Long before James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, conversations about race have been difficult on the Ole Miss campus. Today, the university still grapples with its controversial past and how to provide an inclusive environment for all students.
Alexandria White, interim director of the Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement, is well aware of the past but believes the university’s history can be used as a learning tool.
“I think you do not ever forget about the past,” White said. “You look at the past—what can we learn from it, how have we changed from it, and what can we do to go forward and prosper.”
At the Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement, White said that they don’t shy away from uncomfortable situations or conversations. Rather, they provide resources and try to make sure everyone feels included in the Ole Miss family.
“We are continuously having that conversation because there is never going to be a finish line with [diversity],” White said. “The university, the students [and] external constituents all have a buy-in that we have to continue this conversation.”
White said she views more inclusion and diversity as an advantage that the university can utilize to keep progressing.
African American Representation at Ole Miss
According to data from 2015, Mississippi has the largest disparity between the percentage of public high school graduates and the percentage of their flagship university’s freshman class who are African American. The University of Mississippi also experienced an eight percentage point drop of African American freshman on campus in 2015 with African Americans comprising 10 percent of the freshman class.
“I think when you look at statistics and demographics, especially of the state of Mississippi and you know we are the state flagship, our numbers are not where they should be in terms of diversity and in terms of integration of the school,” said Jarvis Benson, Black Student Union president.
In Fall 2017-2018, the university’s enrollment was 12.8 percent African-American compared to 76.2 percent white (excluding Medical Center enrollment). In the same year, the university employed 63 African-American professors compared to 874 white (excluding UMMC).
Benson said he understands the university’s history. In fact, his main reason for choosing to attend Ole Miss was to become a leader and a difference maker.
“On a deeper level, I feel like I was really going to make a change here,” Benson said. “And, I didn’t really want to go to a school where I was going to be comfortable and just go to class and then go home.”
A Conversation On Inclusion
Before attending the University of Mississippi, senior chemical engineering major Janice Hodges worried she would not feel welcome on campus. Despite her concerns, she found a community she now calls home.
“I really did not feel like Ole Miss would accept me for who I am,” she said. “With that being said, I found communities and organizations here who will gladly accept me and who will gladly take me for the woman I am—the black woman I am—and help me respect myself and love myself even more from the day I walked on campus.”
Similarly, Benson believes part of the African-American experience on campus is being successful in uncomfortable places.
“To sum it up, I think making a way out of no way because these places weren’t made for us, but we make it in any way,” Benson said. “And we’re thriving, and we are doing things to continue making those steps.”
Benson is also involved in several on-campus organizations such as the UM Gospel Choir. He believes the best way to instill change is to use your voice and listen to others.
“My hope for the university moving forward in this time of uncertainty is to continue to listen to the student voice and to all student voices,” Benson said. “But also, to continue to fight for complete equity.”
UM English Professor and Mississippi native, Kiese Laymon, believes the best way to address racial tensions and controversy is to confront our past and have a healthy discussion about implementing change.
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“For the health of our state and our institution going forward, we have to talk about why it took so long for some of these things to change,” Laymon said.
When Laymon initiates a conversation about race with his students, he begins with reminding students how they want to be loved. From there, Laymon believes his students can open up more on controversial topics.
“How do you want to love people, and how do you want people to love you, structurally, interpersonally?” Laymon said. “For me, I’m interested in those questions. I think if we really get at those questions, then I think we can really get out of all of this divide and all of this stuff people are fascinated with.”
Benson also noted the strength when students realize the universal similarities between them.
“If we know each other on a personal level, then I think we can continue to fight on an institutional and a systemic level,” Benson said.
Story contributed by broadcast journalism students Gracie Snyder, Sarah Liese and Lauren Conley.