Diversity has become a phenomenon where institutions feel the need to advertise and, at times, even glorify their members of color. Be it at universities, corporations, or even amongst elements of popular culture, it is a buzzword used by white-majority organizations to tout their so-called care for marginalized populations.
But heterogeneity is more valuable than a number in a report or a scale of melanin embedded in marketing photos — diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and backgrounds fosters growth and innovation, tolerance and knowledge. True diversity, not doctored numbers or disproportionate representation, must be a value embedded into each and every decision, rather than as a mechanism for marketing or upholding societal standards.
With this being said, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has always championed its actions to further inclusivity and acceptance of its students of color here on campus. Despite having a 70-percent white student body, it seems as though the university aims to overcompensate for its lack of a truly diverse population. By sensationalizing students of color — whether this be through repeatedly crafting involved Badgers of color as poster children, the battle of overly PC culture, or the many other examples of parading diversity — these students don’t feel included, they feel used.
When considered in isolation, streamlining woke terminology or requiring ethnic studies courses oversimplifies aims of equality and welcoming — especially when we continue to alienate, exoticise, and frankly, manipulate, students of color.
Scholarship programs for students of color are fantastic, given that they serve the populations that need it without tokenizing recipients. Taking pride in the diversity of Badger athletes is great, given they are respected as more than just bodies slinging balls across a field or court. Delegating POC-specific spaces like the Multicultural Student Center or Multicultural Learning Community is great, given that other common spaces are not then, by default, “white” spaces.
Yet, only half of the narrative is consistently being told — one of great strides towards acceptance and welcoming.
While we would hate to discredit triumphs on campus — as there are multiple tremendous identity-based student organizations and safe spaces available — students of color should feel comfortable in all spaces, not just the ones with their identity jammed into its title.
The university’s webpage for diversity even states, “The University of Wisconsin–Madison fulfills its public mission by creating a welcoming and inclusive community for people from every background — people who as students, faculty, and staff serve Wisconsin and the world.” Yet, everyday phenomena and numerous incidents occurring on campus embody a failure to live up to these commitments.
The 2016 campus-wide Climate Survey found disparities in perceptions of campus climate along the lines of race. For example, 65 percent of students of color reported “frequently” feeling welcome on campus, compared to 87 percent of white students and 73 percent of international students. In the same thread, there was a 12 percent gap in terms of perceived safety between students of color and white students, and a 20 percent gap in feeling respected on campus.
Beyond these everyday feelings of prejudice and microaggressions, there have been an unacceptable magnitude of shocking incidents in recent years.
- In 2000, a Daily Cardinal reporter discovered that UW had photoshopped the face of a black student into the cover photo for the 2001-2002 application booklet.
- In 2016, a Sellery resident posted photos of Adolf Hitler and swastikas on his dorm room door.
- In 2017, the sacred fire circle at Dejope Residence Hall was vandalized with the words “Columbus Rules 1492.”
- In 2018, a student filed a hate-bias complaint due to the inclusion of two UW alumni’s names in various spaces in Memorial Union — despite the fact that they were members of a student society that took on the name Ku Klux Klan.
- Also in 2018, student Ali Khan expressed frustration over a political science class titled “Terrorism” which Khan found “neocolonialist” and greatly simplified the concept of Jihad in a “one-dimensional, single-faceted, and inherently violent” way.
- Last spring, a “Make America White Again” and “Mass immigration is white genocide” stickers were plastered on campus light posts.
Frustrations from exclusion and such past incidents recently came to a boil with the release of a video by the student homecoming committee. Promoting “Home is Where WI Are,” the video attempting to embody UW only included white students, ignoring students of color altogether.
Reflecting on what makes Madison and the University a great community, the video failed to show any predominantly-minority student organizations, multicultural events, or inclusivity-based spaces. This video should have been a celebration of all Badgers — not just the ones who fit into the university’s expectations of a traditional student.
It is not enough that the homecoming committee intended to include underrepresented student organizations. It is not enough that it was merely a technical fluke that certain bits did not make it into the final cut. Until diversity and respect for all members of this campus are inherent and embedded in the process, intent will never make up for the damaging outcomes.
Yet, it unfortunately isn’t surprising that these situations happened, and continue to happen. Such exclusions and microaggressions are so common to this campus that once a new incident takes place, it is almost like clockwork. The perpetrator releases a statement apologizing for the act, followed by the University publishing a statement condemning and apologizing for said act.
Despite it only being a week since the homecoming video was released, it seems as though it’s already old news. In a matter of days, the cycle shifts to the next big football game or midterms season.
Incidents spark outcries from students as soon as they take place, but after an apology is released and the University promises to do better, the indignation dies down — until the cycle starts again with the next insensitive act committed on campus.
Somehow the world immediately moves on; but, students of color do not — and cannot. At this point, they cannot afford to sit quiet and hope the University’s action-steps will work out.
It’s time for the University to stop apologizing and promising that there won’t be a next time, knowing there certainly will be. Until real, systemic change happens, people of color will never really feel as if they belong to UW-Madison.
Time and time again, students of color are ignored as members of this community — effectively erased from a sense of belonging. Instead of aiming to tick the boxes for a photo-op or attempting to fix issues after the fact, notions of equality must be embedded into every decision, especially at the University-level.
Kavitha is a junior studying political science and sociology, with a certificate in educational policy. Sam is a senior studying journalism, with certificates in development economics and environmental studies. What are your thoughts on the recent homecoming video controversy? What do you think the university should be doing to help students of color feel welcome on campus? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.