Student highlights issues black students face at BYU

Gianluca Cuestas
Johnisha Demease-Williams, a sophomore studying psychology, created a short film addressing the way black students are treated on the BYU campus. Here she poses at the Harris Fine Arts Center. (Gianluca Cuestas)

A BYU student’s online video is raising awareness about race issues on campus.

Johnisha Demease-Williams, a sophomore studying psychology at BYU, created the video to shed light on issues black students encounter at BYU. She said she thought the discussion was lacking, so she and some friends decided to ask BYU students questions about issues that black students face in Provo.

The result of her efforts is a 24-minute short film. “The Black Student Experience–BYU” features students answering questions about white privilege and the Black Lives Matter movement. The video also asked black students about their experience at BYU and includes stories of how students had personally experienced discrimination.

Less than one percent of BYU’s 32,615 undergraduate and graduate students identify as black, and Demease-Williams said she wasn’t surprised by the responses black students gave in her video. One student shared that wearing different clothes invokes different responses from fellow students and faculty in Provo.

“I do feel that there is a lot of ignorance on campus,” she said. “I don’t blame the students, but at some point you should want to get out and educate yourself because you are surrounded by people that are different from you.”

Demease-Williams said she has no plans to stop raising these issues, even though it can be tiring. She wants to release another video in February in conjunction with Black History Month.

“This isn’t a topic we should take lightly. It affects all students, anyone who affiliated with BYU, and the overall culture of campus,” Demease-Williams said. “I want to make a difference, so that all current students and future students can enjoy all of BYU.”

BYU sociology professor Jacob Rugh said students of African and African-American descent face challenges many white students are unaware of.

“There are students who are making a lot of progress and strides,” Rugh said. “But they’re not the majority of white students.”

Rugh also said assumptions that white students make about black students aren’t usually malicious, but they can be draining.

“It’s such an isolating experience,” he said. “People assume black students are complaining, or assume that they’re from the inner city, or assume that they’re athletes.”

Rugh said students can educate themselves by taking classes on global and cultural awareness and getting involved with organizations like the Black Student Union.

“White students should step back and try and listen first, understand that persons experience, walk a mile in their shoes,” Rugh said. “White students need to not get defensive. They need to understand that it’s not about them.”

Despite her efforts to improve the culture on BYU’s campus, Demease-Williams said she would not personally recommend BYU to other black members of the LDS Church but added, “It all depends on the person and what they are willing to go through.”

Rugh said her response is not unique and other minority students have told him the same thing. He said he hopes students will understand that racial issues aren’t just problems for minorities to worry about.

“Students have to have a transformative experience,” Rugh said. “It has to be internalized. We have to have that Christlike love.”

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