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Black students at BYU report ignorant comments, cultural isolation

First Published      Last Updated Feb 24 2017 11:26 pm


Students report lack of cultural understanding and diversity, with too few black teachers.

Dhina Clement vividly remembers the day she realized Brigham Young University students looked at her differently because she is black.

She was on campus when a male student commented on her hair. She was flattered — until he followed up with an "ignorant" statement that made her uncomfortable.

He was from New York, he told her, and, "He said, 'Ya know, I'm used to girls like you ... ya know, girls who wear weaves all the time,' " she said in a YouTube video posted earlier this month.

Clement didn't think the comment was meant to be mean, but she said the lack of cultural understanding is something she doesn't like about BYU.




And it's a problem reported by other black students at the mostly white university, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a nearly hourlong, independently made video by Johnisha Demease-Williams, a sophomore psychology student.

Batchlor Johnson IV loves BYU but said in the video it's not as cultured as other campuses. He often fields questions from students related to his music or culinary tastes, he said.

"Utah as a whole doesn't have that many black people, so they don't know how to interact with them, to be honest with you," he said. "They ask ignorant questions sometimes or they bring up touchy subjects they really have no business bringing up if they're not really trying to learn or to understand or to have a genuine conversation."

This is Demease-Williams' second video about being black at BYU. The first, made in November, poses questions to white and black students about hurdles, perceptions, racism, white privilege and dating.

BYU's 325 blacks account for fewer than 1 percent of the 33,000-strong student body. The university has two black full-time faculty members (out of 1,257) with continuing status (similar to tenure), three more are on track and three others are adjuncts.

Black students interviewed in this month's video said they wished there were more black faculty members and more required classes that helped students understand different cultures. They also wanted more university-sponsored events tailored to black culture.

Though Clement and others said they love BYU, they also feel a serious culture shock that, at times, is isolating.

"For the minority groups, sometimes you can definitely feel outside of the norm or the mainstream," said student Kiana Stewart. "Everyone wants to feel normal, so it can be very isolating and really intimidating sometimes to feel like you're un-normal just because you're different."

Demease-Williams started these videos to give black students a voice on campus, she said, and to hopefully bring about change.

She believes she's done those things — to a certain extent — but has decided to leave BYU, she said, because of the lack of diversity on campus.

"I want to be able to go to school and see black figures hold different positions," she said, and see "people of my own culture being successful [and] be in a place where people are really open."

But she hopes that other students continue these videos, and the conversation, so that "people open their eyes and actually try to make a change."

astuckey@sltrib.com

Twitter @alexdstuckey

 

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