Uncovering the Black Student Experience at UW-Eau Claire

Black UW-Eau Claire students share their stories while attending a predominantly white institution

%22Demonstrators+march+in+the+Justice+for+Jacob+Blake+Solidarity+Protest+Aug.+29%2C+which+began+in+Randall+Park+and+ended+outside+the+Eau+Claire+County+Government+Center.+%C2%A9LeaKopke2020

Lea Kopke, 2020.©

“Demonstrators march in the Justice for Jacob Blake Solidarity Protest Aug. 29, which began in Randall Park and ended outside the Eau Claire County Government Center. ©LeaKopke2020

In a country currently going through a racial reckoning, being black at a predominantly white institution (PWI) presents new challenges for both students and faculty at UW-Eau Claire.

“It’s like having a target on your back. All eyes are on you if you mess up everyone will see. Every decision, every choice you make is being watched. Hopefully, you make the right one,” said James Boyd.

Boyd is a second-year, Black student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire majoring in kinesiology.

Although Black History Month is coming to a close the issues faced by black students at UW-Eau Claire are ongoing.

“It wasn’t easy coming here, the first week I didn’t know anyone, and no one looked like me,” Boyd said.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is a PWI meaning that more than 50 percent of its undergraduate population is white.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the University of Wisconsin system is one of the least diverse college systems in America with an average of 76 percent white campus population.

“We have a black student population of a little over one percent here at Eau Claire,” said Michael Thomas, student services coordinator for the office of multicultural affairs.

As a student coordinator, Thomas focuses specifically on the betterment of the black student experience at UW-Eau Claire.

“It’s hard to be black at a PWI, I can’t tell you that is something that is easy, but it is my job to help our black students be comfortable here,” said Thomas. “We work hard to help each student create a plan of action to help them succeed and that plan is dependent on each students’ specific goals.”

Yakob Ekoue is a second-year student at UW-Eau Claire, majoring in finance.

“Being black here means being courageous. You cannot back down just because no one looks like you. We are taking the steps to hopefully make Eau Claire more diverse one day,” said Ekoue.

Both Ekoue and Boyd agree that being black at UW-Eau Claire garners a lot more attention than they are used to.

“I know I am a big, black man but at first I thought it was just what I am wearing but I am starting to realize that it’s just how I look. I get looks from everyone, even professors. I can’t explain it, but I know it’s because of my skin,” said Ekoue.

Thomas said that microaggressions are one of the biggest issues black students are faced with on campus.

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a microaggression is a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.

“Where are you from?” and “You don’t sound black” are examples of microaggressions Ekoue and Boyd have experienced on campus.

“We are working on sharing knowledge about the black experience in hopes of ending discrimination on campus,” said Thomas.

Boyd and Ekoue said they are both aware of the resources UW-Eau Claire has offered them through the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

“They (OMA) do a really good job of reaching out to students. I definitely think I have the support to succeed here,” said Ekoue.

In addition to using the services at OMA, Boyd stressed the importance of leaning on other black students for support as well.

“It’s important to have someone who understands your experience, someone you can relate to,” said Boyd.

Being black at a PWI does not have to be a negative experience said Thomas at OMA the directors focus on listening to the voices of marginalized students with hopes of giving them a platform for the real “world”.

“The black student population has been marginalized here so it is important to understand the history and context of that marginalization to create more positive environments and healthy outcomes for black students,” said Thomas.

Boyd and Ekoue agreed that they would like to see the university raise more awareness about racism on campus and hope that racist incidents will be taken more seriously in the future in comparison to how they have been treated over the past year.

“Race is an issue. I can’t sit here and tell you it’s not, there is definitely racism at this university, and it would be nice if they would do something to make people understand that what they say matters,” said Ekoue.