Your University is Racist. Now What?
Quick note: this applies to non-HBCU schools.
I am sick and tired of the alumni emails I receive from my school. Looking at their tone deaf responses to BLM, Pride and everything else that has happened since the tragic death of George Floyd, I am disappointed and yet nowhere near surprised.
While I had a wonderful experience for the most part, there are moments that I will never forget about how the campus administration made me feel as a student and as a woman of color. I will never forget being forced to sit in class hearing a police officer speak on his experience going viral from a video of him committing police brutality while a professor smiled next to him. I will never forget getting texts from my friends telling me not to walk through Vaughn, that Border Patrol was set up in the main lobby, tabling with open assault weapons, trying to recruit students. Much like other higher ed institutions, these are not safe spaces for students of color. And for Black students primarily, it’s time that our schools change that.
Because as much as I have noticed what UT and other higher education institutions have failed to do for students like me, it is ten times worse for Black students. And in order to hold our schools accountable, we need to listen to the experiences of Black students and then actually do something about it. So I sat down and chatted not just to hear about their experiences, but what can we do to effectively create change.
Evalaurene Jean-Charles, a recent John Jay grad who is the Founder of Black on Black Education, a team working on redefining what quality education looks like in communities lacking those resources, knows the inner workings of public and underfunded universities like no other. Hanifah Griffith is a UCF sociology student that has used her social media platforms to create a safe space for students from the Caribbean and the whole African Diaspora to speak on mental health issues experienced both back at home and on campus. Our chat was a basic therapy session at first; exploring how we felt within the walls of our universities' classrooms.
For Hanifah, a Trinidadian student, it was in classrooms at predominantly white institutions where it wasn’t just that she was physically the only Black student that made her feel uneasy; it was also knowing that the staff and faculty were also perpetuating racism in how they ran classes. In fact, Hanifah shared that it wasn’t until her own Junior year of undergrad at UT that she finally spoke up in class.
“I didn’t want to come into the classroom and say the wrong thing, and then have them think every Black person thinks like me and is like me,” she says when thinking about her experience under the UT sociology department. “I immediately knew what it felt like to be Black in a white space.”
Eva was lucky enough to feel seen by her professors at John Jay, but notes that even then with individual professors doing the work to create safe spaces for students of color, it’s not enough.
At its core, educational institutions were not created to educate people of color, most especially Black people. As Eva shared with me, despite John Jay being an exception to most other institutions and predominantly serving minorities within the greater NYC area, it still is heavily employed and administered by white people. Whether a university is more diverse or not, it does not change that an institution created from a system of benefiting white students and white academia can never be a fully safe space for Black students- you’re just placing these students in potentially racist settings.
Both Eva and Hanifah shared instances of professors not showing up for their students of color, and refusing to make it a priority to improve the quality of education for the few Black students in class. Eva even mentioned the lack of empathy some professors had for their students of color during such a heightened era of political climate.
Hanifah transferred from a private institution to UCF for her grad program, as the public school seemed like a chance to study in a better environment. Despite the UCF sociology program having several Black students in the program, Hanifah once again found herself the lone black girl in a class full of predominantly white male students, prompting her to even seek out help for the uncomfortable feeling we now dub as Imposter Syndrome.
“I emailed one of the professor’s that had written my recommendation letter for the program- I had asked him, what did you see in me for me to be here?” she said.
To say that higher educational institutions need to create better spaces for students of color, especially Black students (from all areas of the diaspora as well), is a gross understatement. And frankly, it’s been long overdue. As Eva had said to a white professor of hers, “If you had cared, if it was in your consciousness, you would’ve taken the steps to work harder for your students of color way before this.”
So, what now?
“We protest,” Eva states in a deadly serious tone,“and we demand more.”
First thing first, revisit that budget.
Take John Jay for example; with Mayor De Blasio’s decision to cut $827 million from the education department, public institutions will no longer have the sufficient funds to keep afloat mental health and counseling services, arts and music programs, basic supplies, technology and more. John Jay, which up until this year so far, offers a pantry for students, free breakfast and lunch vouchers for students, free rentals for professional clothing as well as free laptops to students. These resources and programs may be facing huge budget cuts, putting the predominantly minority students on campus at risk of losing out on the only possible social services they may need.
On the other side of the coin, private institutions like UT may have the occasional work/study programs for students set up, as well as certain centers and buildings for students to go to for assistance with mental health, career services, etc. Yet there are no programs of assistance directly for students of color, or students that are on the impoverished side of the wealth scale at UT. For the few resources available on campus to help students stay out of poverty, hunger, poor mental health, or just overall academic struggling- few of these are very poorly advertised to students. Why is that?
According to Eva, bureaucracies aren’t meant to actually get any work done. By consolidating so much work in the hands of a few employees across multiple offices and departments, it’s easier to pay less for work to get done. What actually gets done is of little importance, because for one job to be completed, it goes through 7 different employees, 7 different checkpoints and at each step of the way, it is someone else’s problem.
Hanifah follows up with a more troubling reflection- that perhaps this is all to discourage students from even using the resources in the first place.
“Deep down, in my soul, I feel as though the reason why they don’t make these resources accessible to us is because they want to perpetuate in some way, this is a white dominant space. They want to bring in African-Americans and other minorities to say hey, we’re not racist and that’s it. That’s where their work ends.”
So, we demand for the institutions budget to change to better fund the many resources and programs necessary to ensure students of color have a better chance of success on campus. How do we ensure the same is done by the actual faculty and staff on campus?
It’s simple. We’re not looking for a committee on diversity and inclusion, but a group dedicated to EQUITY. This needs to be an ongoing body of both administration and students that meets regularly to discuss what is currently working and what needs to be addressed to improve the overall quality of life and education on campus for everyone but most definitely for Black students. Every campus needs its own committee; no two schools are the same or have the same access to resources, so a school knows- or at least should know- what it needs to do directly for its own body of students and staff.
It’s a true test of how dedicated an institution is to its students, because having this group also requires the willingness to regularly confront racist, xenophobic and overall harmful schools of thought, organizations and more that are present on campuses.
“There’s two sides to John Jay- John Jay for us, and John Jay for the,” says Eva. “We never talk about that. We talk about the fact that we are a predominantly minority serving institution, but then invite ICE and Border Patrol to our school for career services. We talk about how we are increasing our retention rate from a whopping 19% to 34%, and how we have a black president now, but we consistently forget that there are two very distinct John Jay’s here, and that the vast majority of our professors are white.”
“We don’t address diversity of thought here and then we have situations where there are students with MAGA hats on one side saying, yes I want ICE to continue so I can get a job, and then we have students saying I feel violated seeing ICE here on my campus. “
It is with the help of this committee that several other changes must be made as well, such as the need for diversifying curriculum and required readings. It is a shame for college students to be force feed the same Eurocentric readings and findings dripping of white privilege and perspectives. Future doctors are being taught to view Black people as incapable of pain; future lawyers are being taught that Black people are inherently guilty in the eyes of the law, and future artists are being taught that blackness is too ugly for their canvases. What a shame that is to ignore so many rich cultures and histories, and to continue teaching a history plagued with convenient lies.
The hiring of more Black educators and administrators is and will always be necessary. It should not just be in these roles of diversity that their voices matter. In the same sense, any nonblack faculty and staff should be held accountable in the hiring process for their knowledge of privilege, racism in the classroom and outside as well. It should not be left for students to tell professors and administration what they need from their school after a tragedy has occurred. Universities need to take a more active role in WHO they are hiring and for what purposes. Questions like the ones below should be used as guiding principles for teacher prep programs:
-Have you talked to them? Do you talk to your students? Have you read James Baldwin? Audre Lord? Langston Hughes?
-Do you have an incoming survey to know who your students are and be able to get to know them from beyond a classroom setting?
-Have you put in your syllabus those first couple of classes that the focus will be on A) what the class will cover B) what the students will need to succeed in class and C) Proper behavior in class, where to go to if there are issues, resources available to them in campus if they need assistance?
-if there is only one Black kid in your class, QUESTION IT. Why does your department not ensure that students of color have the ability to learn in a classroom that represents the real world? What requirements are set that prevents students of color the ability to take the class?
These are just the beginnings of a conversation that is way overdue. Are you tired of your university failing to do more for you as a Black student, or as a nonBlack student of color? Consider these following demands as well:
-Is there a pipeline program for low income communities to help them stay in classes/programs that have low registration for minorities?
-don’t forget who works there: are the employees unionized and paid well? Do they have access to the programs as well? Is there GED program for the workers?
And I know, some of you future educators are thinking, what the hell does race and diversity have to do with my chemistry class? Well, it’s a privilege to think that in your field, you don’t have to tackle racism. It is so deeply involved in everything; even if you teach chemistry, know that you will be teaching black students. And if you’re not, you’re in a space where you are not allowing black students the right to learn.
So, for UT and any other public institutions that will be facing backlash in these next few months for poorly timed emails and pathetic “we’re here for you’ messages; It’s ok, that your response isn’t fully genuine. You chose to do nothing about it before then, when this whole time, your students have been speaking on racism- especially about their experiences on campus.
You have to understand our anger- so start with that. Apologize and make changes; not because you want to, but because at this point your students deserve better.