Some students say RC experience contrasts with inclusivity values at diversity town hall

Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 12:58am

At a diversity town hall sponsored by the Residential College Tuesday, students questioned the inclusion of various demographics within the RC, a University of Michigan living and learning program that highlights valuing diverse thought and ideas.

About 70 students, faculty and staff gathered Tuesday night in the Keene Theater of East Quad  for the second of two RC town halls on equity and inclusion.

The Michigan Daily was asked to leave the the first town hall, which aimed to create an open dialogue geared specifically to all people of color involved in the program. The Daily was allowed to attend the following forum, which was open to all.

Tuesday’s events were the first recent public ones around campus climate that included a separate discussion for people of color, amid a large number of other University and college-specific ones around climate held in the leadup to the launch of the University’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan last week. The townhalls were not specifically affiliated with the DEI plan, a year-long initiative launched by University President Mark Schlissel to improve campus climate, though the plan was referenced by many students.

The townhalls were sponsored by the RC and organized in part by Logan Corey, a RC alum and  senior admissions and recruitment coordinator. Corey said the separation of the town hall into a section for people of color and a section for all interested was appropriate to ensure that students and faculty of color felt safe raising concerns and sitting in solidarity with other people of color, given the current climate on campus.

Citing recent anti-Muslim, anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ fliers found on campus, she said they demonstrated the need for the separate town halls, noting that though she found herself taken aback by the fliers, she did not feel repercussions that a person of color might have.

“Obviously, not being a person of color, I was deeply offended, deeply frustrated seeing (the racist posters), but I wasn’t offended personally in the same way,” Corey said.

Jonathan Wells, director of the Residential College, said the townhalls were originally intended for discussion about the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality against Black people. However, with the recent events on campus, Wells said it was crucial for faculty to hear student concerns.

He also said he felt it was appropriate to break the event into two, giving people of color a space to talk without feeling “watched.”

“It’s an opportunity for them to be as open and honest with other people of color as they could possibly be,” Wells said. “They’re the ones who asked for it. Sometimes our initial reaction is to say that’s a group separating themselves out, that’s unhealthy, but this is why we’re coming together at the end of the evening as one group.”

At the second forum, which was comprised of mostly white attendees and RC faculty members, attendees discussed a range of issues on the topic of diversity, pointing to what they referred to as the RC’s low retention rate for people of color, a lack of understanding about disadvantaged backgrounds that often accompany this community and RC requirements that burden students of color who often have to work due to their low socioeconomic status.

Additionally, attendees criticized what they characterized as a slow or lack of administrative response to the anti-Black, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ fliers found Sept. 26 and Oct. 3 on campus, saying the University still has the same climate it had 30 years ago.

Students who spoke said they felt frustrated and excluded living and taking classes in the RC, citing incidents of microaggressions and macroaggressions in East Quad such as offensive writings on white boards.

Speakers also cited instances they said contradicts the community’s central goal — creating a comfortable community within the larger University — such as an overemphasis on learning colonized languages such as Spanish, French and German, rather than more culturally-relevant languages such as Swahili.

Currently, RC students are required to achieve proficiency in a language at the University, one semester beyond LSA’s language requirement, before they graduate. Any language counts toward the requirement, but specific RC language classes are only taught in French, Spanish, Russian, Latin, American Sign Language, Japanese and German.

During the latter portion of the evening, students, faculty and staff who attended the first forum also said they were able to help translate what they discussed in the first portion to new attendees who did not identify as individuals of color.

LSA and RC junior Darian Razdar, who attended both town halls and was one of many students to participate in the forum, said he recognized the potential for white students to feel discluded from the forum for people of color only, but added both forums were productive, emphasizing that this opportunity for students of color is rare in a mostly-white culture like at the University.

“I think for white students who feel somehow (upset) by us having a first town hall for students and staff of color, I’d say look at yourself, think about your place and your people’s histories,” Razdar said. “You can seek out white spaces, and those can be productive, as long as you think about how you can leverage your privilege that you’ve been raised with.”

During the townhalls, Razdar noted how he felt he had a different college experience due to his parents being immigrants and his background.

“A lot of these students don’t understand that there are core differences between us,” Razdar said.

Though many voiced anger at the RC for its lack of diversity and inclusion during student speak-outs, Razdar said he disagreed and called the event indicative of RC efforts to improve inclusion. Instead, he said it was more of a call to action for the University’s overarching DEI plan.

“I think in the future we’re going to have to rely on the voices of students of color, of faculty of color, who are experiencing racism, marginalization, microaggressions on a regular basis to create immediate actions that might supplement things like the DEI plan that the University has instated and just launched,” he said.

Naomi André, associate director for faculty at the Residential College, who was present at both town halls, said these town halls are unlike many of the diversity forums happening around campus in recent months.

“I find there’s so few models for how to have interracial, intergenerational, different levels of power with staff, administrations, all come together and feel that you can speak in an environment that what you say when you don’t know the right answer will not be held against you but instead will be taken for ‘OK, you’re trying to advance us forward,’ and that’s what I feel was a real success here.”