[Featured image via Instagram]
By Rebecca Wang, J.D., Legal Fellow at SIA Legal Team
My alma mater, the University of Iowa, recently celebrated its 172nd birthday. As part of the celebration, it put the call out asking students to share why they love the school with the hashtag #iloveUIOWA.
In response, some students, faculty, and staff have instead created a coordinated movement asking #doesUIOWAloveme? The hashtag has sparked an ongoing thread on Instagram/Twitter, where students have shared deeply personal stories about being initially excited to be a Hawkeye and then subsequently being excluded from campus life in various ways. This conversation developed after a UIowa student group displayed a large “build the wall” banner on a campus walkway, the latest in a line of racist incidents at universities in the state.
The students using the tag talk about navigating discrimination for being women, Muslim, people of color, queer, Jewish, people with disabilities, immigrants, and sexual assault survivors on a campus that otherwise touts diversity and inclusion as core values. While the tag itself has not been about race alone, the banner incident which started this conversation — on an undergrad campus that is more than 70% white — is par for the course when it comes to surviving predominantly white institutions (PWIs) as people of color.
Around the time I was applying to law school, I was participating in a prep program at UCLA Law, where black law students released a video called “33”. In 2014, only 33 out of the 1,100 students enrolled at the law school were black. The video was released during an incredibly tense time at the school, as a note with a racial slur had recently been left in a black student’s mailbox. The students in the video describe their law school experience as nothing short of hostile. They were subjected to stricter scrutiny than their non-black peers and were pressured to prove themselves at all times while constantly being subject to microaggressions. More recently, Chinese medical students were heard speaking Mandarin to each other in a break room at Duke. Faculty complained, and a school-wide email went out demanding international students speak English “100% of the time” or risk losing internships and job placements.
People of color are not just expected to tolerate explicit racism, but to remain completely objective, calm, and neutral about it.
These incidents are not isolated or novel. Students of color are fully aware that most institutions of higher education were never created to benefit or support us. That certainly does not stop PWIs from trying to market diversity both to us and with us on the promotional materials (take all brochure photos with a grain of salt). UIowa was quick to release a statement reaffirming its commitment to creating an inclusive campus, but it also said the banner incident was an expression of free speech and that the university encourages students to “value diversity, engage in civil discourse, and be respectful of everyone that uses our shared space.” Of course, the student group that put up the banner said it was only trying to “spark a dialogue.”
The free speech statement is pretty standard language that has been trotted out before, often to shut down student protests against hosting alt-right speakers on campus. Unfortunately, this kind of response after a racist incident always places the burden squarely on those harmed by the racism, rather than those who perpetuated it. Racists are hosted and defended under free speech in ways that people of color simply are not. People of color are not just expected to tolerate explicit racism, but to remain completely objective, calm, and neutral about it. Otherwise they risk being accused of being intolerant themselves, or not having a sense of humor, or being too emotionally invested in the subject. All of this comes down to discrediting and dismissing students of color as being unqualified to speak to their own experience with racism on campus, thus absolving the administration from having to do anything about it.
The hashtag #doesUIOWAloveme is powerful because it is rejecting the school’s typical shutdown attempt — an attempt that makes clear UIowa would rather students of color just stay quiet and sit pretty for photos. The hashtag campaign is a way for the students to tell their stories their way and to support each other through their shared pain. It puts it back on the school to answer for the climate it created. It may not be “civil discourse,” but it’s honest — and let’s be real — that’s way better.
All of this comes down to discrediting and dismissing students of color as being unqualified to speak to their own experience with racism on campus, thus absolving the administration from having to do anything about it.
My hope is that UIowa (and other PWIs) really listen and then do the work to make the campus the home it should be, because the tag is filled with students who genuinely want to love the school and just want to know that it’s not unrequited.
So, University of Iowa, where’s the love?
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