| 03.18.2018

Alone in the crowd – Many students of color feel unwelcome at UI


ASUI Director of Diversity Izaiah Dolezal has moved around a lot. Among the places he”s called home are Atlanta; Chicago; Cape Town, South Africa; and now Moscow.

Dolezal said there”s much he has learned from seeing so many different people and their interactions with one another.

While racism is a minor element, one of his observations, he said, is that racism in the Northwest can be a different beast than racism elsewhere.

“Down south, you don”t really hide your racism,” Dolezal said. “People tell you to your face they don”t like you “¦ Here it”s more subtle. You can”t really tell who”s who.”

Idaho is approximately 89 percent white, according to the 2010 census. That means for many students, coming to the University of Idaho is their first time spending time around students of diverse backgrounds. Some simply don”t know how to conduct themselves, Dolezal said, and as a result, some students express curiosity in a way that is unfriendly.

Similarly, an instructor might single out a student in class to speak on behalf of all people of color, he said. Other times, Dolezal said students don”t say anything until a few drinks, and then a few more. Then students might use derogatory slurs, or make other racially or culturally  insensitive remarks, as if he isn”t standing beside them, Dolezal said.

And sometimes, especially during cultural events on campus, students will turn to anonymous apps such as Yik Yak to express hate. This was the case during last year”s Shades of Black showcase, when Dolezal said Yik Yak posts appeared about the KKK and threatening students of color.

“Maybe jokes, maybe not,” Dolezal said. “But they make students of color feel unsafe and unwelcome.”

Recruitment and retention numbers reflect those feelings, Dolezal said. After their first semester or year on campus, he said many students of color are not returning to campus.

Dolezal is a member of the President”s Diversity Council for Recruitment and Retention, a group of faculty, staff and students put together last year to address diversity issues and enrollment on the UI campus.

UI President Chuck Staben pledged to increase diversity on campus by 35 percent as part of his 10-year enrollment plan. The recruitment and retention group of the Diversity Council will meet again in January, and they already have ideas for addressing minority students” needs.

“There”s nothing offered for students of color,” Dolezal said. “No communal support.”

UI student Cynthia Ballesteros said in order to make minority students feel welcome on campus, the most important thing is providing institutional support. To her this means creating more centers for different types of students and a more diverse course catalogue.

Ballesteros said she has always been socially aware, and has remained engaged in the activist community on campus throughout her time at UI. She said she has also closely followed the news of other students of color demonstrating on college campuses across the nation, such as at the University of Missouri and Yale last month.

She said she likes to believe on the UI campus and beyond, conversations about race are beginning to be heard.

“Everyone is coming together slowly,” Ballesteros said.   “It”s like we”re simultaneously having the same thought at the same time, and it”s setting off lights.”

Dolezal said the nation is in the midst of a second civil rights movement.

“The civil rights movement never really died, we just stopped talking about it,” Dolezal said. “It”s always been going on, but for some of us it”s reality.”

Since the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin nearly three years ago, Dolezal said the movement has gained momentum, especially with the rise of Black Lives Matter – a movement Dolezal said has received largely negative and hostile feedback. Yet, he said the discourse among participants in the Black Lives Matter movement and its opponents on social media mirror discourse of the past.

“The comments on Twitter are almost identical,” Dolezal said. “If you look at them together, you won”t know which era is which.”

Eventually, Dolezal said something has to change, but the solution won”t be simple. He said in order for institutional change to occur, there must first be individual change.

Dolezal said achieving cultural competency can be difficult, but so is any process that demands extending beyond one”s comfort zone.

“I have to step in front of myself – step outside of what I know,” Dolezal said. “To understand other people, spend time around different people”¦ I guess you have to change yourself if you want to change the world.”

Hannah Shirley  can be reached at  arg-news@uidaho.edu  or on Twitter @itshannah7

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