Whenever I mention that I am a native New Yorker who went to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’m often met with some very perplexed looks.
If they’re familiar with Wisconsin’s “prestigious reputation” as a Top Ten public university or as the No. 1 party school in the nation, then these looks are a little more forgiving. When I mention that I received a full-tuition scholarship, they’re even more impressed.
But when you come from a big city like New York to a small, Midwestern one like Madison, there are many things you aren’t prepared for. One of these things includes what my school is currently making headlines for: a student wearing a mask of President Barack Obama with a noose wrapped around his neck.
While these narratives are an ugly yet legitimate reality of those who currently attend or have attended a predominantly white university, here’s the thing: the family I made for myself as a result of this toxic campus community is one of the best gifts I could have ever received.
Let’s back it up real quick, though. This awful event occurred at the Wisconsin vs. Nebraska football game on Saturday night in the stands of the school’s beloved Camp Randall stadium. While UW Athletics’ staff asked the student to remove his costume, to which the student complied, the university proceeded to be passive about it. In a statement made by UW Athletics, they noted that “the costume, while repugnant and counter to the values of the university and Athletic Department, was an exercise of the individual’s right to free speech.”
As a woman of color who happens to be an alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’d like to call bullshit on this sad excuse for a statement.
This imagery of the Black leader of our nation being hung by a noose is not just a symbol that recalls our nation’s violent past but it also reflects the insensitivity of our nation’s present.
While it baffles so many people on the Internet how such a well-respected university can be so passive when it comes to such important and sensitive issues, I don’t think any person of color who has ever attended a predominantly white institution is surprised. We continue to be disappointed by a system where we are used as props to build diversity rather than students who aim to receive an education. We go into these institutions blindly, known as the “ones who made it out” by our families and friends, but in turn struggle as we grapple between two realities: a family who expects the world of us and a campus community that only sees us as a diversity quota in their own world.
But when you’re a queer person of color at a Big Ten university in the Midwest, your chosen family includes the people on campus who keep you going. I found mine in a building called the Red Gym. This vibrant building on campus is home to various scholarship programs, the Multicultural Student Center and the LGBTQ+ Campus Center. The people who made up these communities were my refuge when I was sick of being bombarded by ignorance and prejudice. Every day I’d walk through this brick fortress, surrounded by students, mentors, faculty and staff who not only identified with my experiences but cared about my well-being. These people are the reason I am able to call myself a Wisconsin alumna, and they are the same people I go back to visit during homecoming every year since I graduated.
This past weekend, I was reminiscing about my college experience with my friends from school over dinner. We laughed about the drunken shenanigans we'd get into, plotted our personal missions for homecoming and made "promises" to not get as drunk as we did last year. While we had all heard about the ignorance of what had happened at the football game the day before; unfortunately, it was just business as usual: another racist incident that happened at our alma mater. But we knew that what we held in our hearts were the people and memories we shared. No matter how good, bad or ugly, we had gone through them together and after all of these years, we were still able to let this be enough.