Last Tuesday, racist emails were sent to the University of Michigan computer science and engineering email list. Three days later, Students4Justice organized an emergency protest and sit-in to denounce white supremacy, racism and bigotry and to call for action by the University administration to create a more inclusive environment on campus.

As the protest commenced last Thursday on the Diag, I sat in the Michigan Union’s quiet Reading Room, unaware that the organizers were planning the sit-in and protest in the same building. By afternoon the protesters could be heard marching down State Street, passionately chanting, “If you’re with us, join us!” and ascending into the Union, where they distributed a letter of demands directed to the University president, administration and Central Student Government. The attendees and organizers protested in the Reading Room as well, urging those studying and quietly working to join the protest. But a majority of people packed their things and left.   

The discomfort I felt when the protesters walked into the Reading Room and the reaction from those who decided to leave troubled me. Though I decided to join the sit-in, I was conflicted. Over the past few weeks, I have questioned how my anger toward the political climate can be channeled to effect change.

Ending racism, misogyny and xenophobia calls for broad support and participation. With Trump as president, combating discrimination and seeking reparations for hate speech and crimes will be an ongoing struggle. White supremacists, like those who sent the racist emails, feel emboldened, no doubt, by Trump’s success in the election. Richard Spencer’s “Hail Trump” speech at the “alt-right” conference in November is an example of this sentiment.

So, the question remains: How do we build a broader political coalition to resist dangerous government actions and hateful speech?

Sometimes, forceful protest will be necessary. Actions by the Trump administration, and his extremist supporters, have had a threatening impact on the lives of minorities, women and immigrants. His executive orders and cabinet appointees threaten to further disempower the already oppressed and vulnerable. These actions need to be opposed with strong, civil expressions of disapproval. Jeff Session’s appointment as attorney general presents an imminent threat to civil rights. The executive order banning refugees from several Middle Eastern and African countries was targeted toward Muslims and thus was discriminatory. Hate speech, like the racist emails, poses a threat to people’s lives by inciting violence against minorities. The list goes on.  

Furthermore, protests like the one in the Union or like the protests carried out in airports across the country in response to the Muslim ban should not wane. It is necessary to continue to advocate for the people whose lives are affected by hateful actions.

In order to continue the momentum of resistance, however, we need broader coalition building: The organizers needed everyone in the Reading Room to join the protest.

On campus, we strive to promote inclusivity. The initiatives set forth by the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan have created programs to teach incoming students about diversity and political correctness during orientation. With good reason, then, we begin our college career cautious to approach sensitive topics.

But this poses a problem: Avoiding a controversial topic out of fear of criticism, or critically denouncing our peers for using potentially offensive language, limits discussion; it shoves difficult issues aside. In our classes we restrain ourselves from expressing our opinions on difficult issues — if we avoid talking about race, at least we won’t say anything racist. Associating ourselves with like-minded people protects us from having our opinions challenged. However, this inhibits us from developing a deeper understanding of the problems facing minorities. We need to create an environment where discussion about controversial issues is encouraged.

So, engage in open dialogue. Work together to understand how non-politically correct language can have harmful implications. Be open to criticism and be willing to point out when assumptions about others are biased.

If the vulnerable and disempowered in society continue to be threatened by actions from the Trump administration — and by his extremist supporters inciting violence — organizations advocating for change will need stronger coalitions to resist. Being open to speaking to people who look, sound and think differently than you do and reaching out to your peers, including the ones who are apolitical or generally apathetic, is crucial for mobilizing a broader base of allies over the next four years.

Now is not the time to ignore the demands of those who feel threatened. And it is not the responsibility of minorities to teach the world why they must chant their demands so loudly. By working together we can build greater understanding and unity in the face of oppression.

Sarah Khan is a public policy junior.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.