On Tuesday, the Black Student Union organized a “Being Black at the University of Michigan” campaign both on social media and University spaces, where Black students were encouraged to tweet and share their experiences of being Black at the University. The #BBUM campaign is just one of many student movements to point to declining minority enrollment and a lack of support from University administration as instrumental in creating a hostile racial climate. Since Michigan is devoted to promoting and nurturing a diverse institution, the administration should demonstrate this commitment by requiring all freshmen to take a course concerning contemporary identity issues.
Earlier this semester, We Are Michigan organized a “Freeze Out” protest, where minority students and allies banded together to form a circle surrounding the Diag, carrying signs that read “We want real diversity,” and “I am that one Black girl in your class” along with other signs outlining the low minority representation on campus. Following an offensive “Hood Ratchet Thursday” party planned by the University’s chapter of Theta Xi, student leaders have responded by organizing forums to raise awareness and urging campus leadership to hold students accountable for irresponsible behavior and, more importantly, to stop treating these aggressions as isolated instances.
As part of their general LSA requirements, every student must take at least three credits from a list of approved courses that fulfill a race and ethnicity requirement. To be approved, classes must discuss the meaning of race, ethnicity and racism, inequality resulting from racial and ethnic intolerance, and comparisons of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, social class or gender. The goal of this requirement is to prepare students for working in multiethnic, multiracial environments in school and beyond. However, many of these classes are history courses that are highly theoretical in material. This is misleading because they imply history alone is more relevant than discussing the very tangible lasting effects and contemporary legacy of that history. Students should be required to take specific courses that openly discuss issues related to racism, classism and sexism as they exist and inform their interactions — in society generally and particularly on this campus.
Instead, a required course about identity will help us nurture a more socially aware and responsible student body, and will serve as an unprecedented demonstration to students that University administration is committed to promoting and institutionalizing diversity education. This required course should replace the current race and ethnicity requirement and should become a part of every incoming freshman’s schedule. The course should discuss social identity in its multiple forms — spanning issues of racism, sexism, LGBTQ discrimination, classism and discussing the ways in which power and privilege play an unignorable role in sustaining these issues. Learning and reading material, assignments and discussions should challenge students to consider their own identities and the role they play in society. To nurture meaningful discussions and a safe space, the course should be dialogue-based, with facilitators who are trained by the University’s Program on Intergroup Relations and Office of Student Conflict Resolution.
We recognize that students in this course will interact and respond to the material very differently, and some may feel uncomfortable. However, if the University is serious about creating a climate that is safe for all identities, it must urge students to confront the serious and often uncomfortable questions that our campus community cannot afford to overlook. Since the University has already instituted the race and ethnicity requirement, it only makes sense that it be refined and modernized to fulfill the goal for which it was created and adjust to the needs of our shifting campus climate. Only upon having these serious conversations, both with themselves and with others, will students be prepared to enter a diverse world without threatening the safety of others in that space.