According to some, the University of Michigan has historically been a breeding ground out of which activists for social justice causes emerged well equipped to change the world for the better. Though Wolverines would all love to be able to refer to that narrative as the absolute truth, there are significant chinks in that armor. There is much to be said and more to be done if reality is to match the idealized version of life that students, faculty, and members of the campus community collectively aspire to. Yazan Kherallah, MSA’s Social Justice and Activism Chair this year, has a message to our readers about recent events, what they say about campus climate, and what MSA-ers and other community members can do to improve the state of affairs.
You probably heard bits and pieces about what happened earlier this month when someone or some group of people went through Haven Hall and defaced posters and fliers that incorporated themes of diversity, feminism, black rights, and LGBT rights. Provost Phil Hanlon sent an email to the student body and The Michigan Daily published an article about grad students’ responses, but to many of us, the details remain murky. Few people know what the ripped posters looked like, and even fewer saw the damage firsthand. Ideally, I’d be able to provide all of that information in this post, but the official retelling of the event has so far been inadequate. Phil Hanlon’s email quickly entered into robotic reaffirmation of the University’s values of tolerance and acceptance, falling short of labeling the incident as biased or considering it a hate crime. DPS has conducted an investigation but so far has tended not to label the act a bias incident because not all of the posters that were defaced were promoting diversity or related to minority empowerment. To me, this comes as an affront and another example of the University’s tendency to dodge important campus climate issues and avoid the reality that students of color often face on this campus. So what is the reality?
The morning after the event, Professor Scott Kurashige wrote this:
“Some person(s) went through our American Culture department in Haven Hall last night or early this morning and systematically tore down and defaced all flyers and materials about ethnic studies, people of color, feminist, LGBT, and progressive themes. Then they left tacks strewn all across the floor of the hallway. I heard similar things were done on the 5th (Afroamerican and African Studies) and 6th (Poli Sci) floors but have not confirmed this.”
While the entire event is undeniably appalling, there was one act that was especially vivid in communicating its hateful message. A picture of a painting of a mother and her baby, both of Caribbean heritage, had tacks pinned onto the woman’s and baby’s eyes and breasts. This careful placement of tacks speaks to the culprit’s measured action–this was not simply wayward vandalism but a calculated attack on themes such of those of motherhood and heritage, which the picture embodied.
This was not enough to convince the University administration of the incident’s biased nature. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Diane Brown has noted that not all of the dismantled posters were related. This seems to ignore the fact that many of the defaced visuals were indeed discriminatorily based and that the departments targeted are known for their sensitivity to and incorporation of multicultural themes. Posters not involving issues of multiculturalism could have been taken down due to their association with the department. In addition, the trashing of the picture of the mother and baby remains to be explained.
But the fact of the matter remains that this is not the only recent hate related incident the University has refused to recognize. The issue of campus climate has been brought up time and time again by student groups and faculty on campus only to be sidelined by the administration. Take the reflection room in Haven Hall that Muslims use for prayer as an example. Last year, the Angell Hall reflection room was defaced when somebody tore down the “Reflection Room” sign and set off a stink bomb inside the space. If you ever used the room, you probably remember praying with an awful smell that lasted for months. Wouldn’t you think that such an act of disrespect would qualify as a bias incident targeting Muslims? Why wasn’t this case handled that way by DPS? The University response was to treat this as a maintenance issue, and the torn-down sign wasn’t fixed until many months later. In fact, it wasn’t until after this month’s Haven Hall incident that the sign and wall were restored.
My point here is that this vandalism is neither a surprise nor an isolated, random incident. The issue of campus climate has been pervasive and has afflicted numerous marginalized and minority communities, not just Muslims. Adding insult to injury, this internal problem festers as the University works actively to promote an external image of diversity and multiculturalism on campus. We have one of the best diversity PR campaigns in the country. But when it comes to recognizing incidents on this campus as potential hate crimes, the administration turns very reluctant and suddenly hushed. Talking about our shortcomings in diversity and multiculturalism would tarnish our reputation, the logic goes. Instead of the entire university community being informed about bias incidents and realizing that they occur often, we only hear snippets like the Haven Hall vandalism story, which like the others is eventually drowned out by the University’s branding campaign. In order for us to effectively combat these types of hatred and facilitate true inter-cultural exchange, we need to at least accept the situation for what it is.
Although there is considerable tolerance and respect on campus, the University as a whole is not teeming with the sort of inter-cultural exchange and understanding it likes to brag about. If it was, incidents like these would not so happen so frequently. If it was, students from marginalized communities, including Muslims, wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable and isolated in their surroundings. Diversity goes beyond numerical representation, admission stats, and brochures that showcase multiculturalism. Let us, the University community, have an honest conversation about campus climate with all its complexities and shortcomings. Let’s recognize that the feel of campus can differ widely based on whose lens you look through. If we unquestioningly permit one certain lens to act as the default, and that’s the lens we’re using to measure our success, we’re marginalizing individuals and groups who may see things in a way that, while different from our own, is no less valuable.
As this event has made clear, this is an issue that affects a variety of communities and should be a concern of every student on campus. The recent incidents are unfortunately not unique, and the sooner we appreciate that fact the better. This and past hate crimes should serve as catalysts for communities to reflect and organize so that we can find unity and solidarity through our struggles. There has already been plenty of discussion on campus as to how to approach this situation. The Muslim community is integral to discussions of this sort, so it is important that we become active participants in them.