Prior to providing an update from University of Wisconsin-Madison administrators, leadership of the Blk Pwr Coalition (BPC), a student group at the school, opened the mic at a Friday public town hall for questions and experiences related to the protests surrounding a racist video that circulated on social media last spring.
One student said it’s “outrageous” that out of the six or seven classes she’s taken toward her African Cultural Studies certificate, she’s only had one Black professor.
“I feel like it's so important that when you walk into a class, you're getting taught by someone who understands your experiences and understands what it's like,” she said.
Leaders of the BPC encouraged attending students to talk in groups amongst themselves and meet those around them — those who spoke communicated a sense of community and earnestly recounted their campus experiences.
The student who spoke about her certificate progress shared a particularly troubling instance of racism.
“Just the other day, I was in an African politics class with a white professor who said that she was going to make an effort to learn every single person's name,” she said. “She did, except mine. I raised my hand and she called me the name of the other Black girl in that class.”
Another student mentioned that both Black students and Black professors lack necessary on-campus protection and support.
“We actively need to figure out ways in which we can protect [Black] professors that are here, especially people who are not tenured because they don’t have a voice,” one student shared. “It's really difficult for them to step outside of the bounds of the institution or tape that they have put in place to even actively change or even advocate for the Black students and themselves.”
Discrimination faced in university housing toward Black students and house fellows was another key conversation. Some students in the room were current or former house fellows and shared experiences of racism and discrimination.
One student said a dispute she’d had with another house fellow was “swept under the rug,” even though she had been racially profiled by the other student.
“There are so many things that have happened to us and been done to us,” she explained, “And we can’t do anything about it because if we get fired, we have three days to move out.”
Another student echoed this sentiment and shared similar experiences as a Black house fellow. The retaliatory threat of losing housing was just one more obstacle looming over her head, she said.
“There's a lot of passive-aggressive [communication], hypervigilance and surveillance — making you feel like you're being watched,” she said, “And when you voice how you feel uncomfortable, it undermines your voice.”
To address many of the issues raised at the event, the BPC introduced the idea of “ciphers,” goal-based student volunteer groups that students were encouraged to sign up for.
Examples included a communications and media group, a finance group and an events group. Once established, each cipher group would have its own communications channel or emailing list, allowing members to volunteer and get involved as available and able.
Many students voiced concerns about the knowledge of incoming and freshman students of color and what information UW-Madison administration shares about controversial events like the May racist video, in which a white UW-Madison student said racial slurs and violent remarks directed toward Black people.
Coalition leaders shared some of the new language that was introduced to incoming freshmen this year in a welcome email shared by administration.
“Even hate speech is protected speech,” the email said. It went on to say that sharing ideas — especially those you don’t agree with — is paramount to making UW-Madison a great university.
“Those who come to UW must be prepared to have their beliefs and ideas challenged, sometimes in ways they find uncomfortable, or in some cases even offensive,” the email continued. “The expression of challenging and even potentially offensive beliefs is the cost of the freedom that allows UW-Madison to generate knowledge at the forefront of academic discipline.”
But administrators weren’t the only UW-Madison employees expected to respond to the video.
One student shared her experience being a Black SOAR peer leader for the College of Letters and Science. She said she felt ostracized in that role and was uncomfortable with how peer leaders were instructed to address the video with new students.
“We're basically told to acknowledge but brush it off,” she said.
The language used in the email and instructions given to peer advisors troubled many at the town hall, many of whom saw the university's consistent statements on free speech issues as protecting hate speech.
“They're saying, ‘challenging ideas.’ No, you're challenging our humanity,” one student said. “That's not the same thing. You're challenging our existence, and you're trying to undermine our existence.”
Editor’s Note: The Daily Cardinal is not including the names of students at the town hall to protect their safety.
Anna Kleiber is an arts editor for The Daily Cardinal. She also reports on state politics and campus news. Follow her on Twitter at @annakleiber03.
Gabriella Hartlaub is an arts editor for the Daily Cardinal. She also reports state politics and life & style stories. Follow her on Twitter at @gabihartlaub.