James Baldwin wrote: “We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.” His words are indicative and reinforce the assertion that there is power in knowing the truth and subsequently speaking it to power. A student writes a racial slur on a whiteboard at USC, Sigma Alpha Epsilon engages in a racist chant, and Martese Johnson, a Black student at UVA sustained injuries while being arrested by Alcohol Beverage Control officers. Reginald A. Wilburn, an associate professor of English, teaches his students that “where there’s a pattern, there is meaning.” What these events demonstrate is that incidents of anti-black sentiments are not isolated.
Overt and covert forms of racism, discrimination, and micro-aggressions are very much a part of everyday life for students of color. And it is about time that institutions of higher education acknowledge it. The reasons why are because the current times demand it, our future requires it, and the next generation deserves it— to live in a better world that is. What we are wrestling with in racism cannot and should not be reduced to individual actors, contrary to belief, but rather a deeply embedded cultural set of norms: both systemic and institutionalized. Every passing incident of injustice on our campuses contributes to the erosion of the pillars inherent in the mission of higher education.
Many agree as I do with the manner in which the presidents of South Carolina and Oklahoma respectively handled these incidents: with swift justice. Some consider these outcomes a win, and while that may be true, the fight for the dignity of people of color is far from over. Even as we applaud the responses of these institutions, let us not forget that it took privileged individuals with a lot of power and influence to ensure that appropriate sanctions were rendered. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the voices of those most affected by these acts played a significant role in the institution’s actions and thus speaks to why it’s critical that those often unseen find ways to make themselves heard.
Trayvon Martin’s death re-ignited the national conversation on race relations and exposed many to the harsh realities of what it’s like to be Black in America. The circumstances surrounding Johnson’s arrest by the ABC officers proves that even being a “respectable” Black student will not shield you from that truth. Furthermore, it is peculiar when institutions issue public statements affirming their support of the LGBTQ community in response to laws such as the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act but are noticeably silent when it comes time to acknowledge the humanity of black lives as if it is assumed universally that we already do.
This is why students, faculty, and community members alike are engaged in acts of resistance (protest). Now this idea of resisting is nuanced depending on its lens. Ask Officer Daniel Pantaleo and it looks identical to like what Eric Gardener did on the day he took his last breath. Prompt demonstrators and you’ll find that it’s a political act—a refusal to be silenced because as Audre Lorde voiced, “your silence will not protect you.” For them, it’s about rejecting those at society’s center who feel the need to render them invisible and voiceless. Invoking the spirit of Frederick Douglass, activists are amplifying their voices on campus and in their communities with the understanding of the importance for all students to feel valued by their institutions. It is also imperative that institutions not self-select their positions of advocacy when it comes to their student bodies.
Nothing we do can erase the impact of the ink spilled on that whiteboard; take back those hurtful words chanted on that bus; or remove the blood stained on that pavement only a few feet away from the university where Martese attends class. What we can do today is commit to being the equalizers – those agents of change who will level the playing field across disciplines, industries, and throughout society. Everything that we do within our work as professionals in higher education is and should be done with intention – with purpose. All of us regardless of our identity make-up have this obligation. To answer a colleague who posed the question of “what do you do when you feel as if your best isn’t good enough?” My response to that is: you keep on pushing, pressing toward the mark— a destination that was never expected to be easily reached but well worth it when achieved. Still, that will only come if we acknowledge first that these incidents are prevalent and point to a national crisis worthy of our attention. Only then can the next steps be taken towards reconciliation and healing. Yes, the burden to bear may be great, but the consequences of inaction are far greater.