Exposing racism: Alumna Chelsea Ekowa discusses racist experiences at CMU
Before moving into her Wheeler Hall room, participating in Leadership Safari or attending her first class, Chelsea “Adaeze” Ekowa was called a n----r by some of her fellow Central Michigan University students.
Like many new students, Ekowa used Schools App to meet other freshmen before the Fall 2015 semester began. The app helps connect students who will be attending the same university prior to their arrival on campus.
She joined a group chat that included other incoming freshmen. Ekowa said the chat included: Patrick Murray, Taylor Richards, Tori Cunningham, Savannah Fraser, Colton Smith and Galen Miller.
Ekowa did end up making friends by using Schools App, but using it also exposed her to the racism that she would face at CMU.
"I was the only black person in there," Ekowa said. "Everything was fine until me and one girl got into an argument. She kicked me out of the group chat."
After a few weeks, one of the students added Ekowa back into the chat group.
Then she read the comments they made about her in her absence. She was shocked.
"I had asked everybody, 'Why would you guys say that? It's derogatory, it's offensive,'" Ekowa said.
After she arrived on campus, Ekowa went to the Residence Hall Director in Wheeler Hall to report the incident.
"He basically told me, 'What do you want me to do? Because there is nothing we can do because it happened before they got here and it wasn't on campus,'" Ekowa said. "I felt like, OK this is a higher up and he is telling me there is nothing he can do. I don't know who else to take it to."
Her freshman year ended the same way it began.
Ekowa was getting ready to go out with a friend and her white roommates on a Friday night midway through the Spring 2016 semester. One of her roommates began to mock racial stereotypes.
"She was saying, 'Oh, do my edges, I need you to do my edges' and mocking black women because the only race of women who do their edges are black," Ekowa said. "I was like, 'OK, you need to calm down. You're not being funny right now.' I was about to leave, and she goes 'OK, I'll see you later my n---a.'"
Ekowa spent the night at a friend's residence hall room. She received a text message apology from her roommate which she said she found insincere.
"She was like, 'I'm really sorry, that's not me.' But it was her, because she said it, thought it out and knew what she was saying," Ekowa said. "What she said before (about doing her edges) is the only reason why she would have even said the second part of the conversation."
According to Ekowa, the relationship between her and her three roommates became even more tense and uncomfortable after the text apology.
"(My roommates) told the RA that they felt like they couldn't talk to me because they thought I was going to be 'aggressive.' I didn't understand why they felt they couldn't talk to me – I've always been open to have conversations," Ekowa said. "I was like, OK, that's code language for 'She's black. She may yell at us. She may cuss at us. She might get angry and we don't want that.'"
Due to her conversation with the RHD earlier in the fall, Ekowa said she saw no point in reporting the use of the racial slur. She didn't feel her complaint would be taken seriously.
Based on the two racial slur incidents and other microaggressions directed towards her in the Towers Lobby and at parties, Ekowa didn't know if she wanted to come back to CMU after her freshman year.
"I actually wanted to look into transferring to a Historically Black College or University," Ekowa said. "Ultimately, I was like I'm not going to run away from people like this. It would be like I accepted defeat and I can't run away every time something like this happens."
Ekowa graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science degree in political science. She works for Illinois National Guard, but she plans to attend law school and become an attorney.
A year after her graduation, Ekowa was reminiscing about her time at CMU while scrolling through Twitter. As she "fell down the Twitter rabbit hole," she saw the name Galen Miller.
She became aware that since their freshman year he was a prominent student leader on campus, including his position as Program Board president and Interfraternity Council president .
Knowing he was one of the students who called her n----r, she tried to look at his social media to learn more about him but found all of his accounts were private.
"I did more research and I found out he did a Black Lives Matter post or whatever and I was like this complete BS," Ekowa said.
She went back through her phone and found the group chat messages and a conversation between herself and Miller addressing the chat.
"Please explain to me how that one fucking word offends you," Miller said in a text to Ekowa in 2015. "Don't blame it on slavery or shit either because let's all be real here. That's said and done."
Rereading the messages and learning about his leadership roles was the last straw for Ekowa and she released screenshots from the conversations to both Twitter and Facebook on June 14, 2020.
After she released the post, thousands of people liked, commented and shared her story. Other students and alumni, began to share their own experiences with specific members of the group chat and at CMU as a whole.
"If you go to a primarily white institution, it's a whole different world as a black person. You have the black side of the school and then you have the white side of the school," Ekowa said. "We're so worried about what's going on in the black community, and knowing everyone in the black community, and focusing on every organization in the black community because it pertains to us."
Though organizations like Program Board seem designed to benefit the entire student body, Ekowa said she always felt like they only represented the interests of white students.
Following the release of the messages Sunday on Twitter, President Bob Davies reached out to Ekowa directly to apologize for the incidents. He also promised to do better as a university president. In addition, he sent out an email to the CMU community and posted his message on social media.
Davies was saddened to hear the stories of racism at CMU, he wrote, and that some students who tried to seek help felt that they were unheard.
"I begin with an apology to the students, faculty and staff who felt invisible or unwelcome: This is unacceptable and I am truly sorry we let you down," Davies said in his statement. "Next, I promise that we will do better. We must acknowledge our history before we can create a better future. And while it is an impossible task to fully eradicate racism and hatred from every heart, it is possible and necessary for us to improve CMU."
As the messages began to grab the attention of CMU students, alumni, faculty and administrators, people began to tag the employers of some of people who participated in the racist behavior in the chat group.
On June 15, the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, where Miller worked as the operations manager, released a statement announcing that it was terminating his employment.
"The comments were hurtful and demeaning to the Black community, and the sentiments shared are in direct conflict with the values of the SCA," the Saugatuck Center for the Arts statement read. "Thus, we have terminated the employee and have briefed our Board and staff on this issue."
On June 14, Miller posted a statement on Twitter addressing the comments he made as an incoming freshman. Here is part of his statement:
"These comments do not represent who I am today or the person I strive to be in the future," Miller wrote. "I take full responsibility for my actions and for my incredibly hurtful comments."