To jog all our beach- and beer-fried brains and brief the freshmen and others now joining us: The Diversity Debate is not resolved. Summer vacation may have paused last year’s heated emotions and tempered discussions, but we still have much work to do. All of us.
The quick synopsis goes like this: In November, students of the Black Student Union, freshly incited by a racist “Hood Ratchet”-themed frat party, organized a Twitter campaign dubbed #BBUM — Being Black at the University of Michigan. It went viral, and three months later, after more BSU protests, sit-ins and meetings with the administration, our University was typified in a front page New York Times article headlined, “Colorblind Notions Aside, Colleges Grapple With Racial Tension.”
I reported on the first BSU protest for The Michigan Daily (back on MLK Day), and the scene is seared in my memory: About 15 Black students on the steps of Hill Auditorium — faces discontent but determined, voices exasperated but forceful — making deep-rooted demands of the administration before a small crowd of mostly every-other-color spectators snapping cellphone pics with flippant flash.
On one level, this bisected protestor-spectator dynamic makes total sense: The BSU’s primary concern (and justifiably so) is Black Student Welfare; and while idealists might wish otherwise, we often care most about problems related to our own identities.
But on a more complex level, the spectator sofa that much of the student body and I have cozied onto is inexcusable: 2014 is not 1968. Today, the fight is not against segregation, nor solely for Black Student Welfare, but for all-encompassing “Diversity,” as our University frames it (and as most other colleges and universities do, for that matter). The word is big, vague, wondrous and sure feels far away, but two things about the Diversity problem are certain: We’re all implicated in the problem and we each can do something about it today.
First, We (the administration, faculty and students) should cease our paralyzing obsession with minority enrollment numbers. Black student enrollment has been stuck at around 5 percent for years, and the 2006 ban on affirmative action, which is partly to blame for the abysmal number, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court just this year. Reversing the ban and boosting minority enrollment would surely improve the landscape, but it would be a Band-Aid on a wound as deep as the Middle Passage.
We should stop muddling the concepts of Affirmative Action and Diversity. Racial Diversity is semi-superficial, and I’ve yet to hear of a statistical formula proven to create Diversity. Real Diversity is more personal, more interpersonal, more challenging, than cold numbers. It demands we change our selves and consciously rethink and relearn the ways we perceive, act and interact with each other across all color and cultural borders.
I’m confident the large majority of us want Real Diversity, which is noble. I just don’t see enough of us confronting the problem.
Take my own pale ass: Most of my friends are white — check; a majority are probably middle-class — check; and yeah, a lot of them are Jewish — check. We all do it to an extent — surround ourselves with people like us, that look, think and like like us — and that’s more than OK.
But is it taboo to say that I want the opposite of our blatantly segregated Greek Life System? That I want my pool of friends to be Muslim, Black, poor, White, gay, Asian, disabled, Hindu, Hispanic, transgender, rich and everything in between, so that our distinct cauldrons of ideas and experiences can bubble, blend and congeal into wonderful new creations? Race is just one piece of the cake.
That’s why the racial archipelago we call our University community deeply troubles me.
Take the Trotter Multicultural Center, which I visited a few weeks ago to interview new director Jackie Simpson .
First established in 1971 fresh off the Civil Rights Movement, the “Trotter House” was originally envisioned as a safe space for Black students. But a decade later Trotter rebranded as a “Multicultural Center,” to both distance itself from segregational undertones that are no longer socially acceptable, and attempt an all-student inclusionary approach. But more than 30 years later, Simpson admitted that a “disconnect” between the Center’s new multicultural mission and historical Black haven mission, persists. “Some students just don’t believe Trotter is a place for them,” Simpson said.
But there’s also good news, and we should thank the BSU for catalyzing much of this.
First, we now have Michigan in Color, the Daily’s new space for students of color to express their identities.
And thanks to another BSU demand, plans to move Trotter to a more centrally located lot are already in motion, and monthly public focus groups will be offered by the University through November to gather students’ opinions about what a new Trotter should be.
Simpson and I agreed that who shows up to those focus groups will be telling. If it’s just Black students, Trotter will likely remain a Black haven. But if it’s all colors, cultures, identities, and “standing room only,” as Simpson and I hope, we will have seized a golden opportunity to create a multicultural haven for Diversity. The first focus group will meet on Sep. 25. I’ll be there.
Yardain Amron can be reached at email@example.com.