Mebraht Gebre-Michael is a lot of things to a lot of people. She is Emem Ekiko’s best friend. She is a former tri-exec who received an anonymous death threat via e-mail. Others know her because she protested the lack of minority voices on campus by taping her mouth shut.
Her typical day is similar, but different, from other University of Colorado students. She goes to class and has fun, but she is in a racial minority almost everywhere she goes.
Gebre-Michael, or “Mo” as friends call her, awakes at 7:30 a.m. on Monday and prepares for her African dance class that begins at 8:15 in the campus theater. Once there, she takes off her sweat pants and timberlands, puts on a lapa, which is like a sarong, and walks into a room the size of a high school auditorium. She takes a seat on the wooden floor next to the mirrors. She is one of the first people to arrive.
Mo received an anonymous threatening e-mail last November.
“I can’t say I was surprised,” Gebre Michael says. “I think I was shocked that it targeted me. It kind of shook me a little bit.
“It just made me think about who really has a problem with me being in this position of power in student government. Who knows me well enough to call out specific features about my hair? It just makes you think what percent of the population actually thinks like this or feels like this. I ask myself that all the time, because I want to think that the majority of people on this campus are real tolerant and accepting. But when things like this happen, it’s either a small group of students messing it up for everyone else or a majority of the population thinks like this.”
A white girl sits next to her and asks her how she is doing.
“Just taking it day by day,” Gebre-Michael replies.
Mo stands and reminds the class about UCSU elections. She urges them to vote. Mo supports the Golden Ticket.
Class begins when the two musicians and dance instructor are ready. There are 10 black people in a class of 30. Three are musicians, one is a two-year-old boy, one is the teacher and five are students, Mo included. Mo said she never knows what a white student thinks of her.
“I never know if I am sitting next to the most extreme, hardcore white supremacist,” Gebre-Michael says. “I never know that, and I always hear rumors.”
The class is non-stop dancing. Five lines of six students dance forward until they reach the musicians at the front of the room. The class does this until 9:25 a.m., when students finally break. Mo goes outside for water and rejoins the class where the teacher tells what they did wrong. Most are not bending enough.
The class continues until 9:40 a.m., when Mo leaves to change attire. Her next class, titled “gay and lesbian studies,” starts at 10 a.m. in Ekeley. She and Emem walk over together. Two black women in the sea of a white student body.
“I don’t know if they’re looking at me because I’m black. I don’t know if they’re looking at me because there is something on my face. I guess I am a sight to see,” Gebre-Michael says. “Is there something wrong with my hair? Sometimes I’ll stare back, and they’ll shift their eyes. Nothing mean or anything, but if you’re glancing at me, I’ll glance back at you. It rarely happens where they’ll smile at you; other times they’ll just shift their eyes away, as if they were never looking at me.”
Mo thinks the lack of racial diversity scares black students away.
“A lot of students leave,” Gebre-Michael says. “There are so many people I have known, black students specifically, that have left the university because they don’t like it here at all. There is not enough black people. They have already dealt with too many racist incidences. I may even go further. They may not like the city of Boulder. It’s not like their hometown of say Atlanta or even Denver. Denver is different than Boulder, and it’s only 30 minutes away.”
Mo and Emem sit down in the back. The room is the size of a middle-class living room. Mo fans herself with her notebook to cool down from dancing. Emem poses a question.
“Ever thought about getting a tattoo?”
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” Mo replies.
The teacher walks to the front of the class and removes his notebook. The projector screen says “From WWII to Stonewall: Lesbian and Gays in Mid-twentieth century America (1945-1969).”
There is a picture of the Enola Gay bomber, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during WWII.
“Isn’t that clever?” the teacher asks the 26 students – 3 of whom black – while pointing to the Enola Gay.
Mo laughs. The teacher breaks from humor and begins lecturing. Mo takes out her black-capped yellow pen, which has “The Golden Ticket- Jeremy-Brad-Mo” on it. A souvenir from her tri-exec days.
The teacher goes over family values. The teacher said his family was large. He asks the students if they have large families. Mo raises her hand. She has 11 siblings. She knows how to interact with people as a result.
“I guess it has a lot to do with my family,” Gebre-Michael says. “Naturally, I am just a very sociable person. I love meeting new people. I love to step out of the box and be the first to jump in and say ‘Hey, what’s your name?’ or ‘Hi, I think your eyes are beautiful.'”
The lecture ends around 10:45 and the teacher hands back response papers. Mo got nine out of 10 points.
Mo and Emem walk to their next class at Duane.
The two discuss the “X’d out of society” protest in mid-September and the disappointment about the media coverage. Mo thinks a radical approach could solve problems
“Sometimes we need more of a radical approach,” Gebre-Michael says. “Like back in the day when things were radical, when protests were held and hunger strikes occurred and individuals were chaining themselves to buildings. Sometimes I think that’s what needs to happen for a change to happen on this campus because the concerns of a lot of black students are just brushed under the rug.”
The two enter the classroom where the Daily Camera photographed Emem with black tape on her mouth in September. Gebre-Michael says the point of the gesture was to show other students how important their voices were.
“Students would just stare at me,” Gebre-Michael says. “I would have liked for more to come up to me and ask me why I’m doing this because we had pamphlets of information to hand to them. I would give them with a whole bunch of statistics, this is why we’re doing this, because of hurricane Katrina and because of disproportionate numbers of African-American men in the prison system – just a list of things.”
Mo takes out her cherry-flavored lip balm and applies it to her lips. Again they are a minority. Two black people out of 28. But they are also part of a majority. In the class, there are three men and 25 women.
“We play a double role,” Gebre-Michael says. “Not only are we women, but we’re also black. Often times, our blackness comes first because that’s what people see first. We are basically stretching ourselves as far as we have to support women as well as our black side.”
The class ends at 12:15 p.m. and Mo walks home. On other days, she might go over to the UMC for the three-hour Chocolate City event, a mixer for white and black students to eat lunch, held daily beginning at 12 p.m. Today, she goes home for a bowl of honey bunches of oats.
Mo has a Black Student Alliance meeting in UMC 362 at 4 p.m. She changes into more dress-worthy attire for BSA pictures. There are no white people in the organization, to Mo’s chagrin.
“I have been told (by white students) that ‘I don’t want to come to hang out at chocolate city or come to a BSA meeting because I feel it is only for black students,'” she says. “In the sense of intimidation or a feeling of isolation, I try to understand that and I try to figure out ways so individuals don’t feel that way. Because I know that in BSA, we welcome everybody to come. In chocolate city, we welcome everybody to come.”
“Anybody is welcome to the meeting,” Gebre-Michael says, “but there is still going to be that feeling of isolation and intimidation, and I don’t know how to address that.”
Some black students dislike white students for no good reason, Mo said.
“It goes both ways,” Gebre-Michael says. “I know black people and Latino people who don’t like white people. Sometimes, I try to tell black people that ‘You can’t just hate white people. You can’t just hate Asians. What is your justification on that?’ That’s the same thing as white people hating Mexicans or white people hating blacks.”
Gebre-Michael says she and many other black students thought their protests fell on deaf ears. She sees no change and becomes frustrated by what she perceives as apathy on the part of her fellow students and university administrators. Though daunted, the group pushes on.
“It’s really discouraging and it makes you want to give up,” Gebre-Michael says. “But I know that none of us ever can. We just have to keep coming up with new ideas or try to connect with more people that have more experience.”