#BAMUNH sparks conversation about race

By Lily O'Gara
On February 28, 2014

Ninety-two percent of students at the University of New Hampshire are white, and can therefore attend any class, sporting event or party confident that there will be people of their ethnicity also in attendance. The other 8 percent are not guaranteed that there will be other people of color present; in fact, minority students on campus are not guaranteed many of the things that white students may take for granted. This issue was brought to light through the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs' (OMSA) #BAMUNH (Being a Minority at UNH) Twitter campaign and in a subsequent forum on Tuesday. 

Throughout the month of February, students were invited by OMSA to share their experiences as part of the minority population at UNH with the trending #BAMUNH.  #BAMUNH follows in the footsteps of a similar campaign that was launched at the University of Michigan in November 2013. "Being Black at the University of Michigan," or #BBUM, sparked a dialogue at the institution and Otis Douce, OMSA's multicultural coordinator, thought that bringing such a movement to UNH might start a discussion about race on campus.

"There needs to be an acknowledgment that there is hurt," Douce said

On Tuesday, members of the UNH community gathered in the Memorial Union Building to continue the Twitter conversation with OMSA's Say What event, "The Post-Racial Myth and #BAMUNH."

Students' tweets throughout the past month and their comments during the event mirrored one another and were telling of their isolating and often frustrating experiences at the university.

Students discussed the routine insults that they faced regarding racial identity and stereotypes and acknowledged that, while most people don't intend to be offensive, the impact is still there. 

"It's like a paper cut. You get one and it starts to heal, then you get another one," junior Janice Disla said, explaining that small slights add up to extreme hurt. 

#BAMUNH tweets provided perfect examples of these routine insults. For example, one student tweeted, "When professors assume you're either on the basketball team or the football team," while another said, "When someone begins to talk about Latinos and then uses the word 'Mexican' to describe them all."

"[That] comment might be just one of 50 that that person has heard that semester," Douce said.

During the discussion, students shared very personal moments in the "safe zone." Many had been bullied for their race, religious practices, gender identity and/or sexual orientation, and felt that there is much work to be done to create a more inclusive environment at UNH. Several students cited the hardships they experienced simply for being different, and also said that the majority groups sometimes seem apathetic to their plight. 

Students debated about when it was appropriate to speak out against offensive speech and also about where the responsibility lies in terms of educating the majority about minority struggles. 

On Twitter and in the forum as well, students expressed their frustration with the overt lack of diversity on campus. One student tweeted "Being in a classroom of 200 white students and you're the only person of color," while another said, "Feeling like departments that promote diversity unfortunately take a back seat to all other departments on campus." One tweet in particular seemed to sum up many students' feelings: "Where we value diversity but cut programs and staff that promote it."

President Mark Huddleston's official statement regarding diversity, the entirety of which can be found on the UNH website, includes "Our deep commitment to diversity, and to the values of civility and inclusiveness that nurture diversity, is central to who we are." 

However, this is not something that resonated as true for many of the students at the event. 

Douce admitted that the UNH administration does not always seem to consider addressing issues of race and diversity a top priority. He cited the fact that the university routinely cuts funding for programs such as OMSA but plans to spend $25 million on a new football stadium. 

"That sends the message that it's not a priority," Douce said.

Senior Aysia Thomas is an active member of several organizations on campus, including OMSA, the Black Student Union (BSU), and Mosaico (UNH's Latino/Latina organization). Thomas also feels that more could be done to ensure the continuation of diversity efforts. 

"Yes, the budget is tight, but when you drop programs, courses and departments that help as resources for diversity and equality, [it] puts people in a bind, and just reinforces the hurt and disconnect. It affects us all, even when you don't see it," Thomas said. 

Going forward, Douce said that it's essential to "continue the conversation and dialogue around creating a more inclusive campus." Being afraid to engage in uncomfortable conversations and sweeping issues under the rug only perpetuates the struggle. 

"It's still there under the surface," Douce said.

Larry Brickner-Wood, chaplain and executive director of the Waysmeet Center, acknowledged that it can be difficult for people of privilege to feel comfortable tackling such issues, but that it is also critical to "build honest and open relationships" with people outside of one's peer group. 

"Yes, it can be very hard and awkward to discuss these things," Brickner-Wood said. "If I feel awkward as a person of privilege, imagine how folks in one-down groups feel? When people of privilege express or state that they feel silenced, it can be incredibly diminishing to those without privilege - they have often felt that way their whole lives."

Click here to read the Storify on #BAMUNH.

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