The Problem

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The Black student experience at predominantly white institutions (PWI), like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is often not talked about or overlooked. The adjustment Black students must make to attend PWIs can be challenging because these universities typically lack the financial, academic, and social support needed to facilitate these students’ success.

Sometimes the adjustment can be too much for Black students, causing them to leave college altogether.

Black students experience psychological issues at these universities, as well as real-world feelings of unworthiness. The blame for these issues often gets placed upon the individual, when in reality it is an institutional problem reinforced by structural causes.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), Black students make up only 2.7 percent of the total undergraduate student population with 779 students, out of 28,897 total undergraduate students.

This disparity creates “obvious challenges” for Black students, according to Karla Foster, the director of African American Student Services and Outreach at UW.

According to Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at UW-Madison, Black students have to cope with not being surrounded by people who look like them, as well as resist perpetuating stereotypical behavior around the larger white student population. This often creates dissatisfaction with their student experience, primarily leaving them feeling like “who I am, is not enough”, according to Winkle-Wagner.

According to an article published in Equity & Excellence in Education, Black students on predominantly white campuses have three options: cope, conform or resist. Winkle-Wagner’s research on the experience of Black women at PWIs found that these women dealt with impositions on their identity by conforming, “I just can’t be who I am, I have to be a particular way to be successful in this predominantly white space,” said Winkle-Wagner.

There is a notion that Black students must give up their own cultural identity in favor of the new culture or develop a bi-cultural orientation to succeed on predominantly white campuses, according to an article published in the Journal of Black Psychology.

Winkle-Wagner’s research highlights the need for Black students to cope or conform their identity in order to succeed, showing that these women would change the way they spoke, dressed, and did their hair, their mannerisms and even how they thought.

“One of the most insidious forms of imposition,” Winkle-Wagner said, “is to get inside someone’s head.”

These findings are consistent with the Black student experience at UW-Madison as well. Uniqua Flowers, a UW senior who transferred from Howard University, a historically Black university or college (HBCU), said that it was very unfriendly on the UW campus when she first transferred, so much so that she was depressed her first semester at UW-Madison. Flowers stated that for UW-Madison to be such a ‘prestigious’ university “[UW] definitely should do a better job at diversifying.”

Neither HBCUs nor PWIs accomplish diversity to the fullest extent because these student populations are not representative of the larger world. The world is not all Black or all white.

However, HBCUs deliberately socialize Black students to feel empowered and enable them to deal with real world problems, according to Winkle-Wagner, PWIs, like UW, can adopt this ideology.

“You are Black, you are beautiful, you are smart, and you are powerful,” said Winkle-Wagner. “Who [you] are is not only enough, it is enough do a lot of change in society.”

Resources can be allocated towards programs that foster diversity at UW because a large percentage of the Black student population is already admitted through the diversity pipeline programs. “Put your money where your mouth is,” Foster said.

“If it were not for these programs, many Black students would not be here,” said Foster.

Although UW-Madison has championed the idea of ‘diversity’, it has failed to realistically accomplish it. “The idea of diversity at UW-Madison is heavily celebrated,” Foster said. “But the actual execution is far away from where it should be.”

Diversity isn’t percentages,” said Winkle-Wagner. “We need to be treating diversity as an action, what are we doing to include students, and we should let students tell us what we should be doing.”

Institutional racism is being perpetuated at UW-Madison if Black students are not being adequately represented on campus, which only continues America’s long history at privileging white people and putting Black people at a disadvantage.

“We have set up a society, where very purposefully, some people are positioned to have a bunch of advantages and progress, and have an easy time of it,” Winkle-Wagner said.

“Some people are very purposefully set up not to have those opportunities and not have the advantages, and have a really hard time of it…so hard that maybe they fall out.”

Students of color should not solely be responsible for advocating for diversity at UW-Madison. “We have the power to disrupt,” Winkle-Wagner said. “We have to work the system to position ourselves to make the change.” Blame the system, not the individual.

“The majority of white students come here to get an education that prepares them for the world,” Flowers said.

“You can’t be prepared for the world when you’re just around people like you. The world is not like that. It’s robbing them of the education they need too.”

The impending consolidation of the Ethnic Studies department at UW-Madison highlights the campuses inadequate stance on ‘diversity’. “I don’t think it should just be diversity classes,” Winkle-Wagner said.

“We should be thinking about how can we make every classroom deal with and embrace who is in the room.”

The solutions are not hard, cultural enrichment is something that UW-Madison should advocate and execute to facilitate a more diverse campus.

“Something as simple as requiring more than one class for an Ethnic Studies requirement, can go into promoting a more diverse campus,” said Foster.

“Even though UW-Madison is one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education, it is not good enough.”

The task of diversifying a predominantly white campus may seem like a lot of work for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with only 779 Black undergraduate students, but it is not impossible and it is necessary.