A Student Perspective: Between Friends - A Conversation about Race, Inclusion and Understanding

Celebrate Diversity at CCS - Summer Edition 2020

The Office for Institutional Equity and Inclusion welcomes diverse student perspectives and offers an opportunity for free and open exchange of ideas in our summer blog post. I invite you to read a student perspective piece entitled, “Between Friends.”

A Student Perspective
Between friends: A conversation about race, inclusion and understanding

Interview by Yasmin Ali & Madie Graham

Introduction:
Yasmin Ali and Madie Graham met in their first week of college, the second day of orientation, when both attended the trip to Belle Isle. Upon their first exchange, they hit it off immediately and recall discussing “the two things you should never talk about at the dinner table: religion and politics,” as they walked along the beach. Two years later, both have maintained a close friendship through the ebb and flow of their college days whether it’s watching romantic comedies on Valentine's Day or spending hours doing homework on the 8th floor. Yasmin Ali is an interdisciplinary designer who develops empathetic systemic solutions, while Madie Graham is also a designer who always strives to create for the sake of good and facilitate empathy. Below is their personal dialogue reflecting upon this current moment and beyond.

Two students posing in fun pictures

Madie Asks Yasmin:

What does Blackness mean to you?
While I know that scientifically race does not exist, I think it is ignorant to go as far as saying it is a social construct. When in fact, race is a social reality with real implications shaping the way that we exist and navigate within the world. I think it is easy to think that Blackness is rooted in pain and struggle. The misconception that Black history began with slavery is one that is common. Yet, I refuse for white supremacy and colonialism to limit my perspective on my own identity and my own people. The truth is that Blackness is rooted in love and spirit. We come from Earth’s original people; to me, that is beautiful. My Blackness runs deeper than the color of my skin; it has shaped every part of my life from the way that I think to the way that I love to the way that my hair grows up towards the sun like the flowers in a garden. Blackness is creativity and innovation leading minds forward. Blackness is an instant community. Blackness is resilience. Blackness is everything. Blackness is so beautiful.

How does the intersectionality of your identities as a Black and Muslim woman affect how you perceive social justice causes & the world at large?
My identities make me mindful of the way I move in public. In my everyday life, there are few times where I feel comfortable walking alone. The reality of the situation is I know I could be hurt or even killed for being a Muslim woman in a hijab or for my Blackness. I would also say that it affects the way that I take up space or my reluctance to do so. When I walk into a room, I know that the likelihood I may be the only Black person is very high, and to add to that I know the chance there will be another woman wearing a hijab is close to none.

I think my experience reminds me that for me and many others, we have no choice but to be racialized, and easily identified. Therefore, it is easy for assumptions to be made. I know the way I interact in a majority white space is as if I am under a microscope and I constantly feel like I am watched. I notice in these spaces I am hesitant to speak. Not because I don’t have thoughts worth sharing, but I am paralyzed by fear over my perspective being misunderstood, that my reasoning for my thought-process won’t be appreciated, or in some cases, my opinions will be ignored altogether and I will be labeled as yet another ‘angry Black woman.’ What a dichotomy it is to be easily seen, but never heard.

My identities have made me aware of the urgency for justice at an early age. I feel as though in my house and within my family, we were talking about racism since I was old enough to form complete sentences. We were taught the color of our skin is enough to get us killed and could be seen as a threat. Or that our name could stop us from getting a job. I was taught I would have to work twice as hard to get where I want to be. I knew racism was complex and complicated and not as simple as American public schools would like to teach us. Racism has etched its way into each facet of society from education to healthcare and the only solution must be revolutionary structural changes.

In your experience what are some common mistakes allies make in reaching out to you?
While I know allies may mean well, I see common themes of self-centered anger or shock. By this, I mean an ally might make the mistake of showing the ignorance and privilege of the non-Black individual by expressing their feelings using phrases such as, “I cannot believe this is still happening in 2020” or “How could this happen. I am so sorry for you. What can I do to help?” These comments may seem harmless at the surface. However, upon breaking them down further, what it sounds like to me is naivete, which is frustrating to hear. Not only in these statements are allies coming off completely unaware of the historic and systemic oppression against Black people, but they are making it clear that discussing these issues is not a part of their daily conversations–when it should be.

The truth is, I am not shocked by the repeated abuse from police and white people against Black people. I am not surprised another Black person was unjustly killed by the police. This is our reality. For non-Black people these incidents come off as news; for Black people these instances serve as reminders that at any given moment, our Blackness could get us killed. I would also like to add questions like, “What can I do? How can I help?” put the burden of educating on Black people when in reality it is the responsibility of the ally to educate themselves. On your Instagram feed of recommended books, movies, essays, please remember these have been available to the public for decades. So ask yourself, “Why haven’t I felt inclined to educate myself before? How can I take this momentum and sustain it for the rest of my life?”

For allies interested in reaching out to do mental health checkups, I suggest first making sure you are reaching out for the right reasons. Are you doing this out of concern for your friend, or to make yourself feel better as an ally? Or, are you looking for comfort for yourself? Remember this is not about you or your feelings.

I know you usually consider yourself as more of an introvert. How do you find/what gives you the courage to speak up?
Even though I consider myself socially an introvert, I always found myself to be outspoken. I think ever since I was younger, I never could really tolerate comments I took offense too. However, the hardest part is when you are younger and are in a room of people that don’t look like you, it is easy for them to dismiss your feelings. I was one of the few Black kids at my school and I remember every joke made about my skin, my race, and my hair. I remember being told “I didn’t mean it like that,” or “Chill, it’s just a joke.” Very soon, I was branded as the sensitive/mean/angry/can’t-take-a-joke girl. Amusingly, since I was socially introverted, I didn’t really mind. For those experiencing anxiety or nervousness about speaking out out of fear of being labeled sensitive, or not wanting to ruin the fun, I would say it is much better to be sensitive, than to be complicit to racist, homophobic, sexist, or transphobic, comments. It can be hard to find the courage to say something, but trust me when I say it is better than not saying anything at all.

What do you think is the most important thing for white people to take from this current moment?
I would like for white people to look within their own uncomfortability with what is going on and truly reflect on how they have been complicit and participating in racist systems. From the books they read, the movies they watch, where they spend their dollars, who they vote for--all of these are a part of the intricate design that is racism. So regardless of the false liberal bubble that is so easy for white people to put themselves in, I urge white people to take themselves out of that bubble and truly confront their own whiteness and the ways that they have contributed to oppressive systems.

This is not a time for defensiveness. We are beyond the time for empathy. We are in a time of reflection and action. Please understand you will never reach a point of true allyship or ever be an anti-racist. The truth is that these are not destinations, but daily practices and beliefs that need to be learned and taught throughout the rest of your life, and at any moment you can fall short. Take this time to educate yourself without seeking the advice of your Black colleagues or peers. Make it a point to support Black businesses and donate money to organizations supporting Black Lives Matter. Have those uncomfortable conversations with your family and friends. Understand that it is white people’s responsibility to dismantle this system that has hurt, killed, and oppressed Black and Brown folks for far too long.

Yasmin Asks Madie:

When was the first time you understood you were white?
Last semester, I read this academic journal on the ideology of whiteness. Within it, the normalization of whiteness was discussed. In summary, the major issue with whiteness being seen as the “norm” is that it allows white people to have an inherent sense of superiority in speaking for all groups. As a white person, I am always surrounded by my own whiteness and the immense representation of white people across the media. Seeing myself and seeing people like me in positions of power with ultimate voices is not in short supply.

I bring this article up in answering this question, as I really had to think about when I realized I was white, and I couldn’t pinpoint an exact moment. From kindergarten through fourth grade, I lived in a Utah suburb with little to zero diversity. I remember having class with one Black child throughout my time there in elementary school, but it took a lot of effort to recall a singular person of color within our community. I was never forced to understand I was white and the privilege which comes with this identity, as education on POC was limited within my school and I was surrounded by people who looked, acted, and practiced like me. I do remember some of the first times I began learning about the history of Black people. Around the third grade, we had to do a book report, and I recall my twin sister reading an autobiography on Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to be integrated into all white schools. I remember the sepia cover with her face zoomed in and I remember reading some of it. It was small moments like these, which began to shape self-reflection and empathy within me as a child. My mother was always adamant in teaching my twin sister and I to be accepting of all people, but society and our lack of exposure to diversity could often get in the way.

When former President Obama was first elected, he gave a speech one school day directed towards America’s children. My mom signed the permission slips to allow my sister and I to leave class and watch the president in the library. Reflecting back on this memory, I remember feeling really embarrassed leaving the classroom, because a vast majority of my classmate’s had parents who didn’t approve for them to watch our first Black president and I felt excluded. I feel ashamed now to think of my young fear, and I wonder if my white classmates’ inability to watch the president had to do with his race. So to answer Yasmin’s question, I barely recognized I was white in late elementary school, but I didn’t grasp white privilege and the problematic ideology of whiteness until high school, and am still learning and unlearning now.

How has your understanding of racism changed throughout the years?
As mentioned a little in question one, my early understandings of racism were marked by childhood innocence and a somewhat surface level and often misconstrued history curriculum. I remember in elementary school coloring in the happy Native Americans with the pilgrims at the Thanksgiving feast, knowing nothing about the Trail of Tears or the violent conquering which ensued. I remember learning about the peaceful and religiously devout Martin Luther King Jr. and associating acts of racism as only overt and extreme, rather than covert behaviors ingrained in our deeply racist society. I do remember, however, all of my greater understanding of race coming from my mom, who made sure we watched every speech President Obama gave and who iterated the importance of diversity. She also showed us historic films on issues of race, gender, and other fundamental principles of democracy.

Once I entered middle school, around when President Obama was elected a second time, my twin sister and I were becoming more passionate about politics and history. We began watching every political debate between Romney and President Obama and penning research papers at school on contentious issues of race, sexuality, animal cruelty, and more with the help of open-minded and strong educators. However, I don’t remember ever discussing white privilege or the covert forms of racism. Once again, I still think I was in a place where I knew racism was real and active, but I never thought I saw it and it was hard to believe the average person could hold racist beliefs in their heart. Like elementary school me, racism was the KKK and slavery, not systemic oppression.

Entering high school, I made sure to sign up for advanced history and English courses where I began learning in-depth about the real cause of the Civil War (not the economy, an economy run by slavery), where I read books by Frederick Douglass and was exposed to the violent colonialism in Heart of Darkness, and where I began to see white privilege active and alive in all of us, whether we like to admit it or not. White privilege and internalized racism was apparent in my white male peer who said he “couldn’t relate to Frederick Douglas;” it was apparent in my family members who said of Michael Brown, “why did he run?” and who, I ashamedly admit, influenced me to be less supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement early on as they only touted the “riots” rather than reflecting upon the underlying issues of oppression; it was apparent in the girl who sat behind me and said “we get it, slavery happened, can we just move on now?” and even more apparent when she and her friends claimed “reverse racism,” when they were called out by another peer who acknowledged that everyone in the room speaking on the subject was white and wealthy. It was apparent in me, as I was uncomfortable around a Black man at a gas station or when I didn’t fully understand the concept of white privilege or when I sometimes sat in silence after hearing a racist comment out of fear or believing it wasn’t worth it to try to shift a loved one’s perspective; it took a lot of discomfort and self-reflection to recognize the biases I even carried or continue to carry.

Throughout the years, my understanding of racism has changed greatly from not just reflecting on obvious manifestations like lynching and burning crosses, but also on biased jokes, racial profiling, and more subdue actions we continue to ignore and commit as people of privilege. My understanding of racism and how to combat it continues to grow as I educate myself on the system which props me up, while holding down Black and brown communities.

How have you gone about educating yourself and your white friends and family on anti-racism?
I think my anti-racism education really began in high school and will continue for the rest of my life. My educators and parents always aided me in growing my perspectives by providing information often omitted or not required by our schools. As a passionate student of literature, art, history, and politics, I always try to put my best effort forward in courses revolving around important sociological and societal topics like Visual Methods of Culture or Interdisciplinary Studies, to name a few within the CCS curriculum. During these courses, I try to be an active listener and participant in class discussions. Currently, I have been incorporating anti-racism into my work as a designer and have spent time researching the Black victims lost to police brutality in an attempt to put faces to the names, educate myself, and circulate their stories to my white followers.

Last week, I started researching transgender visibility and history for Pride month with a focus on the increased violence trans women of color face. I think incorporating education on anti-racism into something I’m also passionate about—art and design—allows me to gather more tools to use as an ally and to spread awareness to family and friends. Besides designing and spreading awareness, along with gaining anti-racist knowledge on social media, I’ve donated some money to various causes and continue to read up on anti-racists organizations’ goals and sign up for their newsletters, and plan on doing a small donation every month from now on. If I have enough money to buy myself a $5 coffee, I have enough money to redirect these funds to important anti-racism causes.

But I think the most important step of all, I’ve been attempting to grow in is having uncomfortable conversations with friends and relatives with covert racist views. In the past, I’ve stayed silent due to exhaustion, irritation, or a tip-toeing walk on eggshells around problematic statements, but I’m learning from my mistakes and continuing to speak out and educate myself and loved ones, because when something is uncomfortable, it means it matters.

As someone who is actively learning what it means to be an ally, how do you make sure you don’t fall into seeing yourself or others as ‘some of the good white people?’
I think often as white people, we do things out of guilt or for perception rather than for authentic purpose and support of the anti-racist cause. What I’ve come to understand through my continuous path of anti-racist education and ally-ship, is I always have to be active in my self-reflection of the biases and feelings I may hold. For example, a white friend and I were discussing our dating apps. We began reflecting on how we mainly swipe on other white people and took a bit to sit with the discomfort of the possibility we don’t swipe as often on Black men due to internal bias. Now, every time I go on a dating app, I actively reflect on what comes into my mind when I see a man of another race. Do I have positive perceptions? Or are my thoughts dictated by stereotypes and systemic prejudices? It is also important for me to focus on my daily deeds and actions as a white person, because although I may try to always have good intentions, I can’t allow my ally-ship to become complacent, because I posted one square on Instagram or liked a black lives matter tweet.

As a white person, I know I can turn off my anxieties and fears when it comes to the brutality and injustices Black people face, because it doesn’t directly affect me, nor will I ever fully understand what it feels like to be actively oppressed by racism. I will never face racism in my life, because I am white. My skin color has never resulted in unwarranted traffic stops by a police officer, or racial profiling at the airport, or micro-aggressions at work about the way my hair is styled. To make sure I don’t fall into the trap as ‘some of the good white people,’ I actively seek to recognize and educate myself on my own privilege. I also think being open to listening to the experiences of close friends and family members of diverse backgrounds centers me in that recognition and allows me to truly empathize. When I become exposed to healthy differences, I see beyond the confines of my small world, whether it was the mainly white Utah suburb or the very advantaged high school I grew up in. I realize the advantages warranted to me as a white person, that were never given equally to my BIPOC friends. By being open to various perspectives, I continue to understand that just because a life doesn’t look like my own, doesn’t mean that it is wrong or invaluable.

In what ways are you making learning about racism part of your daily routine?
A few years ago, I signed up for the Daily Skimm, which is a daily newsletter in my email inbox outlining all of the important national and international news stories by combining various outlets—including but not limited to—Fox, CNN, NBC, the New York Times, and more. Keeping up with the news, even through brief summaries, allows me to see what is going on in the world in regard to race. But I definitely have to be careful about the headlines I ingest, as the media can often be skewed and problematic in its representation of Black people through charged language (for example, when Trayvon Martin was murdered, news outlets attempted to paint him as a ‘thug’ or problematic teenager). I usually check my Twitter and Instagram timelines as well, making sure to thoroughly read important posts on racial education. I also make sure to take the time to sign petitions and call legislators about issues important to me. It usually takes only 5-10 minutes to leave my congressman or senator or local state representative a brief voicemail, or to copy and paste an email.

Lately, I’ve been actively seeking POC creators and media on race. As a family, we watched the Hate U Give last week, and I’ve been saving lists in an attempt to plan readings and viewings to further educate myself on racism into the future. I often feel like I need to do a lot more, but I’m taking both big and small steps to make racism education a part of my daily life and reflections.

Questions Relating to CCS

What are some steps you think CCS can take to be actively anti-racist?
Y: I believe CCS, like many institutions, can improve and create a more inclusive space by implementing anti-racist thinking and practices on campus. To start I think it should be a point to educate students on the space that they are taking up in Detroit. Coded language about dangerous/scary/dirty Detroit neighborhoods are rooted in ignorance on how the city got here. Issues pertaining to white flight, red-lining, housing discrimination, and police brutality are some of the topics I would like to be discussed.

I also think that students should have the chance to confront their own whiteness and anti-Blackness to further understand the ways that people can contribute to racism covertly. Every department should make a point to include racial conversations throughout the curriculum that supports anti-racist thinking and makes these thoughts more of a practice in the long term. Decolonizing art and design is a topic that many institutions are learning about, and I think CCS could benefit from taking this kind of thinking into consideration. We have to unpack the ways that design and art is taught through a western and white lens and truly understand how problematic and limiting that is. Not only will looking at design through a more diverse lens broaden our understanding and benefit us as students, it will help BIPOC students feel as though there is a place for us to exist in this industry.

CCS should be more adamant about providing more spaces and events for BIPOC to feel appreciated and supported in the community. Clubs like the Black People Meetup + should be encouraged so more clubs like these in the future can exist for people looking to build a community within school. As a senior at CCS I think it would be helpful for Black students to be connected to alumni so questions pertaining to navigating white spaces (in CCS and post-grad) could be addressed and advice could be given.

I think CCS as a whole would benefit from more community-based sponsored projects or even working with local Black owned businesses. This is a time for change and action from the administration, faculty, and students in hopes to create an inclusive and socially-aware environment.

M: I think the CCS community, administration, and student body has a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity and anti-racism education on campus. Obviously, we’ve made progress and most of us have good intentions, but it doesn’t mean improvement isn’t still necessary just because a few steps forward have been made.

As a white female student, I often don’t notice the lack of diversity on campus as I always feel included in spaces, which mainly host others who look and act like me. Most of my classes are majority white and often my white peers, faculty, and I traverse into topics around race and cultural differences in courses like Visual Narration of Asia, Visual Narration of Africa, Visual Methods of Culture, and Interdisciplinary Studies. These conversations can then be one-sided and problematic when diverse voices aren’t lifted or heard. Having more BIPOC speakers, designers/artists, students, and faculty on campus could help to improve communicating authentic and accurate experiences/histories of marginalized communities. Reframing and revising liberal arts curriculum, especially in regard to providing education around the history of Detroit, our current place in the city, and vital urban concepts (such as red-lining, gentrification, water shut-offs etc.) could improve awareness and anti-racism education; I think it is important as students, especially as someone from the suburbs, to understand the city we inhabit and take from. Reframing and revising design curriculum, to include more BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women, and other underrepresented populations could also aid in building a more empathetic and well-rounded artistic practice.

As a student, I’d also love to assist with and see CCS build more community-based partnerships and even design partnerships/sponsored studios with local Detroit businesses, local communities, and nonprofits within the city. One broad idea that crossed my mind recently was the possibility of building art and design workshops for Detroit’s youth, to bring together CCS’s and students’ creative passions and art education. As for student well-being and financial security, CCS needs to consider the expenses of material costs, especially for those from lower-income backgrounds. I think in regard to anti-racism, it’s really an umbrella of concerns and needs: financial disparity, community outreach, education reform, career development, etc. We know racism affects and roots itself in all areas of life, and constructs insurmountable barriers for BIPOC. We have a responsibility as a community to deconstruct these barriers and provide opportunities within our campus for those affected by the lasting and continuous marks of racism.

What can we individually, as CCS students, to be actively anti-racist?
Y: I think it is the responsibility of individuals to take the initiative to continuously learn about the ways in which we are not only complicit but contributors to racism. The most important thing to remember is that this is not an easy or smooth process. Being actively anti-racist is something to work on for the rest of your life. Sustaining this momentum to be an active ally is key! Continue to build your library of Black authors and read up on ways that white supremacy has hurt the world we live in. Support Black businesses and continue to donate to organizations supporting Black Lives Matter. Vote in the interest of minority and disenfranchised groups and remember to vote in your local elections! Advocate for defunding police departments so that our communities can have access to resources that we desperately need. Continue to have those tough conversations with your friends and family and use your privilege and platform to amplify BIPOC voices. I believe these are some of the small things that can be done to be actively anti-racist.

M: As a single person and ally, sometimes the issues of the world feel overwhelming. Burn-out, ignorance, anxiety, and so forth can make us shut down and express a common narrative of “How can I change anything? Why do I matter? It doesn’t affect me.” When in reality, a lot of this apprehension, fear, or exhaustion comes from a place of privilege. Don’t worry, I’ve been there too. Obviously, you need to prioritize your emotional well-being first and foremost, because how are you going to be an active ally in the endless fight against racism without taking a moment to breathe? But once you’ve taken your breath, please don’t stop the good fight, even if it’s just taking baby-steps. I’d like to tell you that your voice does matter! Racism exists, even when we forget about it or even if we “turn a blind eye.” Being silent is siding with the oppressor. Your actions do matter, even the small ones! An educated post, a donation, a small moment in time to read an article on systemic oppression, a conversation with a loved one, registering to vote, going to the polls, taking ten minutes to call your representative, taking ten minutes to craft, copy, and paste an email to multiple representatives, buying a product from a brand or nonprofit raising money for an ethical cause, reporting hate speech on social media, etc. These are all relatively easy actions to take to be actively anti-racist as a single individual.