Conversations about the climate on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for minority students have escalated in the weeks leading up to spring break, pushed by some troubling incidents. Those discussions were pushed into social media with an explosion in the use of #TheRealUW hashtag on Twitter last week.
Sophomore Marquise Mays, president of UW-Madison's Black Student Union, was a prominent participant in the discussion. A journalism and communication arts major, Mays came to Madison from Milwaukee Riverside High School as part of the PEOPLE program.
A couple days before break, Mays met with a Cap Times reporter at the Multicultural Student Center in the Red Gym to talk about his studies, role with the BSU and feelings about how the UW-Madison community is responding to the concerns of students of color.
You’re a journalism major. Do you know what kind of work you want to do in journalism?
I want to do video journalism. I don’t want to limit myself to only reporting on the writing side. I really want to be behind the scenes in telling a story. It’s important to know how to write and report, but at the same time if you can’t visually capture somebody’s story, you’re missing something. I’m also a communications art major, so I’m learning about film and how to use a camera and visually tell someone’s story without even having to say anything. I think that’s valuable.
Are you doing most of your work within classes, or are you branching out beyond your studies?
A lot is class-based, but we get a lot of opportunities to do projects for our portfolios. For example, last spring I created a documentary outlining three different people on campus who had very different experiences as far as feeling comfortable at this institution. One is my best friend, who was coming from Chicago, a very gang related area. And now he’s here and found an outlet within the communication arts and fashion departments, and now he feels like this is home. Another person in the video, her mom passed right before she came to college and she joined a sorority and now her sorority sisters’ moms are like her second mothers. Another student, who just graduated, his best friend committed suicide while he was in college and he always sang with his best friend. He joined an a capela group on campus and now he has a group of brothers that he considers his best friends. So it was about how everyone has different experiences. That being said, make sure that you do what’s best for you on the campus and make sure you’re comfortable.
I’m currently in the process of making a short film, still in the writing stage. It’s called “Black Bookworm.” It outlines the black experience at a PWI (predominantly white institution), how students of color have to work two times harder to get half of what the majority of campus gets, as far as academic accolades. Still trying to figure out the fundamental things to make sure the experience is not just one experience, that it touches on multiple identities. It’s a dramatic narrative.
What drew you to UW?
My scholarship. My junior year was not a good year for my family, so my grades fell. I’ve been a proud PEOPLE scholar since my freshman year of high school and they always told us the admission requirements at UW-Madison are a 3.7 GPA with a 27 or 28 on the ACT and I didn’t have that. I had a cumulative GPA of 3.6 and it fell to a 3.4 because I was working more. My mom didn’t have a job and my dad is disabled, so he couldn’t work. I was doing more outside of school to make sure my family was good. I was very worried. I’m thinking I’m out. I applied to seven different schools and got into all of them, which was a blessing. And Madison was one of the last ones, but when I got in, I thought this is a sign. I didn’t feel average like I felt before. Like I said, Madison glorifies having a 3.7 and a 27, so a lot of students in Milwaukee who are just as qualified as I am are discouraged from applying. And I think that’s a big problem.
How did you get involved in the Black Student Union?
I have a mentor who helped me write my essay to get into Madison. He’s also a Riverside alum, a PEOPLE scholar. He was on campus my last summer of PEOPLE, going into his junior year and his second year as the BSU president. I was the president of the Black Student Union at my high school, called the Nia Club. So we had that connection. When I was a freshman he was a senior and he put in a good word for me. I went into the spring semester of my freshman year very confident and I thought, “Let me see about putting my name on the ballot.” That’s also what my mentor did. I plan on continuing to serve as president through my junior year.
As president you…
I do everything. [laughs] I’m an only child so a lot of the time, if I need something done, I do it myself. But now I’ve learned that I need to trust my executive board. My responsibilities are mainly to be the face of the organization, that we’re putting on programming that’s inclusive and that really encourages people to have a discussion about the black experience. Another thing I do is go support other culturally relevant organizations on campus because intersectionality is so real. We need to figure out how to come together and just have a discussion about culture and where our experiences intersect each other.
What do you hope students get out of the BSU experience?
I hope students get a sense of community, a sense of comfort, a sense of home. We had a Black Knowledge Bowl during Black History Month. History questions were involved, but there were also questions related to culture. For example, “If your mom sends you to the store, what should you bring back?” And the answer was “change,” like “You better bring back her change!” That’s something that our culture will be like, ”Oh yeah, my mother said that as well.” Our goal is for you to come here and you don’t have to feel isolated like you feel in the classroom or in your dorm or any space that they say is inclusive on campus.
Plus I want students to understand that BSU celebrates accomplishments and who we are, not just in moments of tragedy. Sometimes things happen within the black community, the Black Student Union is prepared to respond. But at the same time, I really want us to focus on moments of celebration, of recognition and accomplishment. We have the Ebony Ball coming up, which has been going on for years. Traditionally they award a Mr. and Ms. Ebony Ball. For us to be more gender neutral and just award more students, we decided to do an award ceremony. So we give out a Freshman Luminary award: someone who comes to campus and just brightens it up with your presence. Sophomore Trailblazer: this person is starting to leave footprints for the freshmen to follow. The Junior Eminence Award: you are older on campus, more experienced, and you’re continuing your contributions. Senior Revolutionary Award: you have revolutionized this campus in one way and more and we thank you for that. Those are the moments we want to have.
We encourage other people to come out to these events. At the Black Knowledge Bowl, it was not just African Americans and I loved it. Asian students, white students. One problem UW has is sometimes they put pressure on black students to teach white students about certain experiences within an academic setting. At something like the Black Knowledge Bowl, where it’s fun and you’re coming to the space because you want to learn more about my personal experience and you want to serve as an ally, I appreciate that. I’m willing to not really educate people, but let them see what our culture and experiences are about, not because they have to take one ethnic studies course and once they get in there, you have to explain to them why saying certain things is wrong.
I don’t think it’s our job as the Black Student Union to reach out to white students so they come to these events, but I feel like since UW-Madison talks about the Wisconsin Idea and the Wisconsin Experience, they should come.
The discussion taking place under #TheRealUW hashtag is interesting and in many ways heartbreaking. You just said black students are often put in the role of being educators on this campus. How often does that happen?
It happens a lot, because people expect for us to defend our culture. I’m not saying I know everything that happens in the black community. I’m just one part of the black community, but I feel like UW puts pressure on us in these academic settings to tell everyone what’s up in our community. We don’t always know what’s going on, but we’re pointed out as being the spokesperson. Often, we look to the teaching assistant for help. But a lot of the Af-Am (African-American studies) courses don’t have black TAs or black professors, so nine times out of 10, my friends who take Af Am classes weren’t able to defend themselves as much as they want to because they don’t have the TA on their side. And it’s not like the TA is siding with the white students, it’s that the TA is silent. That’s the problem. I believe TAs should be able to defend your students.
Not only do we feel isolated when we walk into a lecture, but in these discussion sections where it’s literally 15 people in one room, everyone’s looking to you to ask a question about your culture. And sometimes you don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes students would rather talk about it in spaces that feel more comfortable to them. So when we are approached in these courses by people who say outlandish things, we as students of color on scholarship can’t be what white students can be, outlandish and rude. We have a scholarship and UW can snatch that in a second.
Right now, there seems to be some momentum for discussions about the racial climate on campus with protests at Board of Regents meetings and other initiatives from the administration. Are you hopeful for positive change?
I think those of us at UW right now are tired of reading the regular emails about campus wide discussions, emails from Lori Berquam (dean of students) and Rebecca Blank (chancellor) and Patrick Sims (vice provost and chief diversity officer). We’re annoyed by it. You’re really not saying anything in these letters to make us feel better. You’re trying to make the administration feel more comfortable. You’re saying you’re listening, “we hear you.” Do you really? Do you really care? You’re not giving us an itemized budget, you’re not giving us a timeline of starting cultural competency training on this day. You’re not giving us tangible things, you’re just saying “we hear you.” Hearng is not enough.
The UW’s social media accounts don’t defend us. When a white student tells me I’m racist, you’re not there to defend me. You’re just there to try and make UW-Madison look like it’s an inclusive environment. Why not just say “hey, we have issues.” Acknowledge that. We need an apology for that. Rebecca Blank released a letter a couple days ago and in the letter it was funny that all the things she listed that she’s going to do, we’ve been telling her about those since September. Several campus leaders went into a meeting with her and said we need this and this and this. Okay. It’s now March and now that people are putting pressure on you to actually do your job, you’re just going to use the student suggestions? We’re students and you asked us. I’m a full-time student. I shouldn’t have to do your job. I have classes, but I’m sitting up here in a meeting telling you how to make me feel comfortable at an institution you’ve been working at for years. This is just my second year, but Lori Berquam has been here since 2004. You haven’t noticed this? You should have already had something in play.
Do you have anything to say to the wider UW-Madison community, beyond the administration?
With #TheRealUW, we’re not asking for diversity training. We’re not asking for cultural competency training. We’re asking for action. We need the UW-Madison to do something about the fact that a student got spit on. We need them to do something about the fact that people are drawing pictures of people getting hanged at the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery.
We need UW to acknowledge that his is real, stand up and say this is a problem. Give me things where students of color can say, “okay, you’re making strides.” They have Patrick Sims in there and I honestly feel like he needs to do a better job, because right now it’s students looking out for students.
A lot of students who are here as freshmen or incoming students are looking at this now like “Whoa, I didn’t know that this went on.” They’re going to lose the diversity that they barely have.There’s only 2 percent black students here.
Do you feel people getting discouraged?
I was a PEOPLE counselor this summer and I worked with kids working on their applications to the university. Some of them have texted me and said I am scared to come there. I don’t know if I want to come there. I don’t want to be in an environment like that. Some of these kids have worked since third grade. They get so excited to be Badgers and then they walk into a classroom and they’re the only person of color, not the only black person, the only person of color in the room.
The university loves to advertise scholarship programs, but they don’t support them. They put First Wave all over the website, but they didn’t defend the First Wave student who got spit on. I stayed on the same floor with the First Wave students last year. Knowing that this space is supposed to be for students of color who are artists, rappers, musicians, poets, and there are students you have admitted who are infiltrating these spaces with hate and bigotry and you do nothing about it.
That’s what the hashtag is all about because social media is big right now and when people start holding you accountable, you’re scared.
The way UW tweets really bothers me. One time they put on Twitter, “We hear you, we live this experience with you.” No you don’t. You’re lying to my face now. I live it. There should be no way students have to survive here, why can’t we just live? I was asking UW-Madison if the person behind these tweets is at the campus wide discussions. Because it seems like y’all just hear us, but you’re not at the campus wide discussions.
Honestly UW-Madison you don’t have the kind of culture or diversity to even be doing that. If it wasn’t for the students of color here, we’re doing the work for you. Give us support.