My first real foray into real college activism was on Syracuse University’s campus. It started with visiting a few tables at a college activities fair, picking up a few pamphlets and hoping to get acquainted with the Orange culture. I already predicted that my Dominican mother would say that I wasn’t there to start problems, but college activism spoke to me in ways I didn’t know that, in a couple of years, a good hundred of us would be occupying the student center during Homecoming weekend, putting racism in the front and center of the mostly-white parents, students, and other passersby. While they shared stories of the ‘Cuse of yore and contemplated the fortunes of the middling football team, this set of students, while fortunate to get into this institution of higher learning, set its sights of reminding everyone that there was more than one side of this story to tell.
Indeed, the campus had been plagued with racial incidents that rarely got addressed. On the same campus that prided racial, geographical and gender diversity and had three black student association presidents during my time on campus, we could also see rampant blackface before, during, and after Halloween, and only slightly off-campus fraternities terrorize international students who walked within five feet of their houses. The old adage was that many of our white classmates could spend most, if not all, of their formative years not interacting with black people, but the converse wasn’t true for black people. This adage manifested in ways that, if left unspoken, would have made us complicit in our own second-class scholarship.
Thus, we set up meetings, engaged in dialogue, voted people into committees and student government. And when that didn’t work (and when it did), we disrupted homecoming. We barely blinked.
What conservative folks don’t understand about the idea of “safe spaces” isn’t that people of color, specifically black people, have their feelings in a bunch, or that we’ve become tender from too much media consumption. [These critiques never seem to float for folks who were able to afford these technologies first, mind you.] It’s that, from the minute we step on campus, we’re already not afforded equal scholarship in institutions of higher learning. We already know that students of color need to show better grades than their white counterparts upon college acceptance, and that, for every affirmative action complaint, white students have legacy status. If that’s enough, students of color face sneering comments about prestige and class whenever they’re in an honors class, an engineering class, or any class that college culture didn’t already peg as the class for major sport athletes [Rocks for Jocks was a thing].
Students from unheard communities have to work twice as students: once over to handle the coursework and another to combat the immediacy of white supremacy.
That’s why I implicitly support the protesters continuing the legacy of resistance on Syracuse University’s campus, and resisters in Princeton, Mizzou, Yale, and beyond, because I’m almost literally been where they are. The idea of creating culturally competence, not simply diversity training, means we’re assuring everyone feels included in the goal of scholarship. How can you even talk about equity in schools when students already start with an expectation of inequity in their college experiences? White supremacy is such that critics can see these protests as a personal attack, as if rebutting white supremacy is a matter of cursing one specific person rather than understanding the complex nature of the institutions that, no matter how well-meaning, still keep folks of color at arms’ length.
And I’m proud I graduated from Syracuse University. I cherish the moments I had there, and the ways I learned to engage people of vastly different cultures than mine. I even had a little fun here and there between studies. But I also remember looking to my left and right during my freshman year, and doing a similar gesture during graduation, and noticing how many of my brethren of color had left from culture shock.
That’s why, at homecoming, I was so steadfast in reminding Syracuse administration of the dirt under its rugs, and all the folks who never felt welcome to dine.