In the early weeks of last year’s boycott against The Michigan Daily, the organizers of the boycott logically held many meetings with interested members of the University community to discuss the issues surrounding the boycott. However, one of these meetings, scheduled to take place in a University residence hall, was designated as a “minorities only” meeting; in other words, whites were not welcome.
I’m not sure how the meeting worked – I have a friend who looks “white” enough, but her grandmother is Lebanese. Would she have been allowed into the meeting? I know another person – again, unequivocally “white”-looking, but he had enough American Indian in his blood to claim minority status on graduate school applications – although only at some schools, not all. Would he have been turned away at the door? Would the organizers have demanded a certificate of tribal affiliation?
When I first read the e-mail announcing the meeting, it evinced a visceral reaction in me – how, on University property, could a meeting take place at which the organizers could say, in no subtle words, “no whites allowed?” Is this what multiculturalism means at this University? Even though I was in a position of leadership at the Daily during the boycott – and thus was supposed to keep my mouth shut – I was outraged enough to write to the hall director (twice) of the residence hall which allowed (in that it did not prohibit) that meeting to proceed. I received no response.
Why not market the meeting as targeted at minority communities? Caucasians surely would not have turned out en masse, and those that would have attended most likely would not have been members of The Michigan Review – they probably would have been more than sympathetic to the boycotters’ cause.
So what were the leaders of these communities so afraid of? Would white people necessarily have caused problems, and would the students of color all necessarily have agreed with – and kept secret from the Daily staff – everything that went on? (They certainly did not.) Was this compatible with University philosophy and policy, and if not, why was it OK?
This kind of situation pops up every once in a while, and when it does it usually sparks a few debates, enrages a few students, and is soon forgotten. A friend of mine who graduated last year had tried – with the utmost sincerity – to join HEADS, a black male student group at the University. Not being a black male, he was turned away, no question.
Student groups who exclude others based entirely on those others’ non-minority statuses may have a sound justification; if there is, I would be very interested to hear it. The University tolerates this, even if the argument it makes in favor of this behavior is an argument from silence. As a white-as-white-can-be student who can date her European ancestors’ arrival in the United States to the 1690s, it is admittedly difficult sometimes – and very probably impossible – to always fully understand what is at stake in students of color’s issues. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to or don’t try – I want an explanation. If you have one, please send it.
Exclusion, as easy as it might be, is not the way to build a comfortable diversity at this University. Right now, this ideal that only exists in small pockets of University life, but where it exists, it’s a wonderful thing. Last year I read of a University student, quoted in The Washington Post (“At U-Michigan, Minority Students Find Access – and Sense of Isolation,” 04/01/03) who complained of the absolute ignorance that white students display when it comes to minority issues. She was shocked and insulted that a white student had asked her how she styled her hair.
It’s very likely that this student asked her in a less than sensitive way, but at the same time, are we supposed to come to the University knowing everything? Where I live, at Telluride House, there exists one of the most comfortably diverse and amazingly engaged communities on this campus. Every year, each student is expected to prepare a one-hour “pubspeak” about any topic that they wish to speak on. Two years ago, a black student presented to the group about African-American hairstyles and hair care. In situations like that, when we acknowledge our ignorance and someone steps up to help eradicate it, the goal of a diverse learning environment is most successfully realized.
The impetus behind this column was the story coming out of California that a student from Oakley wishes to begin a Caucasian club – and so far, she’s collected about 250 supportive signatures. According to The Associated Press, this girl, who promises that all people will be welcome to attend, said that she and her friends feel “slighted” by the presence of other minority student clubs.
There’s somewhat of a natural reaction behind this idea – in talking about the “minorities-only” meeting, it followed to question whether the University would have allowed a “non-minorities-only” meeting. But it’s an instinct that should be suppressed: This isn’t the path toward the kind of diversity objective that the University claimed throughout the course of the affirmative action case. The proper response is not to feel offended and strike back – it is to strive for inclusiveness even when it is uncomfortable, and to be willing to teach others even when the lesson seems obvious.
Hanink can be reached at email@example.com.