There’s endless data and statistics that tell the story of what it’s like to be an African-American student at a predominantly white college. Those numbers across the nation paint a dismal picture.
And it’s even worse here in Wisconsin. According to Academic Planning and Institutional Research, just over 2 percent (1,403) of UW-Madison’s 29,302 undergraduate students identified themselves as African-American last year, as well as 2.6 percent of faculty and 1.3 percent of instructional staff.
But the crisis we have seen for students of color that are starting to be highlighted in college uprisings across the nation can be described much better with personal stories than it can with numbers.
Students of color – especially African American students – overwhelmingly feel isolated, alone and often depressed amidst white campus culture. Research earlier this year from Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity project detailed that racist treatment on college campuses often takes the form of microaggressions that cause their targets confusion, sadness, self-doubt, anxiety and frustration, and a constant drain on their energy and attention.
"I’ve had numerous times when I felt like I didn’t want to be here anymore. I couldn’t go to class. I have struggled with my grades because there are times when I feel like I just don’t belong and I don’t know how to survive here," says UW-Madison student Taiyani Hennings. "It’s hard because you want to say something but you don’t know who to say it to."
Bad college campus climates for students of color cause grades to suffer, jeopardizing not only students’ academic careers but also future success. And that’s for the students that plow through. Research shows graduation rates fall for students of color when they’re forced to pursue their collegiate education in a hostile environment.
"That struggle has been true on every campus I’ve been on as a student and a professor," says Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor in curriculum and education at UW-Madison, who has also been at the University of Washington, Stanford University and Santa Clara University. "It’s not always overt racism, either. They tend to be what is identified now as ‘microagressions’ or what is called ‘1,000 tiny cuts.’ Constantly little things. It’s constantly seeing the inequitable ways things play out on campus. That’s a frustration the students are facing.
"I just hate to see students come out of the university as survivors rather than thrivers," she adds. "But that is the reality."
Problems with campus climate for people of color is as old as the universities themselves. "I can remember being miserable at school at the University of Washington. I was absolutely miserable. Every single day," Ladson-Billings says. "I wanted to leave. But I decided, ‘You know what … I’m here. This is an opportunity. I’m going to get this done. I have to get this done.'"
So while racial climate has been a problem for decades and decades, little effort has been made to address it. Do white students, professors and faculty just think that black students are being whiney and overdramatic when it comes to campus climate?
"Yeah, some clearly do," says Ladson-Billings, who is known for her groundbreaking work in the fields of culturally relevant pedagogy and critical race theory. "Others know that it goes on, but they don’t understand the depths of how much it really hurts."
Ladson-Billings teaches a class in the fall called "Multicultural Perspectives on Education," and for 20-some years, she has had her students read a book by Jane Smiley called "Moo." The setting is a Midwestern college, and there’s a point in the book when the one black female student named Mary living in a co-op with all white women gets called the N-word by a visiting white male.
"Mary is just traumatized by it. Her young white friends come to her rescue and ask the male to leave," Ladson-Billings says. "In the minds of the white students, it’s over. We’ve dealt with it. Mary, meanwhile, is beginning to spiral out of control. She no longer feels safe. She doesn’t know how to respond. She’s sad. But her friends are not sympathetic. ‘We’ve dealt with that, Mary. It’s over.’ She’s not finding any sympathy.
"That’s part of what our students experience," Ladson-Billings adds. "It’s not that white students aren’t aware of things that go on as a person of color on this campus; it just that it doesn’t have the same significance."
Are colleges and universities to blame? Isn’t it a lot of the same problems that go on every day overall in Madison, leader in the nation for racial disparities?
"There are some similarities. The advantages that people have in the wider community is that they are often in spaces of choice," Ladson-Billings says. "I can leave my job and head over South Madison or friends in Darbo/Worthington. I can drive to Milwaukee and hang out with friends. There’s always those spaces.
"Our students don’t have that here. And many are coming from communities where there were plenty of black people and people of color," she adds. "When they get to campus, it’s cultural shock."
Awa Fofana came to UW-Madison after attending Madison East High School, which is significantly more diverse than the UW campus.
"It was definitely a big difference. Many of the white students at UW come from small cities throughout Wisconsin, and they’ve never seen or interacted with a person of color in their life," Fofana says. "It was really eye-opening for me to see that some people really just don’t care if they are offending people."
This past Halloween, Fofana spent time with a friend of her friend at a UW campus party who was dressed as a "Drunk Mexican."
"It’s so hard to see that. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and explain why it’s so offensive. They actually went around calling themselves ‘a Drunk Mexican,’" Fofana recalls. "It’s hard to be the advocate for everybody on campus because then people think you’re uptight or stuck up because you believe in being fair and being culturally aware and competent."
The social media around campus initiatives and activism is where the real nastiness surfaces, especially the anonymous app Yik-Yak.
"On Yik-Yak, I see so many people making some extremely derogatory comments about people of color. People have a lot of confidence on social media, and the things they say towards people of color are so outlandish and rude," Fofana says. "Seeing those comments on social media make me wonder: Who are those people in my classes that think like that? Am I talking to those people right now? How do they perceive me? Constantly thinking about that is a struggle for me. Who is on my side? Who likes me? And who thinks I don’t deserve to be in college? Who hates me and sees me as that stereotypical person in their eyes? That’s the issue I face every day."
Fofana says that these issues need to be addressed. It can be difficult to be a good student while always having to be an activist on the side.
"It’s very overwhelming dealing with your personal life, dealing with school, dealing with activism and having these conversations and still having time for yourself," Fofana says. "College life can be so demanding, and this just adds an extra layer."
The day-to-day grind of being the token person of color can be difficult, Fofana adds, especially in the UW Business School where she sticks out even more than usual. "I’m often the only black person in class. It’s hard for me feeling different and not wanting to say or do the wrong thing that might make people question my character," she says. "But at the same time, it’s really empowered me to be active and have my voice heard when topics of inclusion and diversity come up in class."
Waiting for the next racial slur
Decades of neglect and campus abuse have come to a head up in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Oumou Cisse and other Lawrence University students of color have been a target of a lot of vitriol and hate speech.
"The day-to-day climate here at Lawrence has been one of fear," Cisse tells Madison365. "For me, it’s waiting for the next racial slur to be yelled out of a car window or almost getting hit by a car. It’s about facing constant microaggressions or constantly getting singled out to speak on behalf of all black people if you are the only person of color in your class."
Cisse is originally from Mali, a country in West Africa, and she came to Wisconsin from Washington D.C. where her family still lives. She says there are very few students of color on campus.
"There’s a climate of fear in anticipation for the next thing to happen," Cisse says. "I walk around campus all the time on alert. I have my phone on camera mode or record so that I can capture incidents as they happen.
"What really happens is that people try not to think about it," Cisse adds. "People think of Lawrence University as this safe bubble, and nothing bad ever happens here. People get so stuck on this idea that they don’t want to think that these bad things happen to students on this campus and in the community. A lot of these issues do get brushed off and swept under the rug along with other issues."
Cisse recently organized a protest because it has gotten so bad. She and some of her fellow Lawrence University students have demanded that university President Mark Burstein take action to address racial issues in the community and on campus.
"The demands we are making now are pretty much the same as the demands made in 1972 at Lawrence when the students of color took over the president’s house," Cisse says. "Nothing ever gets done. You go in and you speak to someone, and they tell you to grow a tougher skin or grow up."
On Thursday evening, 14 faculty and staff members at Lawrence University expressed solidarity with a movement by students of color in a letter. Also on Thursday, Nancy Truesdell, vice president for student affairs at Lawrence, sent an email to Lawrence students regarding what’s happening next with the concerns.
"A number of the things that the students have brought forward are things that have been discussed. Training for faculty and staff is going to be an ongoing process because we have new people all the time and because issues change," said Truesdell. "These efforts are never done. I think it’s clear to us we have much work to do as many colleges would say these days."
Cisse would like to see more of this kind of support.
"It’s time for people to use their privilege to help oppressed and marginalized groups have their own voice and to help others. There’s just a lack of compassion and empathy. People say this all the time: ‘You should realize that you’re in Appleton, Wisconsin. You’re in the Midwest. That is why people act this way.’ But our location shouldn’t justify people’s hatred and bigotry."
Not worth it to speak up
The whiteness of the UW-Madison campus was a shock for Hennings who hails from the north side of Milwaukee.
"I went to Rufus King High School, so I felt like I had good sense of diversity and what that was," says Hennings, who is also the treasurer of the Wisconsin Black Student Union. "I was just kinda placed into a world that I’ve never seen before. I feel like the experience has enriched me a little bit because once I get to the real world, this is probably what I’m going to experience. But dealing with it now is very real and it’s hard.
"I try to push myself to be more involved in diversity and culture than I ever was before. But I feel like a negative aspect of my existence on campus is that I feel like I’m alone a lot of the time," she adds. "You walk outside and there are no people who look like you. So, you constantly look at yourself."
On campus, students of color are pressured into giving up their identities to fit in to the white middle class style of talking, dressing, and acting. Hennings says she’s not into code switching any more. "I don’t think about the clothes I wear any more or how I talk," she says. "I just am who I am at this point."
It’s not just a problem with the students.
"My sophomore year I was really into political science, and I was taking a course where we were talking about politics and I was told that I was wrong for not believing everything Obama was saying," says Hennings, a communications arts major and an Office Assistant at PEOPLE Program. "It’s politics. I know there is right and wrong in what everybody does. But I was basically told that, ‘You’re black. You’re supposed to think he’s the most amazing person ever.’ I was, like, no. The professor wanted me to be the spokesperson for all black people and not question anything Obama did. What do you say to that?"
It’s very difficult to speak up in a climate where you are so significantly outnumbered. And who would you tell? And why create more problems for yourself?
"I’ve heard a lot of similar stories from my peers but we never say anything to people who are higher [up]," Hennings says. "We know that even if we say something, it’s going to roll right off their backs. We’re just causing more headaches for ourselves if we speak up."
Students of color are expected to maintain academic expectations as racism and discrimination saps away their time and energy.
"Just get through it," says Hennings with a sigh. "A lot of us are here on scholarships so we want to be able to get our degrees … that’s our main goal. If they take that away from us because we’re causing a problem, than we are the ones who lose out big time, not them. "
National college uprisings leading to change
Colleges and universities across the United States have known about these problems for decades, but movement to address them has historically been at a snail’s pace. For many, it seems like a hopeless situation. But is it?
The recent events that have transpired at the University of Missouri have changed the game. If African American students can’t appeal to people’s humanity, they have shown that they can appeal to their pocketbooks.
"I knew about Missouri back when it was small and before it went national; I have a friend that goes to school there, and she has been keeping me updated on the situation going on," Hennings says. "Black people have tremendous economic power. If we stop buying from these stores, then they would take notice and listen. I think what happened in Missouri was important. We should feel comfortable in a country that naturally none of us belong to …. but we all want to belong to."
"Since we are such a minority on campus, I thought it was fantastic to see how many allies we have across the nation," adds Fofana. "Seeing other schools come together and other UW systems together shows a lot of progress to where we are moving forward to."
As a result of Missouri, student protests over racial inequality and campus climate have spread to colleges across the country.
"I think all chancellors and presidents are on alert and they don’t want Missouri. I think that has made everybody decide they need to do something," says Ladson-Billings.
But the case for diversity and cultural understanding should not be like forcing people to eat their vegetables. Ladson-Billings hopes it would be common sense. The nation is becoming much more diverse every day. The state is becoming much more diverse, as is the city. Madison will lose out big time if it lags behind on diversity.
"We have plenty of research that tells us that when you have a variety of perspectives, you have a broader range of possibilities for problem solving … you begin to think about things that you hadn’t considered before," Ladson-Billings says. "It’s interesting to me that the larger society recognizes the benefits of diversity in every other endeavor. Diversity will make us better."
In Madison, however, diversity is a term that is batted around like a beach ball at a Badger game (indubitably an all-white crowd at said Badger game). At some point, there needs to be action.
"My problem is that I’m a product person stuck in a process community. What I mean by that is that we love to talk here in Madison. We talk this stuff to death. In fact, as long as you are talking, people consider that to be action," Ladson-Billings says. "You’ll hear people here say, ‘We got all the input! We’ve heard from everybody.’ Yeah, but what did you do? That’s the way that Madison functions. It takes so long to get to product. So people get frustrated. They give up. And the sense of urgency heats up.
"We like to study everything. And I’m a scientist so I’m not anti-study," Ladson-Billings adds. "But, when you’re in the midst of crisis, you have to do triage. You have to treat what’s dying right there before us. You have to act."