UNC-Chapel Hill nudges students into a conversation about race

UNC-Chapel Hill has launched Carolina Conversations, an initiative designed to provide forums for students to discuss sensitive topics. UNC-CH will do this in three ways: sponsor regular large-scale town-hall-style forums called My Carolina Voice, smaller gatherings called Carolina Pulse, and My Chance, a process whereby students can apply for school funding for “grassroots interactions.”

The March 17 announcement identified the planned discussion topics as “race, intellectual diversity, religion, identity and culture.” So far, however, it looks as if race is the subject du jour. In the coming weeks, the university will plan activities to address the naming of campus buildings, public art and imagery, and working with the student government to “create new processes to identify and diversify” campus speakers.

The first Carolina Pulse event was held Monday, March 23, on  “Race and Current Events.” Housed in the Aquarium Lounge, a room on the third floor of the student union building, the event was a guided conversation among 100 or so people. Those included students, faculty, staff, and administrators—including, Chancellor Carol L. Folt, Vice Chancellor Winston Crisp, and other high-level officials.

As the Daily Tar Heel pointed out, a majority of the students in attendance were racial minorities; for comparison, last year’s freshman class had only 7.7 percent black students. While the university might normally consider that a strength, the intent of the event was for the conversation to reach ears that a dialogue about race normally would not reach.

The structure of the event called for informal conversations around small stand-up tables. Participants were encouraged to join and leave a conversation as they pleased, but they were also directed to rotate to other tables every so often, making for a low-pressure but semi-formal environment.

Upon entering, participants were instructed not to take photos or videos, since this was to be a “safe space.” A student emcee also used this coddling term—apparently to remind everyone that while all viewpoints are welcome, participants should be mindful of dangerous speech.

The school provided gourmet refreshments, a high-tech interactive feedback poll, and screens at either end of the room with collages of suggested buzzwords to use in conversation. One collage included words like “fraternities,” “police,” “brutality,” “Starbucks,” “rename,” “Saunders,” “#kickoutthekkk,” “white,” and “supremacy.”

For an hour and a half, participants discussed racism in fraternities, police brutality, race relations on campus, and microaggressions—the accidental or minor instances of prejudice supposedly displayed by members of privileged groups every day. Via a text message poll in between discussions, participants were asked to answer the question, “What current event around race/ethnicity is most affecting you today?”

Current events discussed included the Ferguson police killing of Michael Brown, the recent beating of a black student by agents of Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control, a racist video from Oklahoma University’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter, and others—although, again, conversations were mostly unstructured.

There was no doubt some good, real conversation going on. Students at one table debated the propriety of having fraternities, while students at another table related pertinent personal anecdotes.

Each table, no matter the size of the group, had at least one non-student participating. Perhaps this was a coincidence, but it calls into question the health of the discussion.

At one table, a non-student brought up voter-ID laws, even though no one had been discussing the topic. She said she was worried about the effect they would have on race relations, and called them “unprogressive.” While the event was intended to include more than just students, and faculty were particularly encouraged to attend, an authority figure inserting a non sequitur Democratic Party talking point into a supposedly inclusive discussion crosses a line.

While the students changed the subject and did not get drawn into a political discussion, that incident was indicative of the feel of Carolina Conversations overall—controlled dialogue under the guise of free and open debate. Do students feel comfortable saying what’s on their minds when Vice Chancellor Crisp or Chancellor Folt stands beside them? Or two middle-aged faculty members?

Yet if UNC-CH does not intend to control the campus dialogue, it is not clear what purpose Carolina Conversations serves that students and student groups could not achieve without administrative involvement and influence. Did the students lack outlets for discussing race before this? The Black Student Movement claims to be one of the largest student groups at UNC. Students of all stripes have hardly been shy about participating in grassroots movements like “The Real Silent Sam” and “Kick Out the KKK,” which aim to dissociate the university from controversial figures in its past.

Beyond that, there is an almost continuous stream of student events related to race, culture, gender identity, and sexuality at Carolina, as anyone who follows the UNC event calendar knows (see the events classified under “diversity,” for example). So the new university-facilitated Conversations don’t seem to be filling in any kind of gap. Instead, they send the message, “Keep talking about race until you’re blue in the face.”

The Carolina Conversations initiative is a little too similar to another top-down initiative to force-feed a dialogue on race to the masses: the failed Starbucks “Race Together” campaign. When Starbucks announced it would encourage its baristas to discuss race with customers, and write racial messages on their coffee cups, a national backlash ensued, with media and Internet criticism from across the intellectual spectrum. Comparing that failure to the popularity of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe”—the slogans inspired by grassroots action against recent incidents of perceived police abuse and racism—implies a lesson UNC should heed. Yes, people want to talk about racial issues, but it appears that they want to do it organically, on their own terms, not to be told when or how much to care about them.

A text-message poll at the end of the Carolina Pulse event asked students to say whether they had learned about someone else’s perspective, and no one answered in the negative. But given more than a text-message platform, students told a different story. According to the Daily Tar Heel, student leaders who met with Chancellor Folt Friday felt the event was unconstructive in forwarding the dialogue on race. The student newspaper quoted one student as saying, “We need an open space, maybe on Hooker Field, where people can just be loud.”

In my view, students who want a constructive dialogue should start it on their own, as some have been doing, and not wait for the university to offer more monitored “safe spaces,” in which hurting feelings is a cardinal sin. The movement to rename a dormitory named for a racist Civil War colonel, for example, has reached support across multiple groups, not just activist black students. That movement has been loud and abrasive, and the UNC trustees are listening.

However, if the administration is serious about sponsoring a real, honest discussion about race and other topics, there are steps it can take to improve on the first Carolina Pulse.

  • First, let students vote on the topics, instead of simply asking them to submit ideas and having a central committee pick one. As of now, the topics fit too conveniently into the administration’s diversity-centered agenda.
  • Next, if the university insists on allowing faculty to join these conversations, the administration should instruct faculty to play a neutral facilitative role. It is not conducive to an academic environment for authority figures to pick sides in student discussions of sensitive topics.
  • Finally, stop infantilizing students by insisting on a “safe space.” Frankly, the term is simply code for “controversial viewpoints should be tempered or omitted.” Censorship is not the stated purpose of Carolina Pulse, so the “safe space” warning only serves to call into question the program’s integrity.

A university is a place to discuss all kinds of ideas, but the modern university is too focused on identity politics—much more so than the students themselves. The campus conversation is healthier without the nudging and coddling.