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SMU, UNT Students Draw Attention To Racism's Toll On Mental Health

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Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com
Doak Walker Plaza and Armstrong Commons at Dallas' Southern Methodist University

Days after the death of George Floyd, the hashtag #BlackAtSMU began trending on Twitter in Texas, as thousands of students tweeted about racism and discrimination on campus. Among them was SMU alumni Chandler English, who transferred to the university in 2016.

During her time as a student, English said racism was common inside her dorm, at her work-study job and even in class. Yet, one comment that stuck with her came from a political science professor.

"In the middle of class, he said, 'It's kind of hard to support Black Lives Matter when they're protesting in the street, and you wanna go home, and you have an angry kid in the backseat,'" English recalled. "Obviously, that makes me uncomfortable because I'm the only black person, and seeing all of my classmates laugh at that, and it's just very hard as a Black student at SMU."

Now she teaches English in South Korea. And although she's thousands of miles away from Dallas, she says the hurt has traveled with her.

"It takes such a toll on your mental health to be part of a small minority community at SMU and to feel like you're ignored..." — Chandler English

"It takes such a toll on your mental health to be part of a small minority community at SMU and to feel like you're ignored and like you're not meant to be there, and you have no one to rely on, and it's something I'm still having to deal with now," English said.

Not only are tweets like English's calling out racism, but they have also drawn attention to the health consequences that tag along.

Jasmine Phillips, a second-year clinical psychology doctoral student, is researching the correlation between mental health and racism on college campuses at the WeTHRIVE Lab at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.

"We see that, particularly with race-related stress, related to students, you get depression and anxiety and a lot of these suicide ideations, hopelessness, related to these experiences of racism and discrimination," Phillips said.

Phillips adds that Black students who attend predominantly white institutions face higher levels of depression, anxiety and are more likely to drop out. According to SMU's 2018 campus profile, out of 11,000 students, 725 were Black.

SMU Student Diversity in 2018:

A pie chart showing the breakdown of SMU diversity
Data: Southern Methodist University

Students at the University of North Texas created their own hashtag, #BlackAtUNT, where they share their experiences.

Ashleigh Allen tweeted about taking a theater makeup class at UNT during her freshman year. At first, some of the remarks made by her professor about her appearance bothered her.

Since she had synthetic braids in her hair, she couldn't color or put wigs on. After explaining her situation, Allen said the professor turned to the class and made a comment that would still echo in her head two years later.

"Don't ever expect to work in this industry ever again," Allen recalled.

Her frustration grew after she presented a research project about a book on theater makeup in the classroom library.

"I was giving my report to the class, and I said the book was pretty great until you get to the racial and ethnic makeup. And [the professor] said, 'Well sometimes that's necessary,'" Allen recalled. "And I said, 'Well no, it's not. If you need a person of color in your play or musical, then you cast them. You don't paint a white person to look like one. It's inappropriate and kind of disrespectful.'"

That semester Allen dropped her theater minor to study criminal justice and sociology.

"I am no longer in the theater department at UNT. I don't feel welcome there. I feel like if I were to be a part of it, I wouldn't be able to express myself or get the same opportunities," Allen said.

While UNT has a more diverse student population than schools like SMU, Allen has not seen representation within the faculty. During Allen's first semester at UNT, there were 369 full-time professors. Thirteen were Black.

Full-Time Faculty at UNT in 2018:

Graph of UNT full-time faculty diversity breakdown
Data: University of North Texas

Jasmine Phillips adds that lack of diversity among educators contributes to race-related stress for students too.

"When you don't have somebody in that authority or faculty position that is also like you, it makes it a lot harder for you to feel like you are accepted and understood within that community," Phillips said.

UNT's Student Government Association announced plans to create a Black Lives Matter task force. SMU will release an action plan in September to increase diversity with the help of students, alumni and faculty.

But for now, Phillips encourages students to keep tweeting and to come forward about their experiences.

"A lot of the times, students who do experience racism or discrimination on campus don't always come forward," Phillips said. "The more you're able to talk about it, and bring awareness to it, it helps others and yourself, deal with it."

Phillips adds universities can help by creating programs where students can feel comfortable coming forward. They can also include training about racism on campus for students and faculty.

For Chandler English, it's past time for universities to start talking about race. She adds it shouldn't have to take a national, racial awakening for local universities to listen to their Black students.

"I'm glad people are seeing it, but we've been saying these things, we've been wanting to be heard. Black students do need to be heard. All the time," English said.

Even though #BlackAtSMU stopped trending on Twitter, English says nothing will stop her from speaking up.