A few days ago, I suddenly realized I have never taken a French class at UNC with more than two other people of color.
I came to this realization when one of my professors told the class that our Zoom room was a safe space to work through our feelings about the Derek Chauvin trial if anyone needed to. No one spoke up.
It is worth noting that our class has no Black students — the racial makeup of the class is three Asian people, including me, and about 15 white people.
While I appreciated our extraordinarily kind professor bringing up the trial, the question arose for me: do we really need a safe space if everyone in the space is already safe? And what about the Black students in other classes who may have been told that the classroom is a safe space, but do not actually feel safe in the classroom?
In the other, smaller French class I am taking this semester, every one of my classmates is white. (My best friend, who, like me, is South Asian, withdrew from the class a few weeks into the semester. But in the single session where we were both present, our professor confused the two of us for each other. It should go without saying that we don’t look anything alike.)
In this same class, we discuss religion and colonialism. This remains one of the few classes I have ever taken in the French department that explicitly discusses race, which isn’t surprising, considering the French are so averse to talking about race that it is actually illegal for the government to collect data about the race and ethnic origin of its citizens.
But the French department is not the only department with this issue.
Many of the classes I have taken at UNC — predominantly in the social sciences, since that is my major — are seriously lacking in diversity. Nearly 60 percent of undergraduates at this University identify as white, and the share of white students increases in UNC’s graduate and professional schools.
In lecture-based courses, one could argue that this doesn’t matter much. But in discussion-based courses, the diversity of experience of our classmates is paramount.
The term “diversity of experience” is often implicitly juxtaposed with “racial diversity” as a complement or a substitute: in other words, it’s OK if there isn’t much racial diversity, because our students have a lot of diversity of experience. But these two terms do not have to be mutually exclusive.
It is true that racial diversity isn’t everything. It is also essential that a student body is composed of people of diverse ages, genders, sexual orientations, nationalities and disabilities. But existence as a person of color is an experience that informs our worldview, and, consequently, lends important nuance to the conversations we have in discussion-based classes.
Of course, there is a fragile line between asking people in marginalized communities to share personal experiences in class and forcing those students to perform emotional labor by explaining racism to their clueless peers.
It is uncomfortable and exhausting to constantly debate racism and colonization with white people, some of whom remain convinced that not all slaves were unhappy and colonialism was a net good. (These are both opinions I have heard expressed by different people in different classes.)
And it is difficult to convince students of color — particularly Black students — to share their experiences (or enroll in this school) when the University is not committed to ensuring these students’ safety.
When Silent Sam was still a fixture on campus, and protests against its continued presence provoked armed white supremacists to come to campus and threaten protesters, the student body received no notification from Alert Carolina — despite the fact that the system is meant specifically to inform students about dangerous situations on campus. Weapons are prohibited on campus, but UNC Police let the armed individuals off with just a warning.
This is just one example of UNC deprioritizing the safety of Black students and other students of color. In order to feel safe having discussions about race in class, students of color need to actually be safe on campus. Only then will class discussions truly encompass our student body’s full diversity of experience.
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