The University Record, April 15, 1998

Students, others voice concerns about racism at Town Hall Meeting

Judith Winston (left) head of President Clinton's Initiative on Race, with Native American student Joe Reilly (right) at last week's Town Hall Meeting on Race. Reilly withdrew his support for the Initiative because of the 'blatant disregard for Native American representation' on Clinton's advisory board. Reilly was to be a member of the panel. Quoting Clinton, Reilly said 'the initiative challenges us to "fulfill the promise of America by embracing all races," yet fails to include the principal peoples of this continent. The hypocrisy in this statement is shameful and is indicative of the relationships that have existed between the government and Native Americans for hundreds of years. We are not invisible,' Reilly said. 'Our problems and concerns need to be recognized and understood if this initiative is to be truly productive.' Winston was saddened by his departure, saying it was an 'opportunity we missed' in hearing his perspective on the U-M. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Jane R. Elgass

Members of the University community were challenged last week to take personal responsibility in the fight to eradicate racism in the United States.

Judith Winston told the 400 audience members at the April 6 Town Hall Meeting on Race that history has its consequences, and that we must educate ourselves about those consequences before we can take action.

"If you all leave here and end up doing the same thing, you become part of the problem," said Winston, who is executive director of President Clinton's Initiative on Race, "One America." "Everyone must commit. You are the 'we,' the 'them,' the 'us.'"

Sponsored by the Michigan Student Assembly, the program was one of a series held on campuses nationwide during the week under a theme of "Who Will Build One America?" Noting that the U-M emphasizes its tradition of "leaders and the best," Winston told audience members they must take leadership roles in eliminating racism. "What are the criteria for leadership today?" she asked, reflecting on courage shown by Rosa Parks in the 1950s.

"Perhaps today you should get up from your seat in the cafeteria and walk across to other people, get to know people who don't share what you have."

Race should not play the important role that it does, said one audience member. "People have a preconceived notion of me, that I got here because of affirmative action and don't belong. I'm not being treated as if I belong."

Winston said she has heard the same concern, that "It's not my campus," voiced by students around the country.

"The seeds of the solution can be heard here," she said. There is a fear of making mistakes, and myths and stereotypes about different races are deeply embedded in society.

"Our history does have consequences. We must educate ourselves. If enough people do it, we can break out. Much on campus is learned out of the classroom," she said. "You must educate yourselves and take leadership."

Equality, class and race are intertwined in many ways, Winston noted, with race a dominant marker. "What is it about race that puts certain people at a disadvantage? We need to ask and answer this question. I didn't come with lots of answers."

Whites must "recognize their own privilege," an audience member said. "I grew up in a white community. Minorities were 'other.' We have to recognize our own ignorance."

One of the audience members expressed her frustration with the attitudes of non-minorities. "A lot of us choose to learn and help," she said. "The problem comes when we're the only minority and other students aren't trying to learn. If the other 60 to 70 percent don't educate themselves, it really doesn't matter."

A student who grew up in a multicultural family said people should learn about others as individuals, not by race. The first steps may not be comfortable, he said, but viewing people as groups polarizes the issue.

"We're here to do education," he said. "We must make it our own responsibility to know people for who they are, not by racial division. Students should strive to get to know just one or two people."

Winston noted that the answer she heard during the discussion was that "each one of us has to take responsibility" to address the issue of race. "History has its consequences," she reiterated. "This is an American problem, not just a racial problem. We have to take a collective responsibility to continue the discussion. It's important to all of our futures."