In the wake of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Aura Rosser and many, many more lives, students at the University are taking a stance on an issue that strikes a common nerve.

We don’t need to look very far to find these racial debates happening here on campus. From the “die-in” before finals in December to the march down the streets of Ann Arbor in November, students are actively voicing their collective stance against the issue of police militarization. A year ago, the University community experienced a similar phenomenon of race-related open discussions including the #BBUM hashtag campaign and eventual demands to the administration and sit-ins. Months before that, there was another incident involving a racially insensitive party (the “Hood Ratchet Thursday Party”) organized by Theta Xi fraternity. Both on and offline, students have voiced their dissent or support of the Black Student Union’s demands. Students shared their views on the relevance or inanity of cultural appropriation. Students generally spoke about race relations in America as though they were authorities of these issues.

And yet, it also seems that despite the passion presented on the forums, there is a dissenting opinion that race shouldn’t be discussed, race relations shouldn’t be learned. When students aren’t constantly confronted with a piece of news related to racial tensions, discussing it becomes frowned upon. The “not everything is about race” sentiments are thrown around.

There seems to be a strange discrepancy going on. Many students, when pressed with the headlines, want to talk about race. They want to offer their two cents. They want to understand what’s going on, but they just as much wish to erase issues of discrimination from casual conversations. Why is this the case?

The answer might lie in our first experiences with outward discussions of race in the classrooms. For many students, these talks were, at best, outdated. At worst, they were completely misaligned with current events. The narrative of racism in America generally goes as follows: there used to be racism that took the form of slavery and then Jim Crow segregation; however, thanks to the civil rights movement and protesters such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks (but not the Black Panther Party), these forms of institutional racism have been completely eradicated. It is a narrative that relegates wrongdoings to the past and holds our society today up to a false ideal of complete equality. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!” was a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. that we sang in my elementary school while holding hands and swaying back and forth.

While MLK and civil rights activists have certainly succeeded in improving the lives of people of color in many different aspects, the way this part of history is told in the classrooms and textbooks shuts out any need to further analyze racial dynamics in America. It stops people from thinking critically of how racism was able to transform from institutionalized slavery to Jim Crow, and how it can just as easily change shape in modern contexts.

We students have been given an overly optimistic narrative of where our society currently stands, but we also see situations of racism in the headlines. Our response to these clashing narratives is just as conflicted — we both discuss racism and feel the discussion is not needed. We both type away on our keyboards or try to talk over our friends during heated conversations and complain about how pointless LSA’s race and ethnicity requirement is.

Ideally, it is in these heated discussions that students discover for themselves what’s happening in the world. But it is just as crucial that we pay attention to how race is taught to our youngest and most impressionable. Other than the race and ethnicity class required for LSA students, the University does not provide many other opportunities for individuals to reexamine race in an academic setting. Educating people about race should incite much more public interest in race issues. It should reflect what’s actually happening and allow students to react to Ferguson not with stunned denial but with an outspoken, well informed solidarity for those whose experiences with discrimination do not end when the headlines go away.

Jenny Wang can be reached at wjenny@umich.edu.

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