The signs in the Kirby Student Center were certainly drawing attention—and it’s no wonder why:
“Black people suck.”
“Hearing there’s some scummy Israelites stealing shit around the dorms. Go back to your own country, you pieces of shit.”
“Asians fucking cheat.”
“Best part about being white is you don’t get any of the easy scholarships and grants so you get all the debt to yourself!”
“Every race group is racist. SHIT happens so you just have to deal with it.”
“Not to be racist or anything but Asian people suck.”
Students didn’t write those words on the walls of the student center, but they might as well have. They were originally posts on Yik Yak, a social media app similar to Twitter, except it’s entirely anonymous and only covers a three-mile radius, making it popular on college campuses.
The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group at the University of Minnesota Duluth collected the racist “yaks” and hung them up in Kirby to raise awareness.
“I have not ever lied about my feelings about Duluth or about UMD or how I’ve been treated,” says Jordon Moses, who began his freshman year in 2009.
Moses was often the only student of color in his classes, where he would frequently be called on to “give the black perspective.” When a white supremacist came to campus in 2011, Moses confronted him and asked him to leave. He says the administration was unsupportive, despite the fact that the other man was violating campus policy.
Now Director of the Cultural Outreach and Retention Effort, Moses mentors students of color, with an eye towards diversifying the student body, which is 80 to 90 percent white. UMD keeps track of how many minority students enroll, but not how many leave or why.
“For students of color specifically, many of them likely leave because it’s a very white community, a very white campus...I’m not going to lie to students before they come here. I’m going to tell them our demographics, that it’s mostly white. I’m going to tell them the stories I’ve heard. It would be a lie for me to tell a black student, ‘You won’t have to worry about racism on this campus.’ Because they will. It will come up. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen regularly, and you should know that so you can make a choice about coming here.”
When she started at UMD last year, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina joined the Latino/Chicano Student Association and quickly became its freshman representative. Despite finding a kinship in the group, she’s transferring to the Twin Cities next year, in part because UMD can be a hostile place for students of color—sometimes in small ways that accumulate over time, called “microaggressions.”
Microagressions include things like asking to touch a black person’s hair, or assuming the Asian kid is the smartest, or thinking you know someone’s tastes in food or music based on their race. When Jordon Moses’ professors asked him to “give the black perspective,” that could be a considered a microagression. So are questions like: What are you? What language do you speak? No, but I mean, where are you really from?
“The people who do it aren’t trying to intentionally be rude,” Maldonado-Medina says. “But it can still hurt.”
Incoming students are required to take freshman seminar, which teaches life skills like budgeting, time management, and healthy living, but has little or no content on how to get along with students from different backgrounds. “You get a tour through the [Multicultural Center], but that’s it...You’re not required to go to panels, even though those were the most effective things for me.”
It’s not hard to understand why non-white students might feel unwelcome at UMD, when their classmates pop up in the news for egregiously racist behavior.
In 2010, two white students targeted then-freshman Awa Ada Kisob on Facebook: “ewww a obabacare is in the room, i feel dirty, and unsafe. Keep a eye on all of your valuables and dont make direct eye contact...She already has her ‘nigga’ instinct to kill us and use us to her pleasure.” Kisob eventually transferred to another school.
Two years later, another pair of white UMD students made national headlines when they dressed in blackface for Halloween. Slathered in brown facial cream, they recorded themselves giggling, “We true Negroes. We come from the black ’hood.”
That same year, UMD joined the UnFair Campaign, but then withdrew after a only a few months, calling the campaign “too divisive.” Intended to raise awareness of white privilege, the campaign hosted billboards with slogans like, “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white,” and, “Is white really fair skin?”
UMD Chancellor Lynn Black responded to questions via email: “Our campus community and student organizations host very impressive programing which seeks to celebrate and educate the campus community about different cultures and perspectives...While we have made great progress, our campus climate has room for improvement. I have heard from multiple students this year about incidents of microaggression and prejudice towards them and other members of our minority
communities. That kind of behavior is not acceptable at UMD.”
The Multicultural Center must apply for funding each year to a mostly-white Student Services Fee Panel. While UMD’s Multicultural Center has become a national model, serving as an umbrella group of 13 student organizations, the events are primarily attended by students who are already members. It’s what happens outside the Multicultural Center—in the dorms, on the Internet, and in the classroom—that needs the most work. As Jordon Moses points out, it can’t be all on “the backs of brown folk” to create real change on campus.
Despite the difficulties, Moses enjoys his work, trying to help students of color find the one thing that made him to want to stay and graduate from UMD—a sense of connection and belonging. “Students of color are the main reason we recruit other students of color, because they can share their experiences and form a community.”
Meanwhile, students of color are drifting away, their numbers reflected only in UMD’s persistently white enrollment data. Without even an exit survey, their disappearances go unacknowledged and uncounted, which continues to make the problem worse. “We can’t fix a problem if we can’t identify it.”
Aprill Emig is a recipient of the Larry Oakes Journalism Scholarship. She recently completed a degree in philosophy, journalism, and women’s studies at UMD, where she served as managing editor of The Statesman. She is assistant news producer at KUMD radio, innovations editor at Lake Voice News, and a contributor to Congdon Magazine.