ShyAndrea Jackson sat in the back of her BYU sociology class with other African American students. The class discussed why African American mothers breastfeed their children more than white Americans. Jackson and her friends watched and listened.
“Maybe because a lot of them don’t grow up in two-parent homes,” one of Jackson’s classmates said.
Jackson was offended at this broad assumption. She looked at her African American friends while she tried to correlate race to breastfeeding to single parents. After a few moments, the rest of the class nervously glanced at the African American students at the back of the class, who said nothing.
African American students make up less than one percent of BYU students. Jackson and other African American students expressed feeling like outsiders because their race differs from the majority at BYU.
Jackson, a news media student, said she wants to accurately represent minorities in the news. Jackson grew up in Texas, where she said there was a lot of diversity and people didn’t pay attention to religious or racial differences.
“But here it’s like, even if you try not to notice stuff like that, people kind of make it obvious,” Jackson said.
Jackson said she can tell when students have not lived in diverse places, especially when they grew up in Utah. Nearly 50 percent of all BYU students have lived outside the United States, and approximately 35 percent of BYU students are from Utah.
“Those are normally the people that I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re gonna touch my hair,’” Jackson said.
She said she thinks this is because there are not a lot of African Americans in Utah, so Utahns marvel at her skin and hair. Jackson said she knows LDS people from outside of Utah who do not point out differences. She suspects this is because they grew up with more diversity.
Most of Jackson’s experiences have been with students who point out her differences. For example, one of her friends once introduced her as “my black friend Shy.”
“And I’m like, ‘Why would you ever say that?,’” Jackson said. “It’s not about my race. It’s about any race. You wouldn’t say, ‘This is my white friend.’ That’s weird and awkward to do.”
She said she wishes BYU students would see others as individuals, without finding differences such as race or religion.
Jackson said she feels like being an African American student at BYU is preparing her for after graduation because she could end up in a culturally uncomfortable situation again.
“At some point in your life, you’re going to be uncomfortable, so might as well do it at a school that’s top in academics and has super great programs, and (where) I get to run track,” Jackson said.
An economics major and Texan, JJ Nwigwe said he has not felt like an outsider because he is African American. He said even though he gets lingering looks, he said everyone is kind and open.
“I definitely get a lot of stares and looks from people around campus,” Nwigwe said.
Jackson’s teammate Ramarco Thompson said he feels like an outsider in the classroom because he is African American. He said there was some “separation” in class.
“They would always isolate into groups, and I would usually be the one that was left back,” Thompson said. “Then I would have to ask to join a group.”
Tracie Cudworth, who teaches a course on gender, race and class in the media at BYU, said subtle judgments of others can be eliminated.
“Ethnicity is learned,” Cudworth said. “Surely we can follow Christ’s example and learn to be more inclusive and look for commonalities in our brothers and sisters who are different . . . We should view diversity as an opportunity to learn about other people and cultures.”