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Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion: A White Student's Perspective

Prelude: In light of recent events, I want to let all readers know that regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual identity, etc., in my opinion, you belong here at Michigan. I believe our diversity makes us stronger, and I think that I speak for most of my classmates when I say that you have an ally in us.

Have you ever had the thought, "I'm not an underrepresented minority on campus so this DE&I initiative doesn't apply to me?" I am ashamed to admit it, but I have had this thought myself. When you're not an underrepresented minority student, it can be easy to ignore the challenges that our classmates face regarding diversity, equity, & inclusion. But here's the reality: DE&I is equally important for white students such as myself. We're in the majority so we have the power, and the responsibility, to affect change. Now, I recognize that some white students are underrepresented minorities based on religious preferences, sexual identities, etc. However, if you're a white student and you don't normally think about DE&I on a daily basis, I strongly encourage you to continue reading this post.

For many of us, it is all too easy to fall under a misplaced conception that this is the time of the year to recognize underrepresented minorities. I know because I too have fallen under this disillusionment. We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, recognize Black History Month, and then move on. Don't get me wrong, this time of year is a great opportunity to celebrate the people and events that have brought us to a more inclusive society (with plenty of work to go!). But DE&I doesn't end there. It certainly doesn't end for students of color; the struggles that our friends, classmates, and teachers go through occur every day. So we too must reflect on DE&I every day.

Many of us have heard the statistics. For instance, data from the 2010 Census show that whites are underrepresented in prisons and jails by about 40% as compared to the U.S. population, whereas blacks are overrepresented by over 300%. However, until more recently, I didn't realize that people of color actually have very little control over these statistics; an overwhelmingly contributing factor is institutional racism. Institutional racism is a form of racism that is ingrained within the social structure of our society. Racial profiling by the police and a lack of quality schools in low-income neighborhoods are two examples. But one of the most blatant, and mostly forgotten, instances of institutional racism occurred with our nation's freeways. When they were built, freeways were intentionally routed through low-income, minority neighborhoods, dividing communities and forcing many homes to be torn down. The affected communities had no voice in the process. The freeway project was meant to connect societies, making it easier for people to travel from place to place. Instead, it made it easier for whites to drive into and out of cities, and more difficult for people of color to commute to work, churches, and stores. For more information on this, you can listen to this excellent podcast.

These facts demonstrate one thing very clearly: people of color, through no fault of their own, are not treated the same way as whites. And, instead of recognizing this as a problem and moving forward to fix the issue, too many of us, myself included, are more concerned with forgetting about past indiscretions and publicly decreeing that we are not racists. This will get us nowhere. Even on our best days, we all have implicit biases toward people of color that drive our actions, whether we know it or not, and even when we act with our best intentions in mind. So what can we do? That's where the university comes in. Michigan has spent the last year devising a strategic plan around diversity, equity, & inclusion. Here are some simple actions that you can take to make our campus a more inclusive environment and to start a path to end racism once and for all:

  • Connect with students of a race different from your own (for example, attend a social or professional development event hosted by a multi-ethnic student organization, join an intramural sports team, or form a study group with your classmates)
  • Read the two-page DE&I Executive Summary
  • Take just five minutes, and think about what DE&I means to you
  • Attend the ‘Race at the Intersection’ panel on February 22nd 2017 at ISR
  • Take a free course to learn more about DE&I

But, most importantly, recognize that the problems we face cannot be solved overnight or by one person. It will take a collective effort, including every individual making a choice to reflect and act on principles based on DE&I every day, to make a difference. For me, taking DE&I seriously means making all of my classmates feel welcome at Michigan. It means sharing my culture (I'm from Michigan and I love discussing it with others) and learning about new cultures. Sometimes it even means putting myself in uncomfortable situations so that I can see things from a different perspective. Now the question is, what are you going to do?