Reflecting on racism at UPenn: A call to action from the frontlines
Get ready, there is much to do
Photo: Thomas Hawk via Flickr
As you might have heard, an interesting thing happened on November 8, 2016. America elected a businessman/reality TV star with no political experience to lead the nation. While we could dwell upon all of the layers and possible explanations for this outcome (gender, failure to speak to the working poor, trust issues, mobilization of white nationalists, outsiders vs. insiders, conspiracy, the list goes on), there have already been enough think pieces, and we can all tune into America’s newest reality show, "The Donald Goes to D.C.", to watch things unrav… I mean unfold (I actually mean crash and burn). What I want to speak to you about now is something that hit much closer to home for me, and perhaps reached your radars as well via the national news attention it received.
On November 11, three students entered my office at Penn, clearly in distress, and shared with me images and words from a GroupMe group that some of Penn’s black freshmen had been added to. I immediately walked with the three students to the Vice Provost of University Life Office, where we pulled a staff member away from her lunch to explain what had been discovered. Over the rest of the day, dozens of other students gathered in the Vice Provost’s conference room, in the heart of campus, and fought through tears and grief, wondering why someone would think to subject them or their peers or anyone to a daily lynching event, as had been laid out in the GroupMe, among other vile things. Student leaders mobilized a town hall that evening to begin the community healing process. Over the past week, the university released several statements, denouncing the incident in the strongest terms while keeping everyone updated on the investigation. Students have continued to organize, demonstrate, and make their voices heard. Groups have met. Counselors and student affairs staff have put in extended hours. Faculty have published statements and organized a march of more than 800 people. Alumni have hosted events, raised funds, volunteered to mentor, and shown full support on social media and through cards and gifts sent to our office. Students are still hurt, cut deeply by the heartlessness of this act. But by and large, we have weathered this storm.
In the end, it was determined that students in Oklahoma were responsible for this. Although it’s easy to wipe our collective brow at Penn and say, “at least it wasn’t one of ours,” we all know that this would be too convenient and irresponsible in the bigger picture. Racism is alive and well at Penn, within our student body and campus climate, just as it is at every other college and university. Microaggressions, unconscious bias, and racial insensitivities have been the contemporary norm. Now, in the pending post-Obama era where white people evoke the name “Trump” as a form of intimidation and people of color avoiding saying the name as a means of self-preservation, we will have to grapple with race in ways that many people are likely not prepared to do. This leads me to three brief points that I would like to share.
The first — safety pins. Supportive white people, I get it. I really do. You want to let your peers know that you’re not one of the hateful white people who feel secure in speaking more freely about their support of Trump’s America now that he actually won. And black people, I also get it. You want supportive white people to take their safety pins and seal a racist’s mouth shut. You are also tired of having to coach white folks, having to re-explain your pain, having to do all of the heavy lifting with no guarantee that your “ally” will take up the cause, particularly when you’re not around. There’s no easy fix here.
I’ve said on my Facebook page that allies will have to actively promote antiracism, but I also realize that there are tons of people who want to be on the right (the actual right, as in correct, not the political right) side of this who don’t really know what antiracism is. Or racism. They’ve been living in their post-racial bubble, hoping for the best and avoiding the worst. For them, this wasn’t privilege. It was life (and yes, it was also privilege, but their privilege enabled them to never see it as a privilege).
They now know that something is terribly wrong but they legitimately don’t know what to do about it. We can say, “where the eff have you been” or can tell them to kick rocks or go figure it out on their own and come back to talk to us later. Those are valid responses. But I want to push us to think about how, particularly in spaces like Penn, we can create and build upon tangible ways to nurture stronger cross-cultural coalitions that are engaged in creating change.
In fact, all marginalized communities, all people who believe in the promise of America, need to mobilize and continue the work against poverty, the prison industrial complex, the militarization of police, educational inequity, gender discrimination and women’s rights, homophobia/queerphobia/transphobia, climate change, the uncertainties for undocumented families, voter suppression, corporate tyranny, food insecurity, addiction and mental wellness neglect, racism, and more. We all have to study and understand the common threads in these struggles. We need to strategically align and push every needle forward.
Again, none of this is easy or instantaneous. But we must be willing to do the work and do it collectively. Understandably, there will be some people who are too tired and frustrated to talk about race right now and some people who still won’t quite see the need to get involved. But there will always be more than enough people somewhere in the middle who can keep the conversations at the forefront, who will be able to talk to friends, who will boldly confront racism (and other isms) in the board rooms and family dinner tables they are a part of, and who will be allies in action and not just theory. Build on those relationships, share with each other, and continue the push.
Next, we need to get our own houses in formation. By this, I mean that we have no more time for pettiness. We can’t be petty with ourselves, procrastinating, selling ourselves short, doing last minute, subpar work. We can’t be petty with our student groups, making meetings unnecessarily complicated and long, letting egos dictate weak outcomes and heavy tensions, and hosting events just to pat ourselves on the back. We can’t be petty with our relationships, allowing trivial things from freshmen year dictate our inability to engage each other. We can’t be petty in the classroom, failing to push ourselves, to use resources, to get the kinds of grades and produce the kind of work that we absolutely know we can do. This thing was never about just you, to begin with, but the shoulders you stood upon and the legacy that you would be building for the generations to come. Things just got that much more real. We need your best you to be a part of the change that we must build.
This leads to my final point. If you felt disillusioned throughout the campaign cycle, if you were sort of with her, if you were grieving on November 9, and if your stomach turns at each new Trump cabinet posting, then know that this is your call to action. The real work of fulfilling the American dream must be taken up by the very people who are the dream, who built the country, and who put humanity before empire. Obama's hope wasn't about him. It was about us. We mobilized and made that moment happen eight years ago. We will now have to mobilize again and push against forces that quite literally want to undo America. What happened at Penn on November 11 was not an isolated incident, and it was no coincidence that this occurred shortly after the election of Donald Trump. If you know anything about the history of this country, and if you are willing to be brutally honest, you understand that racism maintained a system of bondage and terrorism for four centuries, and is a cornerstone of our modern reality. We easily have the capacity to allow racism to win, and suppress more lives more overtly than what Ava DuVernay shows us in 13th, Michelle Alexander has written extensively about, and our education/wealth/health gaps remind us time and time again. We can't let November 11 become our new normal. We can't lose to misguided hate and inhumane values. I am hopeful that we will rise. But it will require more than hope. It will take collective commitment and action from all of us.
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