Facebook racism incident raises diversity issues at UMDby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Duluth, Minn. — The University of Minnesota Duluth campus is returning to normal after an uproar over a Facebook conversation in which two young white women mocked an African-American student in the same room.
When the black woman walked into the study hall, the two white students made disparaging online comments that included references to the jungle and characterizing blacks as thieves, said an African-American student who brought the incident to light.
That has led to a dialogue about racial insensitivity on the campus of 11,000, and a May 3 march against intolerance sponsored by UMD's Diversity Commission and the student group Students Promoting Awareness through Teaching.
University officials say the incident did not expose a pattern of intolerance, but they are considering cultural sensitivity sessions for students.
It did, however, spark an uproar among UMD's fewer than 150 African-American students.
Among them was freshman Awa Ada Kisob, who noticed the conversation. A few weeks ago Kisob was in a campus apartment study lounge where the two white students laughed about their Facebook chat. The online conversation was potentially open to hundreds of others, and Kisob was able to download it all.
"I was the one who originally reposted it on Facebook, so that was kind of my step forward," said, Kisob, of Minneapolis. "I have known about several incidents that have happened here on campus at UMD, and the school always tries to push it under the rug, and I refused to let this one go."
When Kisob arrived at the UMD Duluth last fall, she quickly discovered that her dark skin stood out in a sea of white people. Since then, she has always felt a little bit uncomfortable.
"I guess a lot of white students don't see it because it's not anything new to them, but I saw it as soon as I entered the doors to UMD on my first day of classes, when I was the [only] minority student in every one of my classes," she said.
Kisob said she has endured the occasional racial slight, often inadvertent but sometimes overt.
The fallout over the Facebook incident has at times been painful at a university that's been actively reaching out to students of color. UMD's Multicultural Center opened six years ago, home to staff and student programs designed to support minority students.
But it's been a challenge attracting students of color to the campus.
"Duluth is a great place, but I'm always concerned about the climate, in terms of social climate," said Daniel Oyinloye, a Kenyan-born graduate who's still active with a student group concerned with racism.
"They have great people in Duluth," Oyinloye said. "It's just that some times social climates get a little too tense ... you feel like you shouldn't be here."
Duluth itself is part of the challenge. According to the 2000 census, 93 percent of its residents are white. African Americans comprised only two percent of the population, about the same as Native Americans, with half that many of Asian descent. There were even fewer Hispanics.
Still, Susana Pelayo-Woodward, director of UMD's Office of Cultural Diversity said the campus has worked hard to create a friendly and culturally inclusive atmosphere. Although half the students come from the Twin Cities, it can be challenging to recruit students of color.
Pelayo-Woodward said potential students may feel out of place in a city short on grocery stores that cater to their tastes, entertainment and services like ethnic hair styling.
"They know that Duluth as a community, as a town, we're not very diverse," said Pelayo-Woodward, who is of Mexican heritage. "So that's another aspect, that if they're looking to live in a diverse community compared to St. Paul or Minneapolis, we are not."
She said attitudes on the UMD campus are no different from society as a whole, and that the Facebook incident, as it's become known, could have happened anywhere.
"I think as a country, [it's] something that we have a struggle, to talk about issues of race," Pelayo-Woodward said.
At UMD, it did open conversations. It led to classroom presentations, public forums and the May 3 demonstration, in which several hundred people marched across Duluth.
UMD Interim Vice Chancellor Jackie Millslagle acknowledged that the university may need to better address cultural diversity. She said university officials will consider requiring first year students to take a cultural diversity class. They're also considering recruiting goals so the student body better mirrors the state's diversity.
"The kind of thing we're looking at is where we have those gaps," she said. "And how we can close those gaps and continue to move forward in terms of making this an open and welcoming climate for all students."
Pelayo-Woodward said the incident spawned important conversation.
"By the comments of two people, many white people were perceived as though they were all racist, when in reality we had more allies that came forward," Pelayo-Woodward said. "I think the march was very significant."
The University has not identified the girls involved in the Facebook conversation. Officials say the students face potential disciplinary action, which they could not specify.