Opinion

Collaboration, communication key in redefining #TheRealUW

Image By: Leah Voskuil and Leah Voskuil

UW-Madison students, alumni and campus community members are sharing their stories of discrimination and bias with the hashtag #TheRealUW, illuminating how for some students, feeling safe, accepted and respected on this campus is not a given.

In would-be safe spaces like healing circles and residence halls, students have been mocked and spat on. Anti-Semitic symbols have been posted on doors, and n-word riddled notes have been slid into dorm rooms. An Asian student was told to go back to China, one blatant example of the lack of acceptance faced by marginalized students on this campus. Outrage in response to these hate and bias acts termed “incidents” by the university has resulted in past and ongoing transgressions being projected by #TheRealUW to a mass audience, instantaneously. 

In order to best address the anger and frustration of students affected, all areas of campus must listen, acknowledge there is a problem and engage in a productive solution. 

“I would say these experiences are anything but new,” said UW-Madison senior Kenneth Cole, a leader of BlackOut, Blindside and #TheRealUW movement. “It’s not even just us, it’s not even just the students who are here now, but alumni call us and talk about their relationship with administration and talk about the same things that we’re fighting for now that they were fighting for back then.” 

Cole said as a student leader in this movement, there has been a lot of stress. As of now, there is an expectation for minority students to solve and educate the surrounding community on issues pertaining to racism and discrimination. 

“We’re fighting for equity and inclusion, which is something you should just have,” Cole said. 

Students like Cole and Mariam Coker, the current Equity and Inclusion Committee chair for Associated Students of Madison, have attended community forums and town halls facilitated by the university to address the campus climate. 

To an extent, these conversations are helpful, Coker said. 

However, as she puts it, these are “listening sessions, not solution sessions.” 

Both Coker and Cole expressed the sentiment that while the open venues allow for discourse, the student participants are failing to see productive results from the conversation. 

As an added barrier, many of the students who are at these discussions are the same, recurring voices, usually those of the marginalized students themselves. 

“The people who need to be there, the people who don’t care about these issues, who don’t know about these issues, aren’t there,” Coker said.

Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Patrick Sims released a video on YouTube saying “enough is enough” of these discriminatory acts, serving as a sort of call to action for everyone on UW’s campus to become part of the solution to address the climate. 

Chancellor Rebecca Blank has also joined in the conversation, both online and through all-campus emails, to express her discontent for recent actions. 

“Some of the sorts of incidents that have been reported either on The Real UW or through our hate and bias reporting are just unacceptable,” Blank said in an April 13 interview with The Daily Cardinal. “It’s hard to read some of this and not just feel incredibly sad about what this suggests about where we are and where we need to get.” 

Blank acknowledged Wisconsin’s extremely white demographics, but said this gives our campus no excuse for these transgressions to be occurring. 

The chancellor pointed to current efforts UW is taking to address the campus climate, including increased mental health services, creating a “more effective” multicultural center and finding the most efficient use of funds to address department diversity and any curriculum needs. Next fall, the university is set to unveil a pilot program targeted at cultural competency, something every student would take before stepping foot on UW’s campus. 

Timothy Yu, director of the Asian American Studies Program, said while some form of this module will be a good start, it won’t be where we’ll see the biggest impact. 

“Taking an ethnic studies class, learning about the histories of people of color, the politics and history of race and racism; [We need] this kind of education more so than simply saying to people ‘don’t do that, don’t engage in these behaviors,’” Yu said. “When people understand the history and the context around race and racism, that has a much more lasting impact on their perspective.”  

Lori Kido Lopez, a UW associate professor who teaches ethnic studies classes, echoed Yu’s point, saying a 30-60 minute module would not be nearly enough time to reach students. 

“From my perspective, it takes that whole semester to really move students’ feelings about an issue or to increase their understanding of what racism is or how it works,” Lopez said.  

Each UW-Madison student is required to take three credits of an ethnic studies course before graduation. Under the current diversity framework, effort is placed on students taking these credits in their first two years on campus, as to have a more meaningful effect. 

Of the four total learning goals of the ethnic studies requirement, one is to “better prepare students for life and careers in an increasingly multicultural U.S. environment,” something Yu said is hard to tangibly assess, but isn’t without anecdotal support. 

“I believe very strongly that it does, that it can have an impact,” Yu said. “Certainly in my own classes, I’ve seen individual students come to me—students who were maybe very skeptical, very resistant about the idea of even talking about race at the beginning of the semester—come up to me at the end and say, ‘Wow, this class really changed my mind, this class really shifted my perspective. I thought about experiences that I never had to think about before.’”   

However, both Yu and Lopez agree that these current issues of racial unrest could be eased through more support of the ethnic studies program.    

“If those are weak, if those programs and departments aren’t being institutionally supported, and those faculty are leaving, then that really strong pillar of having the ethnic studies requirement can’t work,” Lopez said. 

Yu added that increasing faculty of color at UW is something many want to see happen, including students, and that a strong ethnic studies presence helps in both recruitment and retention. 

Budgets are tight all across the UW System, but diversity efforts are not something that should be limited by a price tag. Giving more attention to ethnic studies—through more resources, expanded course options and recruitment of faculty—is and must be a priority on this campus.  

So where do we go from here?

How do we take all these conversations, all this talk, all of these ideas and make them into something meaningful? How do we change the climate to one more accepting and celebratory of our differences, as opposed to one that’s closed off and unwelcoming? 

We recognize the value of ethnic studies. We—and that means every single member of this campus community—must understand and accept the importance of what an ethnic studies class has to offer. 

We keep talking. This conversation can’t stop once the cameras turn off and once national media has grabbed hold of another story.

But more than talking, we need to listen. As it stands, there is evidence of a disconnect between key players at this university. Students feel as though they aren’t being heard and administration feels as though they aren’t getting their voices through. 

We cannot stay in this feedback loop in which minority students are asked by the university and their fellow students over and over again to share their experiences, to explain their oppressions, without being factored into policy changes in a serious way. 

These past weeks, months and even years have shown a dark side to UW-Madison. But it is our duty as a campus community to help redefine #TheRealUW. 

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