A two-minute video made by students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison was meant to promote school spirit and bring the campus together during homecoming festivities a couple of months ago. But some students there had a very different reaction as they watched scene after scene of students working and playing around campus, since almost every one of the students shown was white.
Some described the footage as “actually a bit scary,” says Kingsley-Reigne Pissang, a senior at the university and the outgoing president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, an African American sorority there.
She had been looking forward to seeing the video initially because she and several of her sorority sisters had been filmed and told they'd be included in the piece, which was slated to be played on the Jumbotrons at halftime during the homecoming football game. And of course it was to be blasted out on the university's social media channels.
“It sounded like a really cool concept,” said Pissang, who spent an hour with the videographers at the filming. “Their theme was aisles or walkways. There was a Delta commercial that they actually sent out attached to the email as the format of what they wanted the video to look like.”
But it turns out the final video did not include the footage of the students from Alpha Kappa Alpha. Apparently because the shots were too dark, they were later told. And there weren't any other minority student groups represented either.
“I was just really shocked,” said Payton Wade, another of the students from the sorority who had been filmed but who did not appear in the final video. “This is kind of the things we deal with every day on the campus of UW Madison. As a student of color, personally we always feel erased or forgotten about as if we're not here. We do make up a very small portion of the school, but the school always talks about how they prize diversity and inclusion and equity and things like that. And then for them to say this is what home is and just kind of erase the majority of students of color.”
She took to Twitter to broadcast her feelings. As she wrote:
“As if being on a campus where you are unwanted and have to fight every day just to survive and make it isn’t bad enough @UWMadison is back at it again reminding us that we don’t belong here and that there is no room for Black students here. #SurvivingUW #HomeIsWhite #TheRealUW”
That tweet was part of a loud uproar about the video on social media just after it was released on Facebook back in September.
Soon after, the university's homecoming committee, which had created the video, removed it from social media and issued an apology.
They wrote, "To promote student Homecoming, we recently produced a video called, 'Home is Where WI Are,' and we invited various student groups to participate in the video. Unfortunately, not all the video images produced were included in the final product, including those of students from underrepresented populations. We regret omitting those images and we recognize that by doing so, we unintentionally caused hurt to members of our campus community. We are sorry that our video failed to show the full breadth of the University experience and made members of our community feel excluded."
The university also issued an apology, and the alumni group that oversees the homecoming committee pledged to take steps to bring more diversity to its student group in the future.
The saga of this controversy at Madison was detailed in a big feature in The New York Times last week, and it is a telling example of issues going on around the country when it comes to diversity on campuses and the struggle to create a climate where diverse populations feel at home.
So for this episode we wanted to talk to the students at Madison who spoke out and hear their views on how much they feel welcome on their campuses. We also reached out to the homecoming committee and the university seeking an interview, but they both declined beyond pointing us to their previous public apologies.
Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen.
Actually, colleges usually tout their diversity in slick videos like the one in Madison. The student committee that made it spent months on the project, and actually that's what particularly frustrates Pissang.
“My issue is with all of the eyes that the video had to go through in order to get posted and no one saw an issue with it. It's a deeper problem,” she said.
What would she say to those who might wonder why a homecoming video is so important?
“It's never about the isolated incident at our institution or at any other institution,” says Pissang. “It's about that no one sees a problem until incidents like this occur. It's about the subconscious that there's a total, not even disregard or disrespect, but it's just there's not even a thought. There's no compassion. There's no empathy. There's where marginalized groups of students are afterthoughts. If you're not the white majority at a majority of these predominantly white institutions, then you're not thought about, not considered to be a part of the community. And although it may just seem like a homecoming video or just somebody forgetting to be put in a video or the lighting being too bad, it's about the fact that nobody cared.”
Only about 1,000 students at the university are African-American, out of more than 30,000 undergraduates. So in some ways, the video is an accurate portrayal of what it feels like to be a minority student on campus.
“There's only 1.8 percent of us, that includes the law school, that includes medical school, veterinary school, pharmacy school,” says Pissang. “So it's very possible that you go all day without seeing a black student or even a student of color or you only have one or two in a lecture of 500. So that's what it's like.”
These students didn't stop at criticizing the video, they wanted to do something about it. There was a group called the Student Inclusion Coalition that ended up making a video of their own, flipping the script on that original.
"We wanted to do a student-led and student-based counter-video that would show more or less the issues with the university..."
—Kingsley-Reigne Pissang, a senior at the university and the outgoing president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, an African American sorority.
“We wanted to do a student-led and student-based counter-video that would show more or less the issues with the university and not necessarily just the different communities that weren't shown throughout the video,” is how Pissang explains it. “And we wanted to do that in such a way where it was our voices, where we got to show, of course, the marginalized groups, but not only the groups— but just saying what the administration would never say for us in our experiences.”
In fact, she ended up narrating that video, which played during halftime at the homecoming game in place of the original.
“The original script was a lot more raw,” the student said. “It was lot less pleasant than what the final take was. But then again, my major is strategic communications and I am a proud member of the J school at university of Wisconsin Madison and I had fantastic, fantastic teachers. Essentially they reminded me that, ‘You have to cater to your audience.’ And with the crowd they reminded you had to keep it simple during a time when, for people, homecoming is a happy time. People are coming back to see their old friends, to drink, to have the football games, kind of just remember and relive their glory days that no one wants to see a pity video. Essentially, no one wants to see the truth, and I had to remember that within that stadium the truth probably would not have been the best.”
So how does she feel about the message she was able to convey?
“Although it may not have been the extent of what I wanted to say to kind of help the student body or the marginalized groups, I felt like it was [well received by] the white majority and the people around,” she said. “I think that the video got people to listen.”
And what does Wade hope that these protests in the video might lead to for the university?
“I just hope that the university would be able to use this situation to see how much change that they really need to make,” she said. “So I think the university should just kind of like follow suit and really make it more of a priority to diversify their campus. They need to look at it more like they look at recruiting for football or something, and they want to be the best when it comes to that. They should strive to be one of the best institutions when it comes to how their student body looks and how diverse it is.”
One thing we were most curious about here going into this story was this question, does digital tech like social media amplify these feelings of not being welcome or does it help representation more often than not? As Pissang points out, the answer's not so simple.
“Social media is a double-edged sword because it can work in whatever way you want it to,” Pissang said. “It can work to erase or it can work to really help and advocate for. And in this case, and I would say that for a lot of other cases, social media has been a catalyst for hearing voices that aren't traditionally heard. And I think that again it helped. It helped for a large majority because we started a whole social movement within a week. Myself and my peers were in The New York Times because of social media and the fact that we decided to voice ourselves and to kind of not just sit there and not just let things happen. And social media, it's a mover and a shaker and a game-changer. Mostly for voices of marginalized groups and for students that you don't usually hear from or students that are silenced. So social media, it's a problem, but furthermore it can be a solution to that same problem.”