When I look at the image below, I remember being a freshman excited to commence my college experience. What SMU saw was a stock photo, their very own “50 Shades of brown and hijab,” that perfectly encompassed the type of diversity the university lacks but loves to use as a token.

A friend of mine at the university forwarded me the picture above in jest to show how our picture was in the course catalogue and featured as the face of “African and Middle Eastern Studies.” However, when I saw the photo I didn’t find it humorous but deeply upsetting. My alma mater, a place I called home for five years and received two degrees from, judged my friends and I based on our physical appearance as only being “fit” to represent a study that matched our skin color — they saw three women of color and a supposedly Middle Eastern girl and consciously categorized us.  

According to SMU’s logic, African and Middle Eastern studies are the only disciplines we could have possibly studied, why else use a random picture of black women to exemplify the major? Let me be clear. I’m not upset at SMU for incorrectly identifying our majors; the issue at hand is that they profiled us to be the face of those studies. I am disappointed in the deliberate decision, fueled by implicit biases, to profile women of color to represent African and Middle Eastern disciplines. The issue at hand is what is being insinuated and communicated between the lines. It’s the denial that these implicit biases exist that continues to maintain systematic racism not only at SMU, but also in our educational system and American society in general.

This is not the first time an image of me has been used as promotional material for SMU. I have no issue with them using any image of me, as it is their right given that we signed a waiver as freshmen. My issue lies with the disrespect of my entity as a student and as a black woman. I have a story, and it’s not that of an African and Middle Eastern studies student. I earned a BS and MS in engineering at SMU as one out of four women in a class of 40 undergraduate mechanical engineers. That is the story SMU should be celebrating and promoting.

Do not disrespect my degrees.

Less than 2 months ago I participated it in the #ilooklikeanengineer hashtag with fellow female engineers across the nation to combat stereotypes we face in corporate America. Never did I expect that my alma mater would be the institution that stereotyped me.

SMU could not have been more wrong about me. My parents hail from Ethiopia, and I identify as black. More importantly, the hijab I wear does not make me Middle Eastern. Black American Muslims exist. We have since slavery when an estimated 30 percent of slaves were forcefully kidnapped from Muslim communities.

In response to my tweets demanding a statement, SMU replied, “the photo was mistakenly used on a University web page and is being removed. We apologize for its use and thank you for alerting us.” What the administration fails to realize is that we need to address how this ”mistake” happened in the first place and figure out a way to make sure it never happens again.

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I responded to their tweet with, “@SMU How do you mistakenly profile a group of black women? This was biased and you need to own up to that. Who approved this selection?

SMU replied,  “@nliben We understand your anger and are working to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. We apologize, and we will do better.”

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I want to know how you plan to do better, SMU. Racism, unconscious biases and profiling are absolutely unacceptable.

What steps are you going to implement to strengthen your black community on-campus and off-campus? What steps will be taken to further diversity and awareness? 

You don’t mistakenly harbor stereotypes, you don’t mistakenly act with bias and you certainly don’t mistakenly profile people. Maybe, just maybe, if SMU had a more diverse student body, you wouldn’t have to recycle a 7-year-old photo. More importantly, maybe if we had a diverse student body we could create a more inclusive community where minorities are more than just tokens.

Thanks, SMU. Pony up, I guess.   

Noura Liben is a Swedish Ethiopian living in Jacksonville, Florida. By day, she hustles as an engineer and by night she hosts ‘Empire’ watch parties. She enjoys sci-fi, books, music, AKA, finding new ways to dress up her hijab, traveling and shopping.