By Ivan Flores
Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan were recently in the spotlight for racist incidences that occurred on campus. Buildings at EMU were vandalized with racist graffiti, and white supremacy flyers were distributed on U of M campus.
In response, Justin Teague and Nagash Clarke invited students and faculty from Washtenaw Community College, EMU and U of M to have a discussion about race on college campuses.
Teague and Clarke are both WCC faculty. Teague, a WCC behavioral science instructor and Clarke, a WCC chemistry instructor hosted a showing of “Dear White People” at Towsley Auditorium. The screening was followed by a long conversation about the movie and racism on college campuses.
“Dear White People” is a satirical comedy set in a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester University. The main characters are black.
They struggle to reconcile the color of their skin and their sexuality with the cultural expectations on campus, as well as an administration that is oblivious to their needs.
The story climaxes when a fraternity decides to host a “blackface” themed halloween party, leading to a confrontation between minority students, their white peers and the administration.
The turnout for the the movie was not large. News of the event was spread mostly through word of mouth and flyers.
The discussion after the movie lasted more than a half-hour past the allotted time for conversation. The audience was able to direct questions at a three person panel.
Members of WCC’s administration, including vice president Linda Blakey and Rose Bellanca’s Chief of Staff, Monique James, were in attendance.
Teague and Clarke are the sponsors of an organization called the Black Male Initiative. Their goal is to enroll and retain more young black men at WCC, as well as to create a sense of community for them.
Part of their mission is to encourage respectful dialogue and reduce the stigmas of race, which transcend educational institutions, class, and gender.
“I’m originally from Jamaica,” said Clarke, “Black culture there is very different than in America. People don’t think twice if you say you want to be a doctor, lawyer, or an engineer. They just say, ‘well, go to school.’ But here, being a black chemistry teacher is somehow a little weird.”
Teague and Clarke ran into each other at a conference on a presidential initiative called My Brother’s Keeper. President Barack Obama started the initiative in 2014 to “help more young people stay on track,” according to the White House’s website. In particular, to help young men of color avoid incarceration and succeed in school. According to Teague, the conference was underwhelming.
“We were both in the section on higher education,” Teague said. “After having gone through that experience, we recognized that as a county, there wasn’t a lot going on. The conference was poorly organized and they didn’t have a direction or tangible outcomes they wanted to accomplish.”
Teague recalled being in a breakout group filled with administrators and only one black student.
“The questions that were asked were bad questions. (The conversation) wasn’t lending itself towards working on anything. The population that we were supposed to be focusing on, specifically for my breakout session, African American males in college, we only had one sitting at the table and no one wanted to listen to him.”
Clarke and Teague responded by having their own discussion group at WCC. They pulled administrators and young black students together, and gave them the opportunity to communicate about the shortcomings of the institution.
It was out of this event that the Black Male Initiative came to be.
Even with the ability to organize an event like the showing of Dear White People, there are a lot of obstacles to overcome in discussing issues of race. Clarke didn’t like the fact that he couldn’t feel comfortable inviting his white students for fear of turning them off. However, it’s not all bad.
Gary Hopkins, 21, is an African American political science student who has had a positive experience at WCC. Having attended schools in Detroit and Ypsilanti, he counts himself lucky to have received most of his education in Ann Arbor. However, he knows that some people come from environments where race can be isolating. He doesn’t think he is singled out for being a black student.
“I’m just another student getting my education,” Hopkins said. “But I just look at things a little differently… I can see what they’re talking about, and the need to help each other succeed.”