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‘This was not a space built for people like me in mind’: Race Relations Week aims to start conversations

| Friday, September 27, 2019

Student Government’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion hosted their annual Race Relations week from Sept. 20 to this Friday, Sept. 27.

The week began with a talk from Dr. Yusef Salaam, of the Central Park Five, who was wrongly accused and convicted of raping a woman, and will end with a viewing of “Us” in Debartolo Hall. All together, there are 11 events throughout the week

MacKenzie Isaac, a senior, is the director of diversity and inclusion in Student Government, and helped to organize Race Relations week. She said her goal for Race Relations Week changed throughout the planning and implementation. 

“At first, I had the rather lofty goal of wanting to shift people’s perspectives, not only on race relations in the Notre Dame context and beyond, but their role in shifting Race Relations Week within those contexts,” Isaac said. “Now, I think my goal is more so about building empathy, seeing one another as totally made in the image and likeness of God and the different colors and races that we represent as just being different, equally beautiful manifestations of those races. So that even if you encounter a perspective this week that totally goes against your worldview, and there’s no way that you’ll ever come to agree with it, you at least understand why the person who shared that experience with think the way that they do. So the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if that shoe doesn’t fit.”

Although a large majority of Notre Dame’s campus is white, Isaac said she still saw an immense need for this programming. 

“Even though this is a campus that is four-fifths white, there are still students here that when they’re accepted, they’re accepted with the declaration of ‘Welcome Home,’’’ Isaac said. “This home, just from a historical standpoint, wasn’t made for people who looked a certain way for minority students, and being a black woman myself, this was not a space that was initially built with people like me in mind to live and thrive and learn within.”

Isaac said the face of Notre Dame is changing, and minority students — although underrepresented — deserve to be recognized.

“I think that it’s important to recognize that the face of Notre Dame is changing very slowly, but surely, and so we want to ensure that every single student here for years, feels welcome and that this is a place that’s conducive to their success,” Isaac said. “There are still students here, whom I’ve spoken with, who think that because minorities are so underrepresented on this campus, that it’s no one’s obligation to accommodate. I say that without our minority students, Notre Dame wouldn’t be what it is. And so in the lack of effort to accommodate those students, we are not Notre Dame.”

Students that are not a minority should not shy away from these conversations, Isaac said. 

“I think that the accessibility of these conversations is really what’s going to make this week powerful. I think that so many students shy away from these conversations out of the fear of saying the ‘wrong thing,’ or of sharing an experience that amplifies their privilege in a way that makes people ‘uncomfortable,’” Isaac said. “But I think that when we break down that stigma, and we break down that barrier, we’re going to see that a lot of our experiences are the same.”

Isaac said she believes Notre Dame administrators can do more to help race relations at the University, and although she’s had great experiences with some administrators, they will ultimately “do what they want to do.”

“It’s important for them to be transparent in their decision making processes. … I also think that there is an issue of tokenism. I think that once students of color are seen for the fullness of who they are, and not just the fact that they are minority than the entire campus culture will shift,” Isaac said. “These conversations that we’re having this week will become even less of an echo chamber, where it’s diverse conversations for ‘diverse students.’ Because if you want me to feel very [included], then you won’t just come to me and see me as an asset, or valuable or as a marketing leverage when it comes to multicultural things.”

As the director for diversity and inclusion, Isaac said she often wants to clarify what the group’s goals are. 

“It was created to be just as much of a home for them as anyone else on this campus, and is not to be exclusionary in the reverse way of just focusing in on our minority students,” Isaac said. “It’s more so to show people that they fit into this conversation.”

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About Mariah Rush

Mariah is a senior majoring in American Studies and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is from the great city of South Bend, and was the Managing Editor of The Observer for the 2020-2021 school year. You can find her always on Twitter at @mariahfrush.

Contact Mariah