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Opinion: Western highlights diversity, but forgets about inclusion

For a university which claims to be inclusive, it’s time for Western to start practicing what it preaches. The Western Front editorial board would like to start this opinion piece by saying we are not intending to speak for students of color on this campus. They have shared their voices clearly, including last week, when the Oceanic Student Association issued a statement regarding Western Athletics’ proposed “Hawaiian Night” basketball game. We agree with OSA that students of color have been burdened with the uncompensated labor of education and making campus welcoming to diverse students. Our intent is to stand behind the work of students of color and ask Western to commit to their promises of inclusion.

If Western is committed to diversity, they cannot forget about ensuring inclusion. Having more diverse freshman classes is not enough; more needs to be done to support students of color to ensure they are given opportunities to succeed. While Western Athletics cancelled the theme for the game after students called them out, this instance of appropriation of indigenous Hawaiian culture is part of a larger problem on campus.

Western’s student population in fall 2017 was 71.7 percent white. And many white Western students have shown in the past week that they have the luxury of being unaware of the impact of cultural insensitivity. The fact that some on Western’s students do not understand why the “Hawaiian Night” was problematic is emblematic of the problem itself. When white students claimed such a thing was not problematic, they were ignoring or denying the feelings and thoughts of our Pacific Islander students. When they ignore the entirety of OSA’s statement, they are ignoring the voices of students of color. White students at Western need to realize that their silencing is a violence, one that dehumanizes and shows a lack of empathy for fellow students and their concerns.

All students at Western need to see that microaggressions, the use of people of color’s bodies to uphold empty claims of diversity, cultural appropriation and a lack of effort are problems.

OSA also mentioned the lack of diversity in courses. While Western has some programs and courses in various departments that focus on the experiences of people of color, as well as some faculty committed to diversity, it is not enough. The OSA said it was concerned with a lack of courses that include the study of Pacific Islander culture and history, compared to other colleges in the region, such as the University of Washington. As they mentioned, this is despite the Pacific Northwest being home to a sizable population of Pacific Islanders. And this issue stretches beyond a lack of representation for one student group. Faculty at Western have expressed concern with administration not showing commitment to diversity in hiring and course prioritization in the past.

The fact that not all students can see their experiences reflected in the courses they take is a problem. The fact that white students do not have to face this problem, is a problem. It is alienating to entire sections of the student body when they are not represented in academia. And Western is also failing to create an inclusive environment for faculty of color, as evidenced from a 2014 study for Western’s President’s Taskforce on Equity, Inclusion and Diversity.

Equity. Inclusion. Diversity. These are nice promises, but if students at Western don’t feel much has really changed, what more are they than just empty words? Students have had clear and reasonable requests to make this university more inclusive, such as a College of Ethnic Studies (which, we remind you, Western actually had in the late '60s and early '70s, and is not uncommon at other universities). Students have also requested more classes and programming that reflect diverse experiences, as well as increased funding for services that benefit all students, but particularly students who come from marginalized communities, such as the counseling center. We know that some of these issues, like funding, are beyond the control of just Western administrators, but we ask that they do more. The creation of a Council for Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice and commitment to diversity initiatives in December was a step. We just hope Western takes the work done in these forums and commits to real change.

In his email to campus in December, President Sabah Randhawa said, “This work begins and ends in humility, with a recognition of the great distance we have yet to go and the ongoing nature of the challenges we face as a society and as an institution.”

We admire this admission, and agree that humility will be a large factor in ensuring Western, the third largest public university in the state, better serves its students and the public.  The Athletics Department’s faux pas is by no means an isolated event. The issue of a lack of inclusivity on this campus goes beyond that one incident. It's a systemic issue.

In its statement, the OSA wrote: “Time and again, Western Washington University preaches diversity and even puts brown and black students within their pamphlets to attract diversity but when these students come to campus, this institution fails to support and represent them. The post from the Athletics Department is yet another example of a continued campus culture propagated by those at the top of the institution that fails ethnic students.”

Western happily promotes its rising rate of diversity, boasting that this year’s class is more diverse than years before. While the commitment to diversity is nice, it’s time for Western to actually mean it. Let’s focus on retention, on providing support that students of color need and on really committing to building an inclusive environment. As President Randhawa has said before, including in a piece in The Seattle Times with President George Bridges from Evergreen State College, it’s good news that increasing numbers of students attending our state’s universities are coming from lower-income families, and that they are more diverse. But as he said in his email to campus in December, we need to ensure retention. We need to ensure safety and support.

“It’s not enough to just get students in the door,” President Randhawa said.

We agree. And while we support his pleas to the legislature for more funding to do this, we ask that the administration consider taking more tangible steps in making this campus more inclusive now. The rhetoric is there, we just want to see follow through.

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Kira Erickson, Asia Fields and Melissa McCarthy.

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