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Community addresses discrimination

Nicole Michels | Monday, March 5, 2012

Members of the Notre Dame community met in a town hall meeting to discuss recent incidents of racial harassment and to collaboratively address the need to foster a more inclusive University community Monday night.

“A Call to Action in Regards to the Discriminatory Incident” came about after the racial harassment of two minority student groups on campus, the Black Student Association (BSA) and the African Students Association (ASA).  The student body was informed in a Feb. 24 email that within the span of a week, both organizations had fried chicken parts placed in their mailboxes in the LaFortune Student Center.  

Student body president Pat McCormick said the goal of this meeting was to respond to the incidents and improve the spirit of inclusion and community on campus.  

 “This is an opportunity for the community to stand in solidarity, [an opportunity] to look forward and not just to heal, but to effectively expand inclusion in the Notre Dame family more fully,” McCormick said.  

ASA vice president Christian Moore and BSA chair Brittany Suggs both confirmed the acts of racial harassment against their respective groups.

Because she was previously informed about the fried chicken found in the ASA’s mailbox, Suggs said she took immediate action after finding the same in her organization’s mailbox.

“The BSA had items in its mailbox before, which we saw as [events] that could be disregarded,” Suggs said.  “With this particular incident, I was going to treat it the same way, but it was the moment in which I found that the same thing happened to ASA a week ago that it resonated with me that this isn’t right.”

Suggs said this incident constitutes just one part of the bigger picture of the racial dynamic on campus, as many similar cases go unreported.  

Students were given the opportunity to share personal testimonies of experiences involving harassment and discrimination at Notre Dame.

“[We wanted] to really give people to opportunity to talk,” Suggs said.  “We usually only talk about these things in our own groups and in our own communities, but to talk about it in a public place is very different and raises awareness.”

The event called for dialogue about discrimination in classrooms, dorms, student life and campus systems and resources.

Junior Victor Cruz said he was initially thrilled to start anew at his new “home under the dome,” but he has never felt at home at Notre Dame.

“I have been targeted because of my accent, because I speak Spanish and because of my dress,” Cruz said.  “My voice will not go silenced … our God did not make us so that we should live subpar lives and suffer at the hand of ignorance.”

Other students expressed similar discontent with the degree of acceptance in Notre Dame’s academic community.  Junior Nick Ochoa said he is frustrated by professors who expect minority students to represent the opinions of their respective ethnicities.

“That’s the attempt of the professor to understand a different perspective, but it really puts you on the spot,” Ochoa said.  “Was it my fault for assuming that professors would be a little more considerate when talking about students and their perspectives?”

Sophomore Linsday Rojas and junior Gabi Hernandez said they have experienced discrimination in Notre Dame residence halls.  

During her sophomore year, Hernandez said she approached her rectress about planning the dorm’s multicultural events, but she was outraged by the rectress’s idea that Hernandez could be a “learning mechanism” for other international students.

“[I thought] What? I’m here as an educational tool on your behalf?” Hernandez said.  “No, I’m not, I’m a student here.  If I want to share my experiences with you, share my culture with you, that’s a different thing.”

Rojas said her freshman year roommate articulated racist remarks and assumptions to her. When Rojas approached her rectress about the situation, she said she was told to “just get over it.”

“She said, ‘The University wants their freshmen to work out their problems, so if she says anything to you, you say something racist right back,'” Rojas said.  “I basically didn’t live in my dorm the second semester of my freshman year.”

Students also discussed instances of discrimination involving NDSP, peers, hall staff, professors and other members of the Notre Dame community.

Following the student testimonials, McCormick shifted the discussion to practical solutions for moving forward in discourse on racism and discrimination.  

Hernandez said she thought a three-pronged approach would work best to combat these issues, with a focus on getting respect, giving respect and creating a respectful atmosphere.

“We need to open up to everyone and to be more inclusive,” Hernandez said.  “Everyone has something to teach you, and you have something to teach everyone.”

Senior Nneka Ekechukwu said some of the most frequent perpetrators of racial stereotyping and discrimination at Notre Dame are in positions of authority, so she believes concrete training methods should be implemented to dispel these stereotypes and encourage constructive dialogue.

“In particular, the role that NDSP has played in these stories has been terrible.  NDSP is supposed to be this force that helps us to feel safe on campus … they should have to undergo diversity training, sensitivity training and screening before being employed,” Ekechukwu said.

Though proposals differed in some ways, all agreed the Notre Dame community must be extended to include all of its members, not just the racial or ethnic majority.

Suggs said student leaders will sift through the meeting’s presentations to find overarching goals and repetitive trends and use these findings to approach the University administration.

“We will come up with a concrete list of our plans to make sure that we have that accountability there,” Suggs said. “We will make sure that we as students are aware of those plans, and hold the administration publicly accountable.”

Iris Outlaw, director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services, said the event was a step in the right direction towards providing the Notre Dame community with a sense of students’ experiences with discrimination on campus.

“It was useful for students and faculty to hear some of others’ experiences, but it was even more crucial that some solutions were offered tonight,” Outlaw said.  “This should give the administration here some foundation, some different ways of looking at how we can address some of the issues brought to light.”

Suggs and McCormick both said eliminating discrimination is not an overnight process.

“This will take patience and time, but this town hall meeting was a step in the right direction,” Suggs said.  “I like to say that we have to begin and finish everything with God at the forefront of our minds, keeping in mind the overall mission of the campus: fostering the ideals of spirit and community.”