BYU forum provides safe space for racial and ethnic minorities

Student Phillip Ng explains his experience identifying as both American and Chinese.
(Danielle Jardine)

Racial and ethnic minorities make up 14 percent of BYU’s student population, according to University Communications, which makes some students frustrated when trying to find a voice on campus. Dr. Hoku Conklin and Louise Wheeler with Counseling and Psychological Services decided to create a place where minority students can support each other to fight this problem.

The fifth out of six forums was held on Thursday, June 8, and focused on how to handle multiple and intersecting identities. The forum was an open discussion and Wheeler posed questions and moderated when needed. The discussion included topics ranging from identifying with multiple cultures to how to answer “so where are you really from?” and the pressure of educating those with ignorant or offensive comments and questions.

Wheeler, an intern with Counseling and Psychological services, started the discussion off explaining her background. Her dad is from Cape Verde in Africa and her mom is Italian and both immigrated to France, where Wheeler grew up.

“I identify as black, and I’m LDS, and now that I’m here I’m also an immigrant,” Wheeler said. “It’s hard when you have all of those identities to find a clear box where you fit in.”

One of the consistent themes throughout the different forums was using values to build identity, according to Wheeler. Conklin also said he wanted to create a space where racial and ethnic minority students could come and have conversations about their BYU experience.

Exercise science major Déborah Aléxis has gone to every forum so far because she feels these social conversations don’t typically happen on campus.

“I think that my voice gets muted because everyone is primarily white,” Aléxis said.

During the 2016 presidential elections, Aléxis felt like she couldn’t speak out about her concerns for a Donald Trump presidency because she felt in the minority.

“I just felt out of place, I felt that everyone could afford to vote for this person because they’re white, so no one felt the opposition I felt because their livelihood was not threatened,” Aléxis said. “As a brown person, I felt like I was in danger, and no one cared.”

Aléxis is grateful for this space where she gets to bond with others that share similar struggles, and she’s also learned from other cultures and experiences she hasn’t dealt with. Aléxis now feels like she can empathize with different racial and ethnic minorities because of these forums.

Aléxis also hopes people can come together in the future with empathy in social discussions about race and ethnicity. She wishes others wouldn’t assume someone is offended because of their race rather than because they were human.

“As Mormons, if we’re going to talk about how we stand as one, I think that it obligates us to learn about each others’ cultures, and truly stand as one when it really counts,” Aléxis said.

Wheeler feels like students of color at BYU don’t have a voice on campus, but this forum helps solve that problem.

“I think it gives them a space to be able to talk about their experience without being shut down or questioned,” Wheeler said.

Conklin mentioned this forum would not have been as successful as it has been without the collaboration of Multicultural Student Services and International Student Services. With such a positive response, both he and Wheeler plan to continue the forum in the fall and winter semesters, potentially with multiple sessions a week.

Wheeler also hopes to include administrators, faculty, and white students in future discussions so these forums can become a bigger discussion on campus.

The final forum for spring term will discuss coping and resilience. It will be held Thursday, June 15, at 4 p.m. in WSC 3280.

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