Originally published on The Black Voice, a publication for historically silenced voices at UW-Madison.
A UW-Madison Multicultural Learning Community (MLC) House Fellow has been placed on paid administrative leave due to complaints from students claiming that white people felt unwelcome based on race.
Two days before Thanksgiving, UW junior Chuefeng Yang, who uses gender-neural pronouns, was notified of these complaints and told to move out and return the key to their dorm room within two hours.
“Recently a number of MLC residents reported that in conversations and at a floor meeting, they were told to limit who they invite to visit them based on race,” UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said in an emailed statement. “An investigation confirmed that this happened and University Housing is working on the appropriate responses.”
When meeting with MLC’s professional staff about the complaints, Yang said they were blindsided when presented with survey responses from students who said they felt unwelcome as white students or that their white peers were unwelcome in the learning community.
“Every time I talk to the students, I always let them know, ‘you can come to talk to me,’” Yang said. “We can sit down and disagree because we are young adults but we can also seek to understand.”
The Multicultural Learning Community, housed at Witte Residence Hall, is intended to create a safe space for a diverse group of students to come together and explore multiculturalism, diversity and social justice. According to its website, the community’s goals include examining the dynamics of current power structures and how life experiences are shaped by factors at the individual, societal, institutional levels.
“I have been telling my students from day one, the MLC is a safe space for people of color,” Yang said. “And it’s okay for white people to be in that space but if white people are going to be there they need to respect that people of color are a priority here.”
According to the university, there are 56 residents on the MLC floor – 43 identifying as students of color and 12 who are white.
“We want to be clear that neither race nor any other form of background/identity shall be used as a basis to determine who residents may invite to visit them,” Mcglone said. “Discrimination is counter to our values as an institution.”
Yang’s said their intentions as MLC House Fellow were always to make students feel comfortable and push them to interrogate their identities.
As a leader in the learning community, Yang is tasked with hosting programming for students to learn about social justice and engage in dialogue.
This year, Yang has welcomed speakers to give lectures on theoretical frameworks, cultural competency and structures of oppression.
“I made it very clear: if you are uncomfortable because people in this space are challenging whiteness [and] privilege, that is out of my hands. That is something you need to unpack and educate yourself on because that’s too much emotional labor for another person,” Yang said.
McGlone said all housing communities try to create environments where students feel safe.
“We’re creating environments where students feel safe, supported and able to thrive. We recognize that too often, students of color and underrepresented students do not experience as positive an environment as majority students,” McGlone said.
However, Yang and other UW students are challenging the university’s commitment to understanding the experiences of underrepresented students.
“For years, [UW Housing’s] most marginalized students did not feel safe on the MLC floor because of how [they] always center white feelings first,” UW student and MLC resident Lisa Yang wrote in a Facebook post. “Chuefeng made it his goal to center the most marginalized people in this space, to listen and hold people accountable for the harm they do.”
Lisa Yang emphasized how integral Chuefeng Yang’s presence has been for students in the MLC. “Chuefeng has helped [students] find classes, find a job, coping with stress and culture shock, always available to talk, leading them to new events and resources, sympathizing and addressing climate on campus so they feel like they belong,” she wrote.
Many of Chuefeng Yang’s first-year experiences on UW-Madison’s campus were toxic due to a careless roommate and a negative campus climate. Eventually, their journey led them to transfer to the MLC where they began to build a healthier community. Since then, they have served the MLC as a peer mentor and as House Fellow since 2018.