The need for diversity education was brought to the forefront in the BYU School of Communications after a blackface controversy occurred at a Halloween party hosted by the BYU AdLab. An emotionally-charged two weeks following the incident culminated in a panel discussion spearheaded by BYU Communications student Hector Martinez on Nov. 8 in the Jesse Knight Building.
On Oct. 29, School of Communications Dean Ed Carter sent an email to communications students addressing the blackface incident.
“Last week a communications student appeared at a costume party in one of our educational labs in blackface,” Carter wrote. “Even as part of a costume where there apparently was not evil intent to conduct a racial attack, this is not acceptable. I express my regret and commitment to work to improve the climate in the School of Communications for all students.”
Martinez said this email spurred his idea to do a diversity panel.
“After reading the email I hopped on and wanted to pitch my idea for the diversity panel to the dean that day,” Martinez said.
After receiving the go-ahead from Carter, Martinez found five communications students from different ethnic backgrounds who were eager to share their experiences as minority students at BYU.
Students on the panel included Martinez, advertising major Lorien Peryera, news media major Karmen Kodia, comms studies major Egypt Byrd and public relations major Spencer Norawong.
The panel was an opportunity to educate students on how to approach and communicate respectfully with those who are of a different ethnicity and see the world from their perspective, Martinez said. The panel also gave students an opportunity to ask questions anonymously through a QR code shown at the beginning of the forum and accessible on all the flyers handed out prior to the event.
“We feel this is a very important topic not just for us as students or peers but as future professionals,” Martinez said opening the event.
Norawong also said diversity needs to be understood and accepted in the communications industry and is important for BYU students to embrace.
“As communications majors, it is our job to learn how to think like other people. We have to learn what differences and demographics others have, we have to understand how to think in another perspective,” Norawong said. “This forum will give students the unique perspectives and standpoints of those who are from different ethnic backgrounds. It will help students understand and see how we experience the world.”
BYU communications student Lauren Johnson was excited to hear a forum would take place on this subject. Having had negative experiences on campus due to her race, she felt a forum was necessary.
“A lot of students here did not grow up in culturally diverse areas and with that comes a lot of miseducation on the proper way to speak to people who come from different backgrounds than they do,” she said.
Communications student Becca Smith was in charge of monitoring the questions that came in from students and submitting them to the panel during the event. She said the panel gave students a unique opportunity to ask questions in a safe space.
“Being from Georgia — a very diverse place — has allowed me to be more culturally sensitive than most,” she said. “But even for me, I consider this forum a great opportunity to have a safe space to ask questions that I wouldn’t feel comfortable to (ask) normally.”
Byrd said it is important to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. She said getting out of comfort zones will allow students to connect with one another no matter their background.
“I think it’s really important to recognize discomfort. When we talk about racial issues, the initial reaction is to shut down. But it is really important, and I think crucial to building a community, to ask the uncomfortable questions,” Byrd said. “I can speak for myself, and I’m sure a lot of other ethnic minorities that if you are willing to be genuine, people won’t shut you down.”
This panel was just one of the many steps taken to promote diversity. Carter said the blackface incident was an opportunity to educate students and faculty on media ethics, diversity and inclusion.
“We want all students to understand some of the history and meaning of blackface so they know why it is offensive,” he said.
The advertising sequence will be bringing in three professional experts in workplace diversity and inclusion. They will lead a training workshop for students, staff and faculty at the end of November, according to Carter.
Communications faculty also voted to adopt a requirement for all communications students to take a new three-credit class titled Media Ethics: Ethical Decision-Making in a Diverse Society.
“If approved by the college and university, it will go into effect in Fall 2019. We plan to offer a pilot version in Winter 2019,” Carter said.
Martinez summed up the importance of the School of Communications embracing diversity by reminding attendees that the professional world requires diverse, inclusive mindsets.
“When graduating and getting your first job at an advertising agency or public relations firm, maybe even at a magazine, you will be forced to realize that what you thought was the ‘minority’ will, in fact, be the majority,” he said. “As professionals, we must know how to operate outside of the bubble that is BYU.”