University of Illinois Homecoming Under Racial Divide: Some Black Students Say They Don’t Feel Welcome by Mainstream

November 4, 2008

u-illinois.jpgThe homecoming football game had just ended, and students clad in orange T-shirts were swarming the quad in search of post-tailgating festivities, but the nearly 1,700 African-American students packed in a nearby auditorium at the Downstate campus barely noticed.

They were engrossed in a separate African-American Homecoming–complete with its own pageant, fashion show, and step performance–that has stirred controversy and highlighted social segregation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
With pep rallies and parades, homecomings are designed to unify students and alumni in school spirit. But some black students at the University of Illinois and elsewhere say they do not feel welcome in their school’s traditional homecoming activities, nor in the broader social scene on campus–a result, they say, of racial tension and clashing tastes and backgrounds.
There has long been a separate African-American homecoming pageant at Ohio State University. For the second year, the Black Student Union at the University of Minnesota planned its own homecoming events, which took place during the weekend.
“The university has taken steps to recruit us, but that doesn’t mean that we’re socially welcome,” said sophomore Ashley Williams, who helped organize African-American Homecoming at the U. of I. “It’s nice to go to events geared specifically at African-American students.”
Despite the administration’s diversity efforts, racial tension persists at the university, students and administrators say. Last spring, controversy erupted when members of predominantly white fraternities and sororities dressed in costumes that portrayed stereotypes of Latinos and blacks.
And because the student body is only 7 percent African-American, many black students say they simply don’t feel part of the mainstream. African-American Homecoming, they say, offers them a chance to celebrate their culture and presence on campus.
But some white students complain that separate homecomings foster more racial divisions. The complaints have swirled on the Web site of the student newspaper and in conversations on campus. For the first time, organizers are contemplating removing African-American from the title.
Many African-American-named events started decades ago when black students were not invited to participate in the homecoming courts of predominantly white universities.
“For a long time, African-Americans were not encouraged or invited to participate in homecoming,” said Clarence Shelley, special assistant to the chancellor, who was hired by the University of Illinois in 1968 to recruit low-income minority students. “Today, African-American Homecoming is still important. . . . African-American, Latino, Asian and Native-American students have found that it’s more useful to make their own activities that are fun for them and to worry less about integrating activities.”
Step shows, in which performers stomp, clap and shout in unison, have long been an African-American tradition. The one during homecoming in mid-October drew participants from other schools and packed the auditorium. “You guys excited?” shouted the host, a charismatic young man with a shaved head, who took the stage.
The audience roared.
Chavia Jackson, a junior in the crowd, said she has had a difficult time adjusting to the university coming from a predominantly black high school in Chicago. She is the only black student in some of her classes.
The insensitive costumes worn by white students last year were an example of why she doesn’t feel comfortable in the mainstream social scene, she said.
“There aren’t a lot of African-American parties here,” Jackson said. “This is our time to find companions and let loose.”
Timotheus Gordon Jr., a junior at the University of Minnesota, helped launch homecoming events through the Black Student Union last year after finding the universitywide homecoming events, such as a lip-sync contest and square dancing, unappealing and the broader campus socially segregated. Last year, there was a step show and dance party with hip-hop and R&B. This year, in addition to the dance, the Black Student Union helped organize a “Boondocks” marathon, among other events.
“People of color are included on paper here, but most of us feel like we’re not part of the broader university experience,” Gordon said. “We’re creating an alternative to mainstream homecoming.”
But some white students see no point in creating such an alternative. The effect, they say, is more separation.
“People say that it’s exclusive and wonder what the purpose is,” said senior Paul Schmitt, who used to question the event but has come to see its appeal.
As he walked from the football game by the auditorium, Jason Sandberg challenged the need for the step show and other African-American homecoming events.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Sandberg said. “I don’t see us being racist. Not at all.”
He paused and added: “Maybe here and there. You can’t stop people from being racist all the time.”
Anthony Lising Antonio, an assistant professor of education at Stanford University who has studied the social patterns of college students, said student organizations identified with a certain race can obscure the growing number of cross-racial friendships on campuses.
Black students self-segregate more than other minority groups, he said, because of their history of being excluded and their persistently small numbers.
But, he added, at predominantly white colleges, whites self-segregate more than anyone else.
“White students are still more likely to have all white friends,” Antonio said. “We just don’t tend to call that self segregation. We call that normal.”
Organizers of African-American Homecoming at the U. of I. say students from all racial backgrounds have been welcome in years past. Dropping African-American from the titles, they say, would make them that much more welcoming.
“We can be more inclusive and diverse even if the campus hasn’t always been that way for us,” Williams said.
Source: Chicago Tribune

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