Diversity initiatives diverge between students and administration

by Andy Stoiber

Mariam Coker encountered racism on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus before her first classes even began freshman year. She had arrived on campus over the summer. One night, while walking home on campus, a group of white people sang “A Whole New World,” from Disney’s Aladdin to her.

“Then I realized it’s because I’m Muslim, but wait, I’m not Arab, but wait, does that mean I’m not black?” Mariam said. “I got offended for something that’s not really me… I got insulted for a culture that I’m not even a part of.”

A first generation Nigerian-American Muslim woman, Coker doesn’t shrug off racist instances like these–she’s been called the “N word” multiple times in her short time in Madison–nor does she expect others to solve the issues. Coker, a sophomore, is the chair of the diversity/equity and inclusion committee housed within the Associated Students of Madison, UW’s student government. She is pushing for a new multicultural education program that all incoming students would go through during summer orientation.  

Andy Hard News Photo

Mariam Coker chairs ASM’s diversity committee. (Mariam Coker)

Coker’s hopes to make conversations surrounding intersectionality, diversity and racial politics mandatory. “Things that are becoming more and more prominent in today’s society,” Coker said. “Things that will prepare people for a multicultural education and a multicultural workforce.” She envisions a format similar to AlcoholEdu, a required online course for incoming students meant to help students make healthy choices about drinking alcohol.

“It’s not that these conversations aren’t happening, they’re happening all the time,” Coker said. “The people that need to be there aren’t there. So how do we get people there? We make it mandatory.” Coker clarified that “the people” she’s referring to are white people, specifically those whose only exposure to people of color and marginalized people is from television.

Coker’s initiative comes at a time when racism on college campuses has taken a spotlight, most notably at Yale and the University of Missouri, where racial tensions have resulted in nationally-covered protests. Over the last year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison  has adopted a new “Diversity Framework” meant to guide the university’s “effort to achieve its goals of institutional diversity and a welcoming campus climate.” The first step is just beginning to be taken, according a blog post by Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Patrick Sims, “Initiative one [is] a campus-wide climate survey to better understand our strengths and opportunity areas regarding diversity and inclusion.”

According to Coker, who has been a part of the implementation process, the survey is expected to cost $250,000. For Coker, who is fighting an uphill battle for the multicultural competency program, spending on a survey isn’t exactly ideal. “A quarter mil, just to put numbers to what students of color have been saying for decades,” Coker said.

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