BYU students petition to require race and ethnicity class as school creates committee to study inequality on campus

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU students, Jonathan Mena, Kennedy Madrid, America Andrade started an online petition to ask the school to make a race and ethnicity class a requirement for all students. Saturday, June 13, 2020.

Brigham Young University should start requiring all of its students — most of whom are white — to take a class on race and ethnicity before they can graduate, argue students of color there who have started a petition that now has more than 18,000 signatures.

Their request comes in response to nationwide protests against racism and police violence targeting black people. But those who created the petition say many of their classmates just don’t understand what’s happening or why.

And the Utah campus continues to struggle with its own incidents of discrimination. Students have reported being called the N-word and being asked, “Are you even legal?” In February, a panel on black immigration was hijacked by anonymous questions from the audience, including, “Why don’t we have any white people on stage?” The university apologized and promised to work toward a culture of kindness.

But that’s not enough, said Kennedy Madrid, a Latina student at BYU who started the petition, not when thousands are marching throughout the nation and even in other countries. “It’s a good time for everyone to become more educated,” she said.

Currently, the private school, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, requires all students to take a series of religion courses, as well as a list of traditional general education classes on science, math, social studies and literature. One of the requirements is also a “global and cultural awareness” credit, though most students take a language to fulfill it.

Madrid, who will be a senior in the fall, wants to change that so every student has to specifically take a class about race and ethnicity instead, learning about different backgrounds and experiences, sensitivity and history.

“No student should go through BYU without ever learning about race,” she said.

The school’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal. But BYU announced Wednesday that it has created a committee to examine issues of race and inequality on campus.

The group includes professors from sociology and law, as well as representatives from Multicultural Students Services and athletics. Made up of a majority of faculty of color, it will begin meeting this week to develop recommendations for actions the school can take to become “a more safe and welcoming place for BYU’s community members of color.”

Madrid drafted the petition along with her husband, Jonathan Mena, and her friend, America Andrade; they’re both law students at the university and also Latino. And to them all, an ethnicity class is just as essential as learning other college basics.

Racism on campus

BYU’s student population is roughly 81% white, according to the school’s data. That’s higher than any other university in the state, both public and private.

And students of color say that makeup contributes to both ignorance and explicit racism on campus.

Andrade had only been a student at BYU for a few weeks, she said, when she first felt targeted for being a minority. She’d completed her undergraduate degree at Utah State University, which has the state’s second-highest percentage of white students, but said she never had such experiences there.

Starting the law program at BYU last year, though, it seemed to her like few of the white students she met had many interactions before with people of color. A student in one of her lectures told her that even if she fell to the bottom 20% of the class, she’d still get hired because she was Latina and companies “have to fill their diversity quotas.”

Other times, Andrade would be walking on campus and would randomly get asked why people of color need to have a Black History Month and Hispanic History Month.

She tried to get more diverse speakers for events at the school. But when she asked the student leadership there, a white student responded: “How do you think your white male classmates would feel about that?”

“I was just taken aback,” Andrade said.

Madrid said, too, she’s been asked at least twice a semester if she’s in the United States illegally. Others have questioned where she’s from and when she says, they persist, “But where are you really from?”

Hundreds of other students and alumni have also commented on the petition with their own experiences — mostly on the campus in Provo but also including BYU’s other locations in Idaho and Hawaii. Those campuses also have a white majority population.

"I'm constantly concerned and worried about my friends and myself right now,” added Déborah Aléxis, a BYU senior who signed the petition.

Aléxis is the president of the school’s Black Student Union. And she was the moderator of the panel in February where members of the audience asked racist questions. Even events like that, she said, that are supposed to start a healthy discussion about race are targeted.

(Courtesy of Brigham Young University) A poster for the black immigrant experience panel held at BYU on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020.

Another at BYU-Idaho last year, where an African American musical family was invited to perform, was advertised by white students handing out chunks of watermelon, a stereotype about black people.

BYU, Aléxis feels, has done little in the past to stop the mistreatment of students of color beyond issuing statements against racism. Now, she hopes, it will be different.

"Can we get your attention now that the country is burning? What does it take?” she asked. “I need you to wake up and stop pretending like this isn’t happening here, too.”

‘Essential knowledge’

There has been a little pushback on the petition — primarily from a white graduate starting a counterpetition to “INCLUDE White Voices in Race and Ethnicity Classes at BYU.” It has four signatures.

Scott Robbins, who started it, wrote in his post that he took an ethnicity class at the school and believes those courses are “built on white criticism.”

"These classes only criticize whites and paint all minorities as victims,” he added. “These classes ignore racism and violence towards whites. These classes are not science, but bigotry."

But that’s a common misunderstanding of what a race and ethnicity course is supposed to teach, said BYU history Professor David-James Gonzales. He’s been instructing on the subject at the university since 2018 and at two other universities prior to that.

“Diversity can be a charged word for some people,” he said. “People often forget, though, that whiteness is a race in itself. And it doesn’t exclude that.”

In his classes, he looks specifically at the history of immigration that included persecution of people now considered white, such as the Irish or Italians. He also looks at the plight of black and brown people, slavery, mistreatment and how that continues to play out in America in both intentional and unintentional ways.

“It’s affected all of us,” Gonzales said. “It’s not about rewriting the story or white guilt. It’s a way to create a basis for us to all enter this conversation.”

No one, he added, should look at only their own experience of race. As a Mexican American, he said, it’s been important to study his culture as it plays out across income levels and how that creates different struggles. And it’s helped him, too, to learn about the systemic challenges inherent in being black.

He believes it would be beneficial for all students to take a class on race for that reason, to build an understanding of what culture is and how to avoid microaggressions, to be able to hear others’ experiences, to learn how to engage in discussions about racial injustices and to figure out a way to move forward. It’s especially important, Gonzales added, for participating in the protests going on now.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Over 1,000 Pride for Black Lives Matter supporters rallied at Liberty Park, Sunday, June 14, 2020 for over three hours before marching throughout Salt Lake City to join the Las Vidas Negras Importan Rally at Washington Square.

“I view it as essential knowledge that unfortunately we’re not preparing our students to deal with,” he said.

Madrid has taken several of the race classes currently offered at BYU as an undergraduate and believes they help students prepare, too, to work in a diverse workplace when they graduate.

Grace Soelberg, a black student at BYU studying history, has been an aide over a race and ethnicity course for the past two semesters. She said it’s based on statistics and studies — not opinions.

"It's about the facts and how to prove it,” she added. “And it looks at both conservative and liberal authors."

Soelberg is adopted and grew up with white parents. The class, she said, helped her understand her identity better. She hopes it could also help other BYU students to make campus a safer, more accepting place.

What comes next

When they started the petition, Madrid thought maybe it would get 100 signatures while Andrade worried it might stir up some mean comments. They never expected the flood of support.

Now Madrid is working to collect stories from students of color and alumni to put in a letter to BYU’s president about the request. She’s heard from others, too, who’d like to see more than just one required class to address issues at BYU and around the world. And she hopes to do more.

Aléxis, for instance, wants the religious school not just to address racism on campus but also in the LDS Church that owns it. The faith’s past includes supporting slavery and withholding leadership positions from black members. She’d like to see a second course specifically addressing that.

“Even if the church doesn’t believe in those today, they still had lasting impacts,” she added.

There are now more petitions, too, including one asking BYU to rename its administration building, currently named after Abraham O. Smoot, who was a slaveholder.

Another is directed at BYU-Idaho. It calls for the campus to establish a Diversity and Inclusion Office. And it comes after a department there posted a lengthy message on Facebook, which has since been deleted — comparing the plight of the LDS pioneers to the current Black Lives Matter movement and advising people of color to be humble.

“Why am I telling you this?” the post says. “Because I know however oppressed you feel, no matter if your skin color, religion, background or heritage, …… YOU CAN RISE ABOVE.”

Aléxis, as well as Soelberg, would like to see the Honor Code on campus — which includes a strict set of rules for dating, a dress code and a ban on drugs, alcohol, coffee and tea — be updated to make acts of racism a clear violation.

“It doesn’t explicitly say it, and so I think people [feel they] can get away with it,” Aléxis said.

Other students want the school to recruit more faculty of color and increase the diversity of its board. Some suggest changing grooming standards so that black students aren’t targeted for leaving their hair natural. Anahi DeRobles, a alumnus who graduated in spring 2019, said she’d like more community discussions about race after she was constantly referred to as “that brown girl” while on campus.

Madrid feels the classes would be just the first step.