my perspective on issues and policies that are enacted in our nation and the world, I look at those through the lens of my racial identity,” Hudson said. “Sometimes we’re encouraged to not mix the personal with political and it’s hard for me to be able to do that for myself, but also to be in classes where other people do have the privilege of being able to separate their personal from their political or policy beliefs.”

However, both Hudson and Brown cite Intergroup Relations Dialogues as “definitely comprehensive” in discussing problems surrounding race and ethnicity.

“It really required us to engage in very intentional conversations about race, and to look a little deeper than just racial climate, but systems and structures that created the racial climate and how your personal identities relate to the social climate,” Hudson said.

Engineering junior A.J. Ashman, who recently ran for president of Central Student Government under MomentUM, emphasized the Race and Ethnicity course is designed to help University graduates achieve cultural competency and inspire them to work to fix these issues after leaving the University.

“If our goal is to produce global citizens who are culturally competent in all kinds of things, we need to push that in our R&E classes and not have R&E classes that kind of touch on R&E but don’t really bring it forth,” Ashman said. “This really does serve a higher purpose than just another box on one student’s checklist before they graduate. This is about making students aware of injustices in our world, along the lines of race and ethnicity, and saying each of us have a role to play in fixing these issues. These issues should somewhat affect you. It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh that sucks.’ They should be a call to action.”

While Brown does not believe that better implementation of the requirement would cure racism like blackface, or people writing racist messages on the University rock, she does think it would be a “fantastic start.”

“We wouldn’t have to focus on the racist things, like blackface, or people writing on the rock, ‘F*** Latinos,’" Brown said. "We wouldn’t have these things if people were actually culturally competent and understood the complex histories of the people they mock and ridicule. I can’t say that the Race and Ethnicity requirement is a catch-all, but it would be a fantastic start to eliminating a lot of the racist problems on campus.”