In the social media whirl and 24/7 news rhythms, every day, it seems, an event sets off tension, anger and discomfort.
Examples are everywhere. Fraternity members chanting racist epithets in Oklahoma, posting nude photos of women at Penn State, or apparently writing notes about rape and lynching at N.C. State. Unarmed black men shot or beaten by police in Ferguson, New York and Charlottesville. Women revealing horrendous sexual assaults. Muslim students shot to death in Chapel Hill, in what some believe was a hate crime.
Such news can be overwhelming, especially to young people away from home for the first time. But starting this week, students at UNC-Chapel Hill will have the chance to share their feelings.
They’re likely to have a lot to talk about.
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The university has launched an extended public discussion about equity and diversity in all its forms – race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual identity, political thought. “Carolina Conversations,” as the initiative is dubbed, will have its first large campus event Monday night with a gathering to discuss race and current events. Next week, the topic will be social media, anonymity and integrity.
The idea for it arose organically from students, said Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs.
For months, he said, students have asked for some way to be heard on the difficult issues of the day. Last fall, black students were distressed by racist postings on Yik Yak, a location-based social media app, surrounding the case in Ferguson.
Conservative students have long said their voices are drowned out. In February, some Muslim students were fearful about expressing their religious traditions after the killings of three Muslim students made international news.
“We have populations walking around who are expressing to us that they don’t always feel welcome, that they don’t always feel safe, that they don’t always feel like this is a place that fully embraces them,” Crisp said.
The initiative includes large town hall-style meetings, topical programs and small group gatherings – some guided by facilitators and others more personal.
Kyle Villemain of Chapel Hill, the student body vice president, has been part of the planning as a member of Chancellor Carol Folt’s advisory committee. He said the series has the trappings of a sustained effort, one that can keep the dialogue going between the flashpoint moments.
“What I’ve heard from the people most active and loudest in this space right now is that they have these conversations with their peers,” Villemain said. “What they really want is to see the chancellor and her team hearing what they’re saying.”
The talk may be accompanied by action. In an email announcing the initiative, Folt and other administrators promised an audit of campus art and imagery. Presumably, that would include Silent Sam, a prominent statue of a Confederate soldier just off Franklin Street.
This week, the Board of Trustees will consider recommendations regarding the names of campus buildings. African-American students have pushed for the renaming of Saunders Hall, an academic building that honors William Saunders, a Civil War colonel, UNC trustee and an organizer of the Ku Klux Klan.
‘Pain and anxiety’
“The definition of white privilege: my roommate watching the ‘Scandal’ episode about a black kid getting shot by a police officer and saying, ‘I’m so over this Ferguson stuff.’” – anonymous post on the March 20 Kvetching Board, a regular feature in the Daily Tar Heel
In November, a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was killed in a confrontation with the officer. Protests erupted around the country. After a speak-out event at UNC, local posts cropped up on Yik Yak, targeting African-American students with slurs and suggesting that they didn’t belong at UNC.
Folt sent an email to the campus, saying there was an “increasingly negative campus social media conversation” without saying exactly what had happened.
“This is causing many people here to feel pain and anxiety,” the email said in part. “I read some of this and found it disturbing, and not at all what I believe represents the spirit of Carolina.”
She promised to create opportunities for meaningful and honest dialogue once students returned from winter break.
The students were already uncomfortable over the attention to UNC surrounding the academic/athletic scandal. In October, a former federal prosecutor investigating the case reported that 3,100 students took bogus classes over nearly two decades. The no-show classes, in the department formerly known as African and Afro-American Studies, had been disproportionately enrolled by athletes.
Last month, after black students marched to Saunders Hall in another protest, about 60 or 70 students gathered to support them. They were black, Muslim, Latino, Asian and American Indian. They called the gathering a caucus for people of color.
Dinesh McCoy, a senior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attended the event.
“Our issues are different on this campus, but they’re issues for all of us,” he said. “I do think this builds up over time. … It does take its toll. Students have told me it’s hard to focus on their academics when they’re wondering, ‘Do I feel safe in this community?’”
The event was something of a milestone. Students were able to let out their emotions in a raw way, McCoy said, without having to be polite or worried about what others would say.
McCoy said that he thinks the coming “Carolina Conversations” could be another step forward but that there is some skepticism by students about the university-sponsored dialogue. Sometimes, he said, there is a tendency at a public event to be too vague without “calling out” the hurt that students really experience. The discussion shouldn’t be filtered, he said.
“It’s going to be a very difficult conversation and hopefully the kind of challenging conversations that we really need to have – not just saying these things do not define us, but that these things are part of our community too, and we have to grapple with that.”
“To ‘token conservatives’: When the political party you represent stops supporting optional hand washing and vaccines, then we’ll take you seriously.” – anonymous post on the Feb. 6 Kvetching Board
On Feb. 27, two Muslim students stood before the Faculty Council and thanked professors for their compassion in the aftermath of the slayings of Deah Barakat; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Faculty had allowed grieving students to postpone tests and papers.
“For many students this is an ongoing struggle, one that manifests in different ways,” Nicole Fauster told the faculty group. “The Muslim students on campus are working to support one another, and we invite the faculty to reach out to their students if they need more than just academic support. As we move forward, we hope to shed light on the reality and dangerous stereotypes of Muslims.”
She then announced a monthly event on Islamophobia and invited the professors. Muslim students have also welcomed visitors to prayer meetings to learn more about Islam.
The grass-roots discussions have led to new collaborations. At a planning meeting for the new initiative, leaders from a predominantly black sorority council and a mostly white fraternity council struck up a conversation and began to brainstorm about events they could host together.
“It was a really cool organic moment,” Villemain said. “That’s the power of this if we pull it off right.”
Another outgrowth is a plan for the College Republicans and Young Democrats to sponsor joint speaker events, with a focus on intellectual diversity. Members of both groups could attend the same event and be exposed to various points of view.
Skepticism and Starbucks
“I, president of the UNC Squirrel Coalition, was not invited to the Chancellor’s diversity dinner. Stop the oppression of squirrels on this campus.” – anonymous post on the Feb. 6 Kvetching Board
It’s too soon to know whether UNC students will buy into the university’s plan for conversations about race and diversity. Will it be dismissed as nothing more than one long politically correct encounter session?
Coffee giant Starbucks was skewered last week for its plan to foster similar dialogue in its shops by handing customers cups scribbled with the campaign catchphrase “Race Together.”
No one will be coerced into participating, said Crisp, the vice chancellor. Everything is voluntary, and the website for the initiative invites students to create and publicize their own events.
“It’s not about pushing a particular viewpoint,” Crisp said. “It’s about facilitating people to have conversations about these issues. Real conversations.”
Like society in general, the campus tends to have groups that self-segregate in daily life, he said. But that doesn’t mean students don’t want to interact with others who are different from them.
Villemain said he’s heard some cynical feedback, but that was to be expected. He said he’s optimistic the conversations will have “some teeth and some pretty significant impact.”
“People want to feel like they’re welcome at Carolina,” he said. “When you have a personal experience that’s difficult, you want to know your university is doing what it can to make it better.”