What do diversity, equity, and inclusion mean at the University of Michigan and to the larger Ann Arbor community?
When we (Naomi, Princess, and Jallicia) wrote this piece, it was before many of the racially motivated aggressions appeared on campus. We want to publish this piece as it was written nearly a month ago so that we can have a broad picture of what racism looks like in a variety of contexts. It is useful to consider how racialized violence manifests in our own communities. We envision this space as a generative one that can support graduate students and promote DE&I values. Importantly, we encourage other graduate students to keep dialoguing about their experiences and we invite all members of the U-M community to meaningfully engage these realities.
On October 6th, the University of Michigan rolled out a 5 year university-wide strategic plan designed to address issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). This plan essentially outlines the University’s beliefs regarding what a DE&I community looks like and goals to improve the U-M and Ann Arbor community. For many students of color and their allies, this meant that the university was formally committing to cultivating a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment– regardless of how a person looks, the religion one practices, the person one loves, and whatever background one has.
Building off of the shared experiences that many students of color and underrepresented minorities have encountered throughout the City of Ann Arbor, the commitment to such values related to DE&I should be broadened to entire municipality. U-M is inextricably connected to the mold of Ann Arbor: both its economic success and its political stability. When “Leaders and Best” comes to mind — Ann Arbor and U-M are instantly depicted. Because of such connection, issues that students face within this city should always be perceived as an issue and threat to the beliefs and values of our university — and should always be properly addressed. So our question as students of color is this: What is DE&I — in the context of the greater Ann Arbor area — its local businesses, its city’s local government, and the larger citizenry? What does it mean to create a climate and city that respects and is inclusive to the lives and bodies of ALL underrepresented groups?
On the evening of October 19, three Ph.D. students of color and representatives of the Rackham Graduate Student Government (RSG) elected board, volunteered to assist with the organization's monthly social event at a local bar. It is important to note that although the story we are about to tell is specific to one night, incidents like this are pervasive, and we are collectively committed to sharing such instances.
They were surveilled and followed from the moment they entered the bar. One of them was greeted by an aggressive security guard because she left her ID at home. As they moved out of the way to allow other people to get in, the security guard attempted to physically move one of them because he thought she was “too close” to the door. The guard then demanded that she “behave herself.” For the rest of the night, they were racially profiled.
Afterwards, the three women decided to get pizza at their hosted event. While in line a white woman waiter approached them, the only people of color in line amongst a group of white students, and asked them if they were affiliated with Rackham. Once they declared that they were in fact on the board she stated “I am trying to make sure the regular bar patrons do not get pizza.” The waiter did not aim her inquiry at the other non-Black students in the line.
Unfortunately, the night concluded with increased aggression. After a fellow board member placed a beer in the hand of one of the students who left her ID at home, the bartender ran over, grabbed the beer, and yelled: “She took the beer! Get her out!” Seconds later, the security guard charged from the door, forcefully placing his hands on her waist as he stated: “Get the hell out!” As she tried to explain what happened, he screamed in her face: “If you don’t move, I will move you.” Devastated and shocked, they left the bar. Throughout the night and in contrast to the other non-Black students who accompanied them, these three Black women were singled out, spoken to disrespectfully, and forcibly handled.
We are the three Black female Ph.D. students: Jallicia Jolly, a 3rd year Ph.D. student in American Culture from Brooklyn, New York, RSG Humanities and the Arts representative, Princess Williams, a 3rd year Ph.D. student in Political Science from Jackson, Mississippi. RSG Social and Behavioral Science representative, Naomi Wilson, a 2nd year Ph.D. student in Education Foundations and Policy from San Diego, California, and Vice President of Rackham Student Government.
This attack signals more than a failed student effort to have a socially meaningful experience. It speaks to the ongoing discrimination and interpersonal violence that exist in patterns of thought, relationships, and communities. Equally profound, this attack strikes at the core of our institutional efforts to cultivate community in ways that respect the lives of people of color.
The psychological and physical trauma exacted on the bodies of people of color is deplorable. When it occurs within U-M spaces, it is particularly appalling. The racial profiling and the consistent aggression demonstrated by local staff directly conflicts with our individual and collective efforts to build better learning and living spaces grounded in the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
How do we reconcile our DE&I efforts with the traumatic realities many students of color face within and beyond the U-M campuses? How do we understand Ann Arbor’s role in creating and maintaining a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment? Is there a protocol to manage conflicts that arise between local businesses and the university?
These questions center our collective efforts to improve our communities. They strike at the heart of how we commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion within and beyond U-M spaces.