STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

This is what diversity looks like: Students demand action on race issues at Kalamazoo College

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

College students in Michigan, and around the country, have been organizing and protesting over the past year for more racial inclusion on college campuses.

It’s been a little over a year since the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan issued a list of seven demands to university administrators. Some, but not all of those demands have been met.

The latest action comes not in Ann Arbor, but on the campus of Kalamazoo College. 

Kalamazoo College has about 1,500 hundred students. About 100 of them marched Saturday morning, carrying signs, being loud. At two different times, they marched in and interrupted the college’s Board of Trustees meeting.

The action was not exactly polite. But student Rian Brown spoke about why it was necessary.

"Students of color on this campus are scared," she said. "Students of color on this campus have left. And the administration has yet to show that they actually care about our black and brown bodies."

The incidents behind this fear have been going on for a long time. It is not specific to Kalamazoo College.

But last week, there was an incident that made the issue more urgent.

Someone posted what the college described as a “racist, anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic" statement to an online student document. That statement also included a specific threat to the college faculty to "teach them the value of open carry."

The college called this a hate crime. It’s being investigated by local police and the FBI.

But for Brown, and for many other students, the school’s response has not been enough.

"As a former student activist, I think I find a couple of things very interesting," says Kalamazoo College President Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran. She says when she was an undergraduate at Pomona College in California, she fought for many of the same issues the students were fighting for on Saturday.

Now she hears students of color talk about the issues they face today – the daily feeling of being a minority; overhearing racist comments, sometimes intended as jokes by white students; the feeling of being looked at differently, of being targeted. One academic word in use is to call these things "micro-aggressions." They are not just academic concepts to Wilson-Oyelaran.

"I understand the experience that many of our students are having. I had it myself as an undergraduate," she says. "At the same time, I also recognize that institutional change doesn’t happen quickly."

This is something Rian Brown has heard before. 

"Yeah, she said that to me personally plenty of times," she says. "And, I like to challenge her on that. "Because the social justice leaders that I feel like we both respect, if they believed that, if they had those, I guess like, ideals, I don’t think we would have won the civil rights battles that we’ve won thus far."

The battles being fought by students like Brown today are different than those of the past. It’s not just for the right to exist on campus, but to be able to find a space to belong. To be able to work with faculty and students who’ve been trained not just on diversity, but on anti-racism – and there is a difference there.

These are not just battles for Kalamazoo College. But that's where the battle is right now. 

To see the list of demands students of the Kalamazoo College Intercultural Movement have made the the administration, click here

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.