The University of Wisconsin-Madison has long had a reputation for being inhospitable to students of color who for years have quietly endured underlying racism and discrimination.

Now those students are fighting back … and demanding a response from the university.

Marquise Mays
Marquise Mays

“We shouldn’t be in an environment that is unwelcoming and still be expected to get a degree,” says UW student Marquise Mays. “We shouldn’t have to choose between our sanity and an education.”

Mays has helped take over a Twitter hashtag — #TheRealUW – once used as an umbrella to refer to UW sports, but has now become a sounding board for students who have encountered discrimination on campus. The social media effort has intensified the conversation about race and hate and discrimination on campus at a time where ugly racial incidents are piling up fast.

“Now, with the hashtag, people are not afraid to say things they’ve always wanted to say,” Mays tells Madison365. “A lot of UW students of color on campus have had this fear that if we are violent or say anything to disrespect white students on campus that we can get our scholarships snatched away. Many students of color don’t have much to go back to at home without their scholarships so fear has always played a big factor. In the past, a lot of us have just quietly dealt with it instead of speaking up.”
The #TheRealUW hashtag started trending soon after UW-Madison freshman Synovia Knox and a group of friends were spit on and showered with profanities and racially charged comments in their Sellery Hall residence last weekend. A couple days later, graffiti of a stick figure hanging from a tree by a noose was found in a men’s bathroom of the UW Wisconsin Institute of Discovery. The N-word was written out next to the image.

“I think the reason why #TheRealUW has blown up like it has is because students of color are tired,” Mays says. “We’re tired of e-mails. We’re tired of campus wide discussions. All of the students of color come to these discussions … but the people that need to be here most aren’t having the conversations. UW-Madison gets on social media and says, ‘We’re listening! We hear you!’ They’ve been hearing for a long time; we need action. It shouldn’t be up to the students of color to tell you what that action is.”

Mays, who is originally from Milwaukee, is a first-generation college student in the PEOPLE program who is double-majoring in journalism and communication arts.
“This [Sellery Hall] incident has energized students of color and mobilized us to actually use #TheRealUW to hold UW-Madison accountable,” Mays says. “I’ve seen students of color become much more confident in telling their stories and that’s what I wanted to happen. That now they have a community. They can now tell these stories and not be looked down upon as second-class citizens.”

Long silenced, students of color are speaking openly and exposing the current racial climate at UW.

“As you go through these Tweets, 9 times out of 10 you’re like, ‘Wow! This happened to me, too!’ People think of these microagressions as isolated incidents when they are really not,” Mays says.
In his blog, Mays says: “Our experience has been silenced by UW because they don’t want to admit that they have serious issues with racism, sexism, and classism. Our experience has been silenced by UW through half-ass emails and Tweets saying that they ‘understand’ or that they’re ‘listening,’ but then no action is taken to combat these issues — and we’re tired.”

Mays says that UW-Madison says they’re listening, but students of color don’t feel like they are listening hard enough. “We’re asking for action from the university who say they value diversity but don’t do much to support students of color,” he says. “We want them to know what we really go through on a daily basis but we just don’t ever say anything because we are here for one thing – to get a degree. A degree is bigger than ourselves … it’s for our families and it’s for our future.”

The hashtag is letting students be open and unapologetic about their stories. “And they are exposing that UW-Madison is not a welcoming environment for students of color,” Mays says. “We’re not afraid to state it.”

As powerful as #TheRealUW has been for students of color this week, there are still many students, Mays says, who take it as a joke.
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“I’ve had some white students call me racist … some telling me I shouldn’t believe everything I read on the Internet … pretty much invalidating the experience of students of color,” Mays says. “I think my main problem is that UW-Madison loves to put us on their brochures and on their websites, but at the same time we don’t see any social media presence from them defending us when we are attacked. We don’t see a response from them. It’s like they go ghost.”

On Jan. 26, a student in Sellery Hall taped swastikas and photos of Adolf Hitler on a Jewish student’s door. On March 10, a group of students at Dejope Hall heckled a Ho-Chunk elder performing a Native American ceremony with stereotypical “war cries.” Then there were the two aforementioned incidents this week.

“I think that the incident that happened in Sellery Hall – while a tragedy in many respects – energized a lot of students on campus to tell these stories without being afraid … to be unapologetic about being here and to not be quiet anymore,” Mays says.
Mays encourages students to continue to share their stories at #therealUW. He hopes the activism doesn’t die down any time soon.

“Our experience is bigger than an e-mail, it’s bigger than a Tweet and it’s bigger than a campus-wide discussion,” he says. “I don’t want #therealUW to always be about isolated incidents. I want it to be about a lot of different things that happen to people of color on this campus and an important platform for us all.”