Entering her freshman year, social relations & policy and comparative cultures & politics junior Madison Gladney wasn’t expecting the Michigan State environment to be particularly diverse. She came from a predominantly white high school, and anticipated MSU would be the same.
Her expectations were accurate: Gladney, a Black woman, felt outnumbered at MSU.
Although the 2020 Census reported the U.S. population is 61.6% white, and the Education Data Initiative reported that 54.3% of college students in the U.S. are white, MSU’s 2020 Diversity Report recorded that white students comprised 73.2% of the student body. The MSU faculty was 78.1% white in 2020.
This over-representation affects all students at MSU, but in the James Madison College, or JMC, it plays a larger role. JMC is the college of public and international affairs at MSU. Many of the college’s classes focus on or discuss institutionalized racism, white supremacy and other topics pertaining to race and identity.
Gladney said she sometimes feels pressured to speak on behalf of her race, which puts her in an uncomfortable position.
“I try to speak at least from my perspective on things because I think the issue with James Madison — and probably MSU, even social science, liberal and history classes as a whole — is white students don't really realize that these are people's life experiences when they read about racist things that the United States has done,” Gladney said. “This does not exist in a void.”
When Gladney does share her thoughts in class, she tries to make clear that she is offering her own perspective. However, in the context of a white classroom, her experience can be interpreted as representing all Black experiences. Other times, white classmates misinterpret her points or just repeat her comments and pass the ideas off as their own.
Comparative cultures & politics sophomore Mena Murrani and international relations and comparative cultures & politics freshman Hanaa Yoo had similar experiences. Murrani sometimes feels as though it is her job to defend her background.
“The past topic (in my class) was the Middle East, and I am Middle Eastern, and I think I was the only Middle Eastern woman in there,” Murrani said. “So I felt like I had to kind of defend my ethnicity to a bunch of random people that I didn't know. It was just really uncomfortable, especially because you could hear people talking about it, and they're kind of talking about you, but they're not talking about you, so you're just put in a strange place.”
Yoo said she uses that as a chance to educate the rest of her class. However, she’s not always met with understanding.
When a white professor used what Yoo said was a racial slur in class, she decided to speak to the professor about it, but the professor did not own up to their error and became defensive. From then on, Yoo felt robbed of her security and comfort in the class.
The burden of having to educate fellow students falls heavily onto the shoulders of the few students of color in each class, and Yoo said a student of color calling out a white person gets a different response from a white student calling out another white student.
“Constantly having to address those things … shouldn't be placed on the backbone of students of color, because it just makes life so much harder,” Yoo said. “But then you come up with this (thought) like … I know it's not the best mindset to have, but you live in America, how much is it going to change? You have to deal with it all through your life, and that's what the opposite of white privilege is, like not having to think about it.”
Murrani, Yoo and Gladney said this problem boils down to a lack of diversity in the classrooms.
“I think because we don't have as much representation, the conversations kind of become abstract,” Murrani said. ”We're theorizing about groups of people we can't even hear from. Then it's kind of a dangerous game to play because we could be taking on their voices for them. So, we have to be really careful because we don't have that representation yet, and we're not really doing a good job at pulling in that representation.”
Despite having read a significant amount of class content from scholars of color, Yoo and Murrani’s professors in JMC classes have all been white. Gladney, two years ahead of them, has taken more classes; thus, she has had a few professors of color in the college.
Though a professor’s race may not be an important factor to white students, to these three students and many other students of color, it plays an important role in their education. Yoo said having professors of color helps her feel seen and supported on campus. Additionally, having a professor of color can add an important perspective to the class — which is especially important in JMC when classes discuss race.
Comparative cultures and politics assistant professor Sejuti Das Gupta is one of JMC’s professors of color, and while she has seen the numbers of non-white faculty growing in the college since her hiring in 2017, those professors — especially the female professors — often carry additional responsibilities.
“The one thing that I certainly have realized over the period of time is that when you have students of color, when they tend to go through issues, which can be both personal and professional … they tend to come much more often to faculty (members) of color, and we do carry that extra work that we do,” Das Gupta said. “It is a very important thing to do for the college also because that's something that in turn helps retain those students. Learning is, of course, in the classroom, but it is also about feeling like you belong to the community. So, in that sense, we do play a crucial role in connecting the students to the community.”
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Das Gupta served on the College Inclusion Committee, or CIC, which has been considering ways to compensate professors for these additional hours.
She tries to make her classroom comfortable for students of color and is receptive to their feedback. She recalled one of her first classes in which one of the few students of color had to defend their talking point to their white peers. Das Gupta realized that a student was carrying a disproportionate burden of having to educate the class. The next time she taught the course, she added required videos based on that student’s viewpoint.
Operating a classroom like this can create a healthier environment for all students, and it can help retain students of color in the college. To improve retention rates, many students of color are actively trying to improve the JMC experience for each other.
For Murrani, this meant signing up to be an intercultural aid to serve as a live-on aid for students of color next year.
“You get to talk to people like yourself and kind of create a safe community, especially in such an uncomfortable place,” Murrani said. “We're basically taking care of each other as communities of color. … We kind of have to stick together and take care of each other to build each other up.”
For Gladney, joining the W.E.B. DuBois Society has allowed her to feel a sense of community and to have an active role in changing the JMC environment. Gladney serves as the W.E.B. DuBois Society’s student representative on the CIC.
As a representative, Gladney helped create JMC’s reading consultancy to help students from different educational backgrounds with their classwork.
These actions have helped JMC students of color as well as white students, but there is still work to be done. JMC Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, Brian Johnson said much of the work is in the hands of the two DEI planning groups: the CIC and another committee established by JMC’s Strategic Planning Committee.
The college is still in its early stages of developing a strategic plan, but for the past few years, the CIC has been working on the college’s DEI strategic plan. That plan is being edited, and then it will be shared with the college for feedback, followed by final edits. CIC Chair Mark Axelrod said the plan focuses on diversifying the student body, faculty and staff, considering curriculum opportunities across the four majors in the college, and continuing to strengthen the college’s inclusion.
Because JMC’s curriculum seeks to challenge students to explore topics and perspectives that many shy away from, Johnson said some will inevitably feel uncomfortable. However, he continued, the college must find more ways to offer students and faculty the tools to better navigate these conversations, helping to prevent people from feeling uncomfortable or ostracized. By creating experiences where people learn to do better, they can be better, he said.
“Our priority is to serve all students interested in pursuing a James Madison education,” Johnson said in a written statement. “The strengths of the college come from the people who make up this institution. We are stronger when we have greater representation. That is always the goal. … There is always work to be done to create more inclusive spaces. I am excited for the possibilities that lie ahead here at JMC; we will continue to engage students, faculty and staff and alumni to be active participants in DEI-positive initiatives.”
This story was part of our March 29 print edition.
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