“It’s true, I’m an old white guy and my slot is right there,” said President Morton Schapiro, pointing to a blank space among an array of regal oil paintings of former NU presidents in Rebecca Crown Center’s Hardin Hall. “It’s easy to look at me and say, ‘This guy doesn’t really care about diversity and inclusion.’ But those of you who know me know that I do.”
Everyone has stereotypes, Schapiro said, but Tuesday’s discussion “Why do all the Asians sit together?” provided the space for students to look beyond assumptions about race, gender, sexuality and religion to engage in open conversation.
The discussion, hosted by the Asian NU Project, For Members Only and Alianza, began with opening words from African American and Asian American Studies professor Nitasha Sharma, who outlined the forum’s goal of analyzing culturally-based student groups and the concept of “self-segregation.”
“The number of student organizations at Northwestern is outstanding and reflects, in many ways, a diverse student body – something Northwestern should be proud of,” Sharma said. “It’s critical [for minorities] to have spaces to reaffirm their identities and be around those who share the same experiences. But in what ways has this organization of student life led to a fractured, segregated and divided Northwestern?”
Over 100 attendees were split into small, randomly assigned groups. Schapiro, Dean of Students Burgwell Howard and Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin each participated. Students discussed topics ranging from interracial relations on campus to the idea of the model minority, and how productive dialogues about race can be incorporated into social settings.
Groups also proposed solutions to combat campus racial divisions, such as changing Wildcat Welcome workshops, adding a “diversity statement” to the NU supplement application and funding programs that encourage discussion outside of the formal classroom and panel discussion setting. Several groups suggested incentivizing student organizations to collaborate with each other for events.
Students examined the pros and cons of implementing a “cultural competency” distribution requirement, as suggested in the Diversity and Inclusion report the administration released last week. Many praised the idea as a way to diversify and expand the student body’s cultural literacy.
Courses that would fulfill the cultural competency requirement give students the vocabulary to talk about issues like race, Sharma said.
“I can’t wait to pass what I am officially renaming as ‘the difference and inequality’ requirement,” Sharma said during the event. “That will be an excellent day.”
Others expressed concern that students will resent being “forced” into taking additional classes, resulting in an unproductive classroom environment.
“If it’s a requirement for Weinberg, that’s half the students and it’s a little weird to have it for one half and not the other half,” Schapiro said after the event. “If it were the right set of courses and incentives it would probably be good. But how do you determine what counts and what doesn’t? It’s a complicated issue. I come from a school where they instituted a diversity requirement and I don’t know how well it worked, to be honest.”
On the whole, the event went “fantastically” because it centered on “listening to each other,” said Weinberg junior Samantha Concepcion, a member of the Asian NU Project.
“We did not expect that many people to come,” Concepcion said. “The administrators actually came and sat in on the conversation instead of being a guest speaker. I’m glad that for this event, students got to set the tone.”
Weinberg senior Pamela Hung, a lead organizer of the Asian NU Project and Tuesday’s event, attributed the large turnout to the free food, Schapiro’s presence and the increased student involvement in the larger race discussion as a result of recent events.
“Everyone came here to talk about race,” Hung said. “Outside of this people are afraid to talk about race, like ‘yo man, why do you want to cause a stir.’ I think now it’s more OK to bring it up especially because of the events happening on campus. In a way, [those events] are helping our mission of creating a community that’s more aware of these issues.”
At the conclusion of the discussion, Sharma encouraged students to “not let this stop at a conversation,” but to continue articulating and put these ideas into action. Schapiro agreed.
“My dream is to have Northwestern University not just more diverse, but as inclusive as we pretend we are,” Schapiro said during the event. “When we do the tours, in our view books and our webpage – we all know that’s a picture that doesn’t exist here. But if we’re honest about it, maybe one day it will be.”