Kenneth Cole began his activism at UW-Madison last fall, when he organized a march in solidarity with students at the University of Missouri, whose protest over race issues on campus ousted two top administrators.
An estimated 800 African-American students and their allies marched on a cold, windy night in what quickly became a demonstration of concern over the campus climate for students of color at UW-Madison.
Since then, the BlackOut movement has joined with United Council of UW Students, a nonprofit advocacy group, on a slate of demands the group presented to the UW Board of Regents in silent protests at their meetings.
A native of Los Angeles, Cole came to UW with the POSSE Program, which recruits teams of high-potential high school students from their home towns and offers scholarship and academic and social support to the home-town “posses.” He found a campus climate less inclusive than he expected, and has been working to improve it.
As a student in sociology and legal studies, Cole says his activism is of a piece with his education “What I am learning and what I am doing are one and the same.”
Cole, who is 22 and a senior, sat down with the Capital Times to talk about the BlackOut movement.
Who is being drawn to work with BlackOut?
We have a handful of advisors and a core group of 10-15, and 27 others who have signed up to be volunteers.
Is the core group mostly African-American students, or allies also?
There are a lot of allies. In our core team, there are maybe six white people and Latinos, Asians. The message we’re getting out there is we want to advocate on behalf any underserved or underrepresented community on campus and that opens us up to whoever feels a stake in that issue.
Describe the big-picture issue BlackOut is trying to address.
That fact that our campus climate is not conducive to the thriving of minority students is a huge problem that we want to tackle. And that can be tackled by understanding that there’s a lack of competency with a lot of students around issues of race, diversity and inclusion. And by addressing how the university deals with those issues.
What are some specific steps you’re taking?
We have a cultural competence initiative we’ve presented to UW officials. We are sending students to other Midwest universities to gather information about black student centers, which we think would allow students here to thrive. And we’re working at making standardized testing optional for admission to UW. That would open up the possibility of admission to students from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Test scores reflect whether you have money for test prep programs or went to a school with a curriculum designed to prepare students to do well on tests. There’s a lot of research that says standardized testing should be a thing of the past.
Do you have any operating funds?
No. So some expenses, like a logo we had designed, come from out of pocket. We’re not a student organization and we don’t know that we want to take it in that direction. We want the organization open, so when we start to tackle things with a broader impact, we’re not closed off to just students. But we plan on reaching out to community organizations and businesses that may want to fund what we do. We’re going to have to move to some sort of sustainable funding to continue the organization.
How have you experienced racism at UW-Madison?
I was in my freshman dorm with an African-American friend and two friends who are white. And we were sitting around and both those two white male friends – who I am still friends with – used the “N” word. It was a wake-up moment for me, because it was not something I experienced back in Los Angeles.
Also freshman year, I was at a Badger football game. It was supposed to be a great experience, and I’m walking along and a white guy catches my eye and he asks me, “Why aren’t you out on the football field?” And I’m thinking: “Wow. So I’m not smart enough to attend this university without being on a sports team?”
This year, I’m taking a small discussion-based class. And we’re drinking water and talking about the mental stimulation of what we’re doing. The professor says, “Taste the mineral composition. It’s not as bad as Flint!” And some students started laughing.
What did you feel?
I felt that was a place and situation where the humanity of certain people was being neglected.
So you were angry?
I was a little angry; I was upset. I know that this was not someone using the “N” word to spite me or telling me I’m inferior because of my background. These were people who didn’t understand than environmental racism is real or how serious it is. Kids are messed up for life (from the lead in Flint tap water). And this would never happen in the hometown neighborhoods of most of the kids I was in class with.
What did you do?
I emailed the professor and expressed my concerns and said it’s our duty to continue to educate when people aren’t recognizing their privilege. He apologized and said he didn’t intend any harm. I know he didn’t intend harm and I respect him as a person and a professor because he’s willing to try to tackle these issues.
He gave us a chance in class to talk about what happened. We were able to address a bigger issue and change some people’s perspective. This is a small representation of what we want to do on campus.
How did other students receive that discussion?
They seemed very attentive when I and the professor spoke about the issues. They applauded. I felt they were touched. One student came up and told me he supported what I said. I was happy they may have had a change in perception.
Do you wonder why it’s your job to be teaching your white classmates?
That’s the sentiment of a lot of students on campus. It shouldn’t be our job to teach majority students how to deal with people from diverse backgrounds -- when they get into the real world on the job, they will learn microaggressions and slurs just aren’t acceptable. But I understand that the way people form ideology isn’t necessary their fault. If you come from a town of 5,000 in Wisconsin where you have never interacted with blacks or Latinos or Asians –anybody outside the idea of what a family is in your community – I can’t blame you for your social setting. Just like we can’t fault someone who grows up in poverty and did not have the socioeconomic opportunities and resorts to drug dealing and ends up in jail. As a sociology major I understand the importance of social setting. That’s the main reason I’m interested in changing the social setting at UW-Madison – at a pivotal time when college students are coming into their own, studying their field of choice, developing their passions and ideas they will take into the world. If we decide it’s not our job to teach white students – it’s their ignorance, it’s their problem – we’re not going to see any progress.
You’ve been part of a group that twice has protested at meetings of the UW Board of Regents, trying to be heard on a list of demands on campus race climate. How would you describe their response?
I believe the Board of Regents generally doesn’t care about the issues we’re addressing. Our goal is to let them know these issues matter to a large demographic on their campuses.
Ray Cross, the top executive of the UW System, did meet with you.
Yes. But a lot of what the university does, they do so they can showcase that they are talking about diversity rather than taking action. When we come to a Board of Regents meeting to hand out our agenda, they don’t acknowledge us. When we decide to stand and speak for ourselves, they start banging the gavel and going into recess. Some of them walked out. That is disrespectful.
The Board of Regents is on the wrong side of these issues. Eventually we’re going to move forward to talk about these issues and address them. It’s inevitable. The regents, in being so stubborn, are acting out a form of oppression.
How about at UW-Madison?
A lot of people I’ve been talking with have been on board. (Chancellor) Rebecca Blank, (vice provost for diversity and climate) Patrick Sims, (dean of students) Lori Berquam say they want to do a lot of things. The say it’s just a matter of them coming to fruition.