Stephanie Mullings: Empty chairs

Wednesday, May 10, 2017 - 3:08pm

Exactly one month ago, while standing on the Diag at around 4 a.m., I felt at ease listening to the gentle song of birds around me. The warm glow of the streetlights illuminated the 950 empty maize and blue chairs positioned throughout the grounds. I assumed I would be the only one there at this late hour, but I wasn’t. A few rambunctious guys sauntered out from around the Undergraduate Library pushing and kicking at the chairs, standing on top of them while laughing and shouting. Guards, tucked secretly away near the Hatcher Graduate Library, jumped out and yelled for them to back away. The culprits, surprised and scared, immediately sprinted in the opposite direction. This encounter was very striking to me. They were just folding chairs, right? Why did they need body guards? What was all the commotion about?

The following day, I learned the meaning of the chairs: they were one of the art installations in the University of Michigan bicentennial Stumbling Blocks project. These 950 empty seats were representative of the 950 students of color who were not able to attend this University due to Michigan’s Proposal 2 referendum, which outlawed race-based affirmative action within the state of Michigan. Therefore, each day, while walking through the Diag, students would be reminded of the various obstacles the University has faced throughout the years.

A week after I first saw the chairs, and the boys who trampled on top of them, I walked to Mason Hall for my Asian Language class, and saw the Diag was empty — the chairs were gone. They were collected, folded up. Now, the chairs are on the market, for $10 each, sold by the University’s Property Disposition Department.

After the exhibition ended, I met with a member of the University’s administration, who, for the remainder of this piece, I’ll refer to as Mr. “What can I do?” — since that seems to be his trademark response when asked about issues of diversity and inclusion on campus. After respectfully listening to my frustrations with the campus climate, including recurring incidents of racist rhetoric, Mr. “What can I do?” offered his remorse and explained that because racism is so deeply rooted within this country, what could he possibly do to prohibit it from rearing its ugly head here at the University?

He then went on to explain his frustrations with students continually demanding immediate action regarding race issues on campus, who often demand he “fix this. Fix it now,” and his inability to do so. He, instead, suggested it was on us, the communities of color, to develop ways to establish safe and productive intergroup relations on this campus.

You may be wondering what these two occurrences have to do with one another — the disappearance of the Stumbling Blocks chairs and my meeting with Mr. “What can I do?” The answer to that question is scary to admit. I am an empty chair. Although I am a student of color here at Michigan, and was not excluded due to Proposal 2, I am still an empty maize and blue chair. Why? I am here, on display every day. I am on display when I find myself one of the only students of color in my classes. I am on display when fliers are distributed stating that men within my community are inadequate, unintelligent and violent simply because of the color of their skin. I am on display when emails are released saying I deserve to be killed. Throughout this display, I am seemingly protected/guarded by the “support” of administration, student organizations and faculty — just as the maize and blue chairs were the night I was standing in the Diag. Then, after a little while, when my moment is suddenly over, I am folded up, tucked away, ignored and forgotten. I am an empty chair.

In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois published “The Souls of Black Folk.” In the book, he inquires, as a Black American, how does it feel knowing you are regarded as a problem? Now, in 2017, at the University of Michigan, DuBois’s question is still relevant: How does it feel knowing that others on this campus view me as a problem? And more still, thanks to Mr. “What can I do?”, I now also wonder how must I be the problem and its solution.

I am not meant for display. I do not wish to be pushed away and silenced. I no longer want to be an empty chair.