Michigan’s football season is OK too, but there’s nothing quite like a series of racist and homophobic incidents to kick off the start of the school year and get your blood flowing.

Mara Gay

First to make headlines was that still murky episode in which an Asian couple alleged they were urinated on and verbally assaulted with racial epithets. The Asian community’s response to this bizarre and disturbing event has been loud and visible, and rightly so.

Next, a shooting took place at a black fraternity house, and the description of the perpetrator given by police aroused anger throughout much of the campus’s black community, inspiring the Black Student Union to hold a “town hall meeting” to discuss ways to fight racial profiling and devise more precise methods of identifying suspects.

Finally there was Conservative Coming Out Day, that miserable analogy that had the audacity to suggest that conservative students face as much discrimination expressing their views at Michigan as gay, lesbian or transgender students do “coming out of the closet.” The sentiment was neither correct nor clever – students whose sexual orientations fly in the face of traditional values face discrimination that is unparalleled in our modern times – those who write off the event as a simple joke should ask themselves if there is indeed anyone laughing.

Sadly, these incidents are nowhere near out of the ordinary – a few conversations with students who belong to a minority or marginalized group will convince anyone that incidents of bias and intolerance are as frequent as they are underreported. Michigan is, after all, a school that trumpets diversity but festers with unresolved tensions of racial and other bigoted origins. Among those who pay attention, these events failed to arouse much astonishment at all.

What is shocking is the silence. What is shocking is that in the midst of a monster they know all too well, not one minority group has taken it upon itself to stand up and condemn intolerance, no matter who its target may be. Instead, they have sat by complacently, content to watch their fellow students suffer from the same ignorance, the same bigotry, the same hatred that makes discrimination an everyday reality at the University.

This hush phenomenon, this refusal to denounce that which we know is inherently unjust, is perhaps our greatest missed opportunity. By standing together in solidarity students of marginalized groups can offer the greater community a valuable piece of wisdom: the understanding that intolerance is not an Asian problem or a gay problem or a black problem, but a University problem.

Coalition building is, of course, easier said than done. Different minority groups face different challenges at the University. Black students, for instance, whose academic competency is constantly under attack, may have difficulty understanding why the “model minority” stereotype that all Asians are intellectual powerhouses is a problem at all. Gay, lesbian and transgender students may find it hard to relate to the experience of people of color at the University. It is only when we see, however, that these stereotypes and misconceptions are derived out of the same well of ignorance that we can begin to build coalitions.

For minorities, each day brings with it a fresh battle for acceptance at the University. But there can be no progress until an attack against one is seen as an attack against all. There can be no victory declared, for example, in the black community, as long as its Asian peers are forced to walk the streets of Ann Arbor wondering if they too will be urinated on and verbally assaulted.

The student minority groups that watch their peers suffer from bigotry and do and say nothing are guilty of a callous cowardice. But equally disturbing is the vast number of socially and politically active student groups at the University unaffiliated with a specific minority group that remain silent in the face of the discrimination against others. The Michigan Student Assembly must do more to encourage these groups to take on an active role in the fight against intolerance. It must be understood that these issues affect every student at the University, regardless of skin color or sexual orientation, religion or political persuasion.

It is time to make some noise, rock some boats and get this show on the road. As students at the University, it is within our power to create a new definition of “minority” for tomorrow, drawing on our collective strengths and making a united front against ignorance and racism, homophobia and intolerance, wherever they may be found.

The hush phenomenon gnaws at the humanity of those who subscribe to its unapologetic indifference. Dante once wrote, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their own neutrality.”

What happened in September was shameful. But October can be the month students take a stand against wrong; it can be that decisive moment when we sat down at the table and made a commitment to make the University a better place. And if we believe even a little in the school we love, the change must start today.


Gay can be reached at maracl@umich.edu.

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