Having anonymously submitted questions beforehand, students gathered Sunday afternoon to discuss the role of race on campus and in society as a whole. Though the Angell Hall auditorium was far from full for the event, the conversation was open and extensive.
LSA sophomore Leamon Wilson organized the afternoon’s activities, titled “Let’s Talk About: Race,” and facilitated conversation by directing students’ questions to a panel of students involved in organizations pertaining to race relations. Wilson is a member of the Global Scholars Program, a Michigan Learning Community and the event’s sponsor.
The four student panelists included LSA senior Mishara Davis, president of the University’s NAACP chapter; LSA senior Olubisi Ajetunmobi, president of the African Students’ Association; LSA junior Haya Alfarhan, a member of Michigan Women of Color Collective; and LSA sophomore Mekarem Eljamal, spokeswoman and member of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.
Davis said the event’s purpose was to make conversation about race accessible to everyone.
“Just being open to new perspectives is really important,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to get over that initial barrier, then you have wider groups’ friends and end up having conversations you never would imagine.”
Some students submitted questions anonymously through an ask.fm page that Wilson organized and read from, and audience members also posed questions directly to the panel. Attendees were encouraged to share their opinions and personal experiences as well, either anonymously or in person.
The questions covered a wide variety of subjects, including the panelists’ personal experiences and their opinions on campus policies.
One issue discussed at length was the University’s Race and Ethnicity requirement, which students have criticized recently for not providing enough insight into issues of diversity on campus and nationally.
Alfarhan feared that the classes used to fulfill this requirement do not spark relevant conversation about issues of diversity.
“A lot of Race and Ethnicity classes at the University are very basic and don’t require anyone’s perceptions to be challenged,” she said. “They’re made to be very comfortable.”
Davis agreed that the Race and Ethnicity classes could be improved, but added that they provide “a good place to start” as opposed to no conversation at all.
Eljamal said, in her experience, some of the inefficiency of the Race and Ethnicity courses are a result of students being unwilling to talk.
“Some students are only there to get a check mark on their transcript,” Eljamal said. “There’s only so much a professor can do.”
Another topic covered was the University’s attitude toward diversity, where the panelists expressed particular concern with the administration’s Detroit recruitment policies, among others.
Ajetunmobi said the University has fallen short with recruiting students from predominantly Black schools. She added that Cass Technical High School and Renaissance High School, both in Detroit, seem to get a great deal of attention while others fall by the wayside — resulting in a lower diversity overall in applications and, later, on campus.
“I had a lot of friends who didn’t even apply to Michigan because they didn’t think they could get in,” Ajetunmobi said. “And we need to change that.”
Alfarhan discussed her view of the discrepancy in international recruitment based on her own experience as an international student from Kuwait. She said she noticed a lack of cultural diversity during her international orientation as a freshman, which included a large majority of Chinese students.
“When I counted, there were four Africans and five Arabs,” she said. “And there were at least eighty Chinese.”
While Wilson was disappointed with the sparse attendance, he said those who did attend the event provided encouragement.
“There are some people I didn’t expect to come and some people I don’t recognize, which is great,” Wilson said.
In this vein, some members in the audience noted that those at the event were likely already somewhat knowledgeable about issues of diversity, whereas those who really “needed” to have deep conversations about race and ethnicity were least likely to attend on their own accord.
The panelists acknowledged that getting those who are potentially less outwardly passionate about issues of diversity to attend events like “Let’s Talk About: Race” is an issue to be considered in the future.
Alfarhan’s response: “Don’t focus on who’s not showing up; focus on who is showing up.”