Diversity and inclusion organizations on campus work to promote understanding


By Abrar Al-Heeti

At a campus where a large number of Asian-Americans make up the student body, many people at the University and throughout the country were surprised when Chancellor Phyllis Wise became the target of racial ridicule on social media in late January of this year.

The virtual attack was spawned by students who were upset about an email sent to the campus community informing them that classes would not be canceled on a projected cold day.

Students involved in the incident took to Twitter to vent their thoughts about the decision. This included posting derogatory comments in reference to Wise’s Chinese-American background, as well as sexist comments. 

According to a Division of Management Information report, 5,367 Asian-American undergraduate, graduate and professional students attend the University, making up 12.9 percent of the student body.

The episode sparked much conversation on and off campus regarding the status of inclusion and racial understanding in the University community. 

“What came out of the incident is an awareness of the campus in terms of ‘Eek, we’re still here,’” said Kaamilyah Abdullah-Span, senior associate director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access. “I think there were some members of the community who thought that kind of stuff would never happen at the University of Illinois because we’re so diverse. But the reality is that it does.”

Abdullah-Span oversees Inclusive Illinois, which was founded eight years ago after members of the campus felt something needed to be done in response to repeated incidents of discrimination.

“The purpose of Inclusive Illinois, kind of the mission, was to educate the campus around issues related to diversity, but more so, issues that would promote inclusion and celebrate the tremendous diversity that we do have,” she said.

Inclusive Illinois became active in the wake of the Twitter incident, hosting an event in early February titled “#OneCampus: Moving Beyond Digital Hate.” The forum invited members of the community to take part in a conversation about why they believed the comments were posted and how the episode reflected the level of racial and cultural acceptance on campus.

Associate Professor of journalism Chris Benson was one of the moderators at the event.

“What we discussed was the fact that when an individual is the target of hate speech, it’s not just that individual who’s affected by it,” Benson said. “So when a chancellor who is Asian-American is targeted, then other people who identify with her also feel that they are being targeted because the whole point of it is that she is being affected by this because of her status as an Asian-American.”

Ross Wantland is the director of the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relation’s Diversity and Social Justice Education department.

The department works to promote cultural understanding through teaching credited courses in intergroup dialogue, training faculty and staff to become more culturally competent and establishing social justice educators who hold workshops across campus on issues that the office feels are relevant to students.

“I think it’s reflective of a larger xenophobic and anti-Asian trend that I’ve noticed in the past four or five years on campus,” Wantland said. “Most of the places we see it are Twitter and Facebook and semi-anonymous places.”

Asian-Americans were not the only group to step forward and address their experiences and thoughts on discrimination at the #OneCampus event. 

“The surprising note for some people was that people in other groups — students who are Latino/Latina-American, African-American and international students — all came forward and said, ‘Yeah, we were hurt by it too. And, in fact, we encounter these things all the time, where students, either because they don’t understand they’re getting into sensitive areas or because they deliberately want to hurt us, are engaging in this kind of thing, and it’s just not publicized,’” Benson said. 

Abdullah-Span said she believes that the racial comments made about Chancellor Wise were a reflection of deep-rooted misunderstanding and a lack of conversation. The #OneCampus event opened up the conversation about how such incidents of discrimination occur.

“The conclusion was: as a campus, we kind of operate in our own separate communities,” Abdullah-Span said. “And so if you’ve had very little exposure to the groups of other individuals and the experiences of other individuals, then what you know about those groups, that information is likely based on stereotypes of those individuals.”

Many advocates of diversity understanding on campus emphasize broadening the scope of what the “Illinois experience” can mean.  

“We talk about what the Illinois experience is,” Benson said. “We need to make social awareness, what we refer to as cultural competence, part of the experience as well. Cultural competence is all about understanding your place in this society by taking time to understand other cultures and how we all fit together.”

There have been ongoing discussions regarding ways to build that cultural competence. Abdulllah-Span said the office has discussed implementing a diversity general education requirement so that it would be embedded in the curriculum.

For the last two years, Diversity and Social Justice Education has implemented I-Connect, a mandatory workshop for first-year students. I-Connect is an hour-long diversity and inclusion workshop meant to increase students’ understanding of different backgrounds to develop their intercultural communication skills. 

“This workshop is not a life changer, but the notion is that it sets a stepping stone for future experiences,” Wantland said.

With this stepping stone, Wantland said, students can further understand the issues of marginalization present at the University and become conscious of avoiding its implementation on their part.

“One of the striking things I heard at the #OneCampus event was several students who stepped forward and said they saw this as a segregated campus,” Benson said. “Now, that’s not literally true, but the fact that they perceive it to be suggests that there’s a problem somewhere. They perceive that there are spaces on this campus where they’re not welcome, and for them, that’s as real as what were once legal barriers to their access. While the physical barriers are down, that doesn’t mean that the attitudes necessarily changed.”

But not everyone shares the viewpoint that the Twitter incident was a reflection of prejudice at the University.

“I felt that more than being a racial issue, it was more of an immaturity issue,” said Stephanie Kim, senior in Media and Illini Media employee. “The issue was that people didn’t want to go to school.”

Kim said as an Asian-American she did not take any personal offense for the racial remarks about the chancellor being Asian.

“More than being offended, I felt that it reflected the lower state of maturity of the University, and it made me feel a little embarrassed,” she said.

Kim said she believes the incident demonstrated just how powerful social media can be. 

“If you put anything on the Internet, it can catch fire,” she said. “It showed the power of Twitter. It showed the evolution of the way we communicate and both the negative and positive aspects of that.”

While this was a demonstration of the negative ways in which social media was used, Kim said she believes students should take the energy they put in trying to get a snow day and instead use it to do something more beneficial. 

“We’re petitioning for no school, whereas some people would die to have school — I was more concerned with this than sexism or discrimination,” Kim said.

Abdullah-Span said until the University resolves these lingering issues, it can’t call itself inclusive.

Organizations like Inclusive Illinois encourage students to not only attend a one-time event, but rather to engage in something over the course of their time at the University, and to continue to work for change. 

“We had an opportunity to start a conversation based on the Twitter episode,” Benson said. “I think that needs to continue.”

Abdullah-Span said she does notice less tolerance for prejudice and bigotry since she came to the University as a student 20 years ago. She said there are many more opportunities to engage with people of different backgrounds.

“Ultimately, it comes down to respecting other people,” Abdullah-Span said. “Respecting other people’s practices, beliefs, values, even if they differ significantly from your own, goes a long, long way. And that’s one of the things we didn’t see with the Twitter incident: just that core value of respect.”

Abrar can be reached at [email protected]