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Panel Tackles Questions On Race With 'Ask A Black Person' Event At UM

Panel Tackles Questions Of Race With 'Ask A Black Person' Event At UM
Ray Fanning
Panel Tackles Questions Of Race With 'Ask A Black Person' Event At UM

If you had a chance to ask a black person a sensitive question in a safe space, what would it be?

That was the premise of a panel discussion at the University of Montana Thursday afternoon that drew a crowd of about 50 people.

"It's a time for our white population to come and ask questions that they’re afraid to ask or maybe they are not getting them answered."

That was organizer Mashayla Cox, a student at UM who works with the Black Student Union and is the director of the student involvement network.

Cox said the panel discussion was partially a response to an event at UM last fall where Black Lives Matter Co-founder Patrisse Cullors did not answer certain questions from the audience.

"You know people asked certain questions that she refused to answer, and that kind of sparked this discussion of well when would we answer those questions and how would we answer those and what would that look like,” she said.

Discussion at Thursday’s event touched on the Black Lives Matter Movement, racial stereotypes, and working with "white allies" to combat ignorance.

Asked if academic institutions should actively confront issues of race, Cox replied:

"A hundred and ten percent. If you don’t have a full understanding of black history, you do not have a full understanding of American history. It’s vital that it’s taught to students," she said.

Panelists took direct questions from the audience and also answered anonymous notes over the two-hour event.

UM students with different backgrounds and different takes on the black experience made up the 5 member panel. Ky Russell was one of them. 

"I’m from Troy NY, and what I wanted to bring to the panel tonight was my view of someone who is not only mixed race, but a women and someone who comes from a different part of the country where the cultural aspect and dynamic is much different from Montana," she said.

Russell was happy with how the panel went, noting people were not afraid to ask questions.

"Educate yourself and others," was perhaps the panel’s theme of the discussion.

White audience members had a range of takeaways.

Murray Pierce, the faculty advisor for the Black Student Union, served as the event’s MC.

"The university has been, I think, more than accommodating when it comes to providing space and doing the things we're doing here tonight, attempting to make sure students have some sense of community that we can develop here," he said.

The panel discussion capped a series of events at UM celebrating Black History Month this February. Lectures, displays, and films were also featured.

In a state where less than 1 percent of the population self-identifies as black according to census data. There are fewer than 100 black students at UM.

One of those students is Kyle Davis, another one of the event’s panelists, who plays football for UM.

Davis said participation from the audience was encouraging.

"I was really happy about people being specific in their questions, not just broad overall questions, it showed that they were not afraid to engage in a conversation about race," he said.

Organizers said they hope events like this keep student dialog on race going strong.