After the Media Storm: Thoughts on the MLK Black Party and doing our own racial justice work.

Many of us breathed a sigh of relief when we learned that the MLK Black Party, happened at ASU and not the U of A. Discriminatory behavior that receives national attention is more than another painful demonstration of disregard for a person, a group of people, and/or an entire culture, it can have a detrimental impact on countless others for months or years afterward. In the aftermath of such occurrences, it is especially important that we seize the opportunity to reflect on what we can do to proactively address discrimination within our own campus community.

Institutional research shows that similar high-profile incidents are very likely to occur here at the UA. African American students make up close to 4% of UA’s total student population, while white students approximate 64% of the total student body1. Findings from the entering student survey report that approximately 59% of incoming white students belong to predominantly white friend groups, and 46% of white students never discuss issues of race2. By omitting or minimizing race from our regularly occurring institutional practices and processes we can support investment in post-racial thinking and rhetoric, or a “colorblindlness,” that erases the histories and realities of communities of color and makes our students more at risk for perpetuating similar acts of bias and discrimination. Only 7 years have passed since the “MLK Blackface Party” happened at the UA. Recently, The Arizona Daily Wildcat published an opinion piece about the ASU MLK Party that cited a similarly themed party at the UA. It merely takes a few moments with virtually any Residence Life Community Director to learn about the whole slew of offensively themed parties students regularly contrive for entertainment.

What Can We Do to Challenge the Trend

It would be easy to point the finger at ASU and away from the similar characteristics within our own student body. However, with our commitment to creating an extraordinary student experience at the UA, to being innovative and ahead of the curve, we can come up with dynamic proactive ways to address the conditions that contribute to acts of racial bias. Here are just a few thoughts for how staff and student leaders can create more inclusive spaces that challenge us to think harder about race:

  • Create opportunities for students to engage race in more complex and comprehensive ways. Often our diversity trainings and race conversations focus on the proper ways to refer to different identities and how to become aware of our internalized bias. While that work is important, we can create activities that support the development of a deeper understanding of both the individual and systemic levels of racism. These activities can be meaningful and informative, particularly if they create a space where participants feel safe sharing their personal stories and experiences. Racial justice work—identifying the barriers that limit the success of people of color, and efforts to create equitable opportunities for everyone—can and should be a part of every training and regularly incorporated into staff and student development. For specific suggestions of possible activities, email me at moorem@email.arizona.edu
  • Challenge students to look for where racism might be happening within their own classrooms and organizations. What types of privilege, be it racial, gendered, or otherwise, are dominant within their group? Privilege is intended to be invisible, and as such, learning to name and understand the complex manifestations of privilege is a good first step. Students can reference Peggy McIntosh’s famous invisible knapsack article to begin looking for how privilege operates in their daily lives. While centered on whiteness, many authors have adapted McIntosh’s work to apply to other forms of privilege.
  • Schedule a time to visit the cultural centers and resource offices on campus that support marginalized populations (such as African American Student Affairs, Native American Student Affairs, Chicano Hispano Student Affairs, Asian Pacific American Student Affairs, LGBTQ Affairs, the Women’s Resource Center, and the Disability Resource Center). If you oversee a group, class or organization, create an activity where folks are challenged to do a space analysis to better understand how the values of a particular group are represented. Set up a time with center staff to learn the history of the space.
  • Create opportunities to have honest and challenging dialogues about race. Use high-profile bias incidents to spark the conversation but move beyond what happened between individuals in order to investigate the historical and institutional conditions that contributed to the incident. Share the feedback from groups who comprehensively respond to such incidents to generate ideas for how we might create change in our community. Encourage students to check out the UA Intergroup Dialogue Program through the UA Cultural Centers and other related programs.
  • Attend heritage month and awareness week events, like those featured during AASA’s Black History Month calendar.
  • Encourage students to explore accessible social media sites dedicated to the lived experiences of people of color like colorlines.com and microaggression.com
  • Share documents and texts that preserve the racial history of the UA, such as Race and Class on Campus by Jay Rochlin.
  • Sponsor or look for opportunities to collaboratively develop high-profile racialized events that help communicate how much the UA honors and celebrates racial justice work. For example, last year African American students asked for the UA to do more for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday and initiated the MLK Luncheon event that brought to campus Philip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders, a group organizing for legislative change in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder. This year, we held the first MLK Keynote Lecture, with Dr. Matthew Whitaker (from ASU, ironically), who’s talk “Race and Region in the Age of Obama,” focused on the history of racism in America, the dynamics of race in Arizona, and coalition building for social justice. 

Without regular and comprehensive opportunities for students to make meaningful connections to diverse experiences and ideas, media representations of race, limited meaningful encounters with diverse people and ideas, and organizations that are predominantly populated by privileged identities provide the kindling for similar events that are at best, distasteful, and at worse disastrous for our own campus community. Preventing incidents of bias through education and engagement improves academic performance3 and reduces the environmental stressors that impact the health and wellness of students who are at highest risk for major health conditions. However, when bias does inevitably happen, having done our own work on issues of race and privilege will help us mediate the effects. 

  1. (2013) Total Minority Student Enrollment Trends Fall 1983-Fall 2013. Office of Institutional Planning and Research Support. http://oirps.arizona.edu/files/Student_Demo/Total_Minority_Student_Enrollment_Trends_1983-2013.pdf
  2. Cabrera, Nolan (2013). The University of Arizona Entering Student Survey and Follow-Up (2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13 entering classes).
  3. Wing-Sue, Derald. (2010). “Microaggressive Impact on Education and Teaching,” Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Pages 231-254.