Last June, senior Danez Smith was walking down Langdon Street when a hanging figure caught his eye.
From the Badger House apartments hung a Black Spiderman doll with its limbs bound, a detail Smith pointed out was reminiscent of lynchings.
“It was just so jarring, because as much as the people who committed that crime claimed that it was a mistake, it seemed too well thought-out for it to have been a mistake,” Smith said.
Following the incident, student groups protested outside the Badger House and pressed the administration for a response.
Tensions boiled to the surface in September when conservative think-tank Center for Equal Opportunity issued a report calling UW-Madison’s admissions process discriminatory against white and Asian students.
The conversation about racial climate resurfaced again March 16, when students attending a party at the Delta Upsilon fraternity reportedly yelled racial slurs and threw a glass bottle at two black women nearby.
Anjali Misra, a former Multicultural Student Coalition member, said these incidents are not isolated, but reflect a broader issue of campus climate that harkens back to a history of structural racism.
The Student Experience of Race on Campus
Althea Miller, a member of the MCSC board, said being a black student on campus can feel “awkward” because the campus environment can be subtly hostile to non-white students.
“I know that there are stereotypes out there about my people, and when I walk into a room, I automatically feel as if those stereotypes are being activated,” she said. “It’s the small things that accumulate and get to people.”
Smith said it is not uncommon for black students to be harassed the street or be regarded suspiciously by authority figures. He recalled a situation wherein he was asked for his student identification while studying at a table inside Memorial Library.
Promoting Racial Equity and Awareness, a student group of mostly white allies to underrepresented minorities, helped organize a student response to the March 16 incident.
Elise Swanson, a PREA member, said many of the racial tensions on campus are partially due to white privilege, the idea that institutions within society systematically advantage whites over other ethnic groups.
“People feel attacked when you talk to them about white privilege,” Swanson said. “I’m working to make sure that my privilege doesn’t come at others’ disadvantage.”
Swanson said these incidents reflect a lack of thoughtfulness on the part of their perpetrators.
“The fact that we live on a campus where people don’t think through things in that way –and they don’t really have to, is really problematic,” Swanson said.
The Division of Student Life has a branch devoted to diversity and climate. This department attempts to create a positive climate toward minorities on campus.
Eric Williams, assistant vice provost for Student Diversity and Academic Excellence, said they address climate by preparing underrepresented students for academic life and teachers to address their needs.
The department plugs into a greater network of support groups for minority students, including diversity coordinators in each school and residence hall. The office also sponsors courses emphasizing intercultural dialogues, and supports student organizations related to minority identities.
But where does the administration come in when a polarizing incident occurs on campus?
In the face of incidents that destabilize the notion that minorities “belong” to this campus, Eric Williams said his department provides support to minority students in the form of advising services, outlets for frustration and opportunities to increase their involvement on campus.
“We’re trying to make sure those students feel connected to this campus, so that when these incidents happen, they have a buffer,” Williams said.
But in the end, he said creating a positive climate for all students is a responsibility of the entire institution that cannot be relegated to just one department.
Despite the office’s work, Ben Fox, another PREA member, said in times of heightened tension, the university is not responding effectively to racial incidents.
“If there was any dialogue about it, it was because students were having it, and potentially forcing the administration to allow a safe space for that to happen,” Fox said.
The Ethnic Studies Requirement and Starting the Conversation Early
One of the means by which the administration seeks to infuse racial understanding into campus culture is the three credit ethnic studies requirement. But student leaders said the current curriculum does not do enough to penetrate barriers between races on campus.
Miller said the treatment of ethnic studies as just another requirement to satisfy does not change attitudes about race. Strengthening the ethnic studies requirement, to her, would entail employing a more direct curriculum that calls upon students to reflect on their own stereotypes.
Smith said students should be required to take ethnic studies as freshmen so racial understanding is a part of what it means to be a UW-Madison student at the outset.
“It’s not right that there are fifth year seniors just now taking their ethnic studies requirement,” Smith said.
Journalism Professor Hemant Shah sits on the newly formed Ethnic Studies Requirement subcommittee of a larger university committee. With student surveys, the committee will examine how effective the requirement is in changing attitudes.
Responding to students’ criticisms, Shah said he ideally would like students to take two ethnic studies classes, the first in their freshman or sophomore years and the second in their junior or senior years.
“The purpose of an arrangement like this is that it not only starts the conversation early, but also keeps the conversation going,” Shah said in an email.
The Office of Diversity and Climate is starting a program this summer that aims to open up the conversation as early as SOAR. Interns trained through the First Wave program will join SOAR leaders to engage incoming students in dialogue about race.
“People don’t realize that diversity, and advancement of people of color is not just for people of color, it’s the concern for all of society, the same way that I as a man have to be concerned with women’s rights,” Smith said. “It’s irresponsible of us to not acknowledge the existence and struggles of other people.”