ICYMI: “Awake?” BMI Discussion
BY: Hope Hynson
The Counseling Center at UMD is currently under fire in the wake of the circulation of a flyer advertising a “safe space” for white students to talk about race. Following a plethora of racially-charged hate incidents over the past few years, the student body perceived this new group as highly insensitive and willfully ignorant of the climate on the university’s campus.
Some students feel a little stronger than others about the fact that the message this flyer sends to its students of color reeks of insensitivity and carelessness on the part of the higher-ups in the center. Others, while still affected by it, were left wondering where this group came from and what were the intentions behind its formation.
This past Monday night, the Black Male Initiative (BMI) held an open discussion with members of the Counseling Center staff, including Drs Theodore Pickett, Jr. and David Petersen. In attendance was also the head of this particular group, Dr. Noah Collins, and the Director of the Counseling Center, Dr. Sharon Kirkland-Gordon. The intent of this discussion was to answer the many questions students had concerning the group and to make sure the staff understood where the students were coming from.
One of the first things the staff members made clear was that they were aware of and fully accepted responsibility for the hurt they inadvertently caused. Many students felt that they could no longer trust the Counseling Center to effectively do their job if they could be insensitive to an issue of this caliber. The staff members acknowledged and apologized for this profusely and went on to explain their intent in creating this group.
“We’re supposed to be here for you,” was the general sentiment echoed in the apology from Dr. Kirkland-Gordon. She went on to acknowledge that, as a woman of color whose staff is around 50% other persons of color, the wording of the flyer should have never been overlooked. She then went on to discuss just how this misunderstanding came to be.
Dr. Kirkland-Gordon talked about how the staff in the Counseling Center frequently have discussions very similar to the ones that would come out of the “White Awake” sessions. In order to better serve the community, the staff has taken notes from former staff member Ann Regan who used to run a white racial identity group on UMD’s campus in the 1980s. This group served to teach well-intentioned white students about whiteness itself and the role that it plays in a racist society. It is directly from this that Dr. Collins formed the concept for “White Awake”.
Dr. Collins then spoke about his role in the group and his intentions in bringing this concept back to campus. In order for this group to properly carry out the mission, he said “...recruitment was essential to get the word out, it’s just that the wrong words got out.”
Hearing students also talk about the seemingly poor timing of the flyer’s circulation, Dr. Kirkland-Gordon explained that, with the actual intentions of the group, they felt that the time for this was now. She said that the staff saw the increasing racial tensions on campus as an opportunity for them to step in and help combat the issue at its source, but, because of their wording, their intent was misconstrued.
A student present for the discussion suggested that maybe the staff needed to have a student board at hand to get that perspective, to which Dr. Collins wholly agreed.
“We realized we were talking to an audience we didn’t provide context for.” Collins admitted.
To give further context, Dr. Collins went into the true goals and drive behind the group. He talked about how the group was not formed to just have white people come together to talk about the experiences of people of color, but to educate them enough to give them the internal resources to be able to properly check themselves if they do find themselves thinking or saying or doing something that can be seen as microaggressive or flatout racist. He wants to ensure that the white students are leaving the sessions with a better understanding of the psychology of whiteness, not just race.
“White people don’t often get together to talk about whiteness, so we want to do the educating so that you don’t have to...” Collins said speaking about how people of color are often forced to inform and educate others on how to treat and interact with them.
Giving light to the importance of white people taking on this initiative, Dr. Pickett then said “It’s important to have them clean up their mess because racism is their mess.”
Apologies were in abundance, and the students present were very thankful for the opportunity to hear directly from the source. Many left the discussion with a much more positive outlook and regained trust in those working in the Counseling Center.
Most importantly, students were guaranteed that, when it comes to matters of race relations and other highly sensitive topics relating to UMD’s campus, the staff would “...never not check with you [student body] again.”