by Karma R. Chavez
#TheRealUW has been used by students of color on UW-Madison’s campus to draw attention to what life is like for them at the flagship campus. After a rash of reported hate incidents on the Madison campus in the last several weeks, several interruptions of Board of Regents meetings to issue statewide demands to improve campus climate for students of color, and a resounding take over of UW’s Associated Students of Madison during last month’s elections by a coalition of students of color and white accomplices known as the “blxndsxde campaign,” attention is rightly focused on UW’s racism.
Much of this conversation has been focused on UW’s undergraduates, so I asked three graduate students I work with if they had anything to share — did they ever. Here, I share three reflections of #therealUW by women of color from vastly different graduate programs on UW’s campus. Their stories reveal that from day one things were not as they hoped, or perhaps even worse, as they were promised they would be in “progressive” Madison.
• “My first week moving to Wisconsin I was stopped one afternoon while walking by a police officer who insisted I was homeless and was recently begging on a corner for money. I had just left my graduate art studio and was heading back to my very expensive apartment on the lake, but none of that mattered. He continued to harass me as others walked past me without even a second glance. He wanted to take me to a women’s shelter even after I explained numerous times I was a student. I felt as if I had to defend myself as if I owed him some sort of explanation for my existence on campus.”
• “I believed graduate school would empower me to fly. Instead, my wings were clipped and my confidence shattered. I stood out in every classroom and felt the responsibility of addressing racist comments that went unaddressed. Most hurtful however, was having my integrity, intelligence, and values questioned in a degrading manner by a professor. After accusing me of not being credible and telling me that I did not represent the school and its values, she suggested that I withdraw from the full time program and enroll in a part-time program that would be ‘more my pace.’ I had a 4.0 GPA.”
• “I came to UW with the promise that I would grow as a scholar and intellectual. The worst part is that I have spent more of my time correcting and teaching other colleagues instead of growing as an intellectual. Why don’t I get to learn like all my white colleagues? Why do they get to learn from me? This place has made me bitter; it has highlighted my anger and created toxicity inside of me that others recognize and associate with my essence. I don’t like it, I don’t like what I’ve become here.”
As a professor and woman of color, these stories literally break me. Of course, I hear these and stories like them in my office or over coffee or drinks on the regular. I end with the words of one of these students: “#therealUW is walking home and having three hostile white men yell ‘nigger’ at you. #therealUW is constantly feeling as if you are at one big party that you were not invited or welcomed to; you just watch from the sidelines how happy the white students look, and take up space. #therealUW is having too many racist stories and not enough space for them.”