For 10 years, I had the privilege of working with undergraduate students at the University of Maryland, focusing on anti-bias education in the five courses that I created and taught. Although I am no longer at UMD, I believe that some of the themes that emerged from discussions I had with African American, Jewish, Asian American and other “minority” students might offer useful perspectives for administrators to consider in light of the race-related challenges that the university is confronting.
One of the most common experiences shared by African American students involved feeling like they were living through one campus reality, while white students moved through a parallel world, not subjected to the discomfort they were enduring. One African American elementary education junior described her anxiety in an assignment. “At UMD, I have not had a black teacher yet,” she wrote. “This thought brings fear into my mind… Some white teachers still have no idea how to address diversity.”
Another African American student described a white male professor, who always directed his attention to white female students, and how hurt and invisible she began to feel. I also recall a group of Ethiopian American students talking to some Ethiopian Israelis during my Education Abroad program in Israel, telling them about the numerous times they had been pulled over and searched by campus police and describing that they felt targeted because of their skin color.
Another issue I noted focused on the difference between having a diverse student body and a genuinely integrated campus. When students entered my classrooms at the beginning of the semester, most African American, white and Asian/Asian American students self-segregated when they chose their seats. Because I wanted to break through those barriers and shatter the discomfort that comes from perceived differences and stereotypes, I created small working groups of students from diverse identity groups, and I required students to talk about how they connected the literature we read and the movies we watch to their personal life experiences.
On one occasion, after showing students a comedy sketch called, “What Kind of Asian are You?” there was consensus among the Asian American students in the room that they felt like outsiders each time they were asked “Where are you from?” by other students on campus, which led to a discussion about American identity and how it relates to physical appearance.
I recall another conversation that occurred in my course about music as a form of social protest right after a group of students performed their original rap about gang violence. A first year student from Baltimore explained to the class that in his neighborhood, gangs provide social services to families in need, which prompted a powerful class discussion about poverty, racism and social segregation.
During another class session, an Israeli student chose to focus her multi-media assignment on terrorism in Israel, after feeling frustration at how Israel was so often portrayed in a negative light. For many students, both the powerful images that she selected, as well as the accompanying song about Israel’s desire for peace, presented a perspective they had not heard before.
The result of my forced desegregation was described by one student in this way: “People I would have never associated myself with became friends… and people I look up to and keep in touch with on a daily basis… Our diverse class became so close through discussing controversial issues.”
Given their daily reminders that they do not fully belong, many students shared their annoyance when the administration expressed shock over the swastikas and a noose that were found on campus. In their worlds, those events were not surprising; they were simply more intimidating forms of a familiar message that they had received many times before, just in more subtle ways.
Students also talked about their fear. What they knew from their life experiences, which many shared during our class discussions about the rise of antisemitism in Nazi Germany, is that when discrimination occurs without unequivocal opposition, things quickly escalate, and the likelihood of violence increases.
UMD is home to many remarkable students, who want to be heard and understood and who want the administration to recognize that there are many forms of discrimination that are not prohibited by law but can be just as damaging to peoples’ lives. Granting them those wishes is not only the right thing to do by an institution partially funded by their families’ taxes, but it will also provide the administration with perspectives and knowledge that they can use as they work to alleviate racial tension and prevent future violence on their campus.
Melissa Landa, is the author of “Early Childhood Literacy Teachers in High Poverty Schools: A Study of Courage and Caring”; her email is Melissalanda@gmail.com.