Lee: Teach diversity at the UI

BY ASHLEY LEE | AUGUST 29, 2013 5:00 AM

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At the University of Iowa, incoming students are expected to complete a number of courses and programs designed to teach them about avoiding sexual assault, contacting law officials, participating in the “Pick One” program, and handling drugs and alcohol. Suggestions on how to counter racism and discrimination, however, are not given much attention. 

According to the UI Student Profile for Fall 2012, minorities composed 12.6 percent of the student population. Latinos made up 4.8 percent, Asian Americans 3.4 percent, and African Americans 2.7 percent, with a few smaller groups making up the remainder.  

Last fall, the UI welcomed its most diverse class ever. Approximately 16 percent of its 4,470 new first-year students were minorities. 

Despite the multi-racial statistics that seem to tell us otherwise, there is still a small-mindedness on this campus.

Too many students come to the university culturally insensitive to those who are not in the dominant racial group or engage in the dominant culture, partially because these students so often come from racially homogenous backgrounds. One common assumption is that black and brown students did not earn their place at this university; that they simply were admitted and enjoy academic perks because of their race.

Such pre-conceived attitudes, ignorant comments, and micro-aggressions are often directed at minority and international students. Yet no sufficient programs are mandated for all first-year students to learn more about their multicultural counterparts and the unfortunate realities students of color are more likely to experience at a predominantly white institution.

Appropriate tools, discussions, and programs should be implemented in orientation programs, On Iowa, and the online College Expectations course to minimize ignorance, racial biases, and the trivialization of racist experiences. Videos, panels, and speakers should attribute expectations of an institution supposedly appreciative of all racial backgrounds. 

Every student should be able to recognize the common forms of racism — blatant and subtle, institutional and individual — and the appropriate way to react to them. It is not enough to have a diversity office or programs for minority students. Administrators, faculty, diversity offices, and students need to do a better job bridging the gap between the races. 

African American student Elizabeth Slaughter thinks diversity programs for incoming students can work, but only if the students are interested. 

“It’s important for an awareness program so people will know what we go through,” she said. However, an interracial discussion for all students to express themselves “may inhibit them from expressing how they feel.” 

Macy Garwood, a white student, thinks a program would be beneficial. “You should go to different group’s events,” she said. “I took a college transition course, and we had to go to different events. One had to be theater, sports, and one was a Spanish concert.” She believes the On Iowa groups should be more interracial so that discussions are encompassing of different voices. However, she is unsure of how the university would go about such an effort.

Indeed, it is possible that both students and faculty will shy away from these conversations. But it is important that they don’t. In order to eliminate prejudices and racially insensitive comments on this campus, racial literacy and cultural competency need to be top priorities. Such a program would make Iowa’s campus a safer and much more welcoming space for minority and international students.

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