College campuses are places where microaggressions occur with profound frequency. Overt acts of racism are ignored by those in power who lack the awareness, cultural competency, empathy, and/or desire to stand up against racism on their campuses. Thus, learning environments still remain safe for white people and traumatizing for people of color. At the University of Missouri in mid-September, students openly pushed back against various acts of racism and hate crimes on and off campus. Students staged rallies and protests to demand increased accountability and the resignation of their college president, Timothy Wolfe. The tipping point came when Black football players refused to play until the president resigned. Similar to major wins in the past, the moment Black people make gains toward liberation, white supremacy rears its ugly head more visibly than usual. When this demand was met, the campus erupted with an outpouring of racist threats and violence. Black students were being evacuated from campus and some professors refused to cancel classes or make accommodations to ensure the safety of their Black students.
As seen throughout history, college campuses are often the site for major social justice movements and organizing, and this is another one of those moments. Students at 51 college campuses across the U.S. have submitted formal demands that include: increasing diversity of professors, requiring diversity training, funding cultural centers, requiring diversity classes, tracking race-related offenses, expanding mental health resources, renaming buildings/mascots, retaining more minority students, expanding financial aid, offering an apology, revising speech code, and removing officials. Similar to the counterculture protests on campuses in the ‘60s against racism, poverty, and the Vietnam war, many colleges across the country are staging walk-outs, sit-ins, solidarity rallies, and calling for more than just dialogue, but action to confront and end racism. As Black and non-black students of color organize actions on a larger and more public scale than we’ve seen in decades, many white students have been showing up in solidarity. White students who want to be in solidarity are navigating the complicated role of putting their bodies in useful places while trusting the expertise and lived experience of the organizers of color. White People 4 Racial Justice encourages these students to find support and tools to deal with navigating these spaces effectively at their local chapter of Showing up for Racial Justice (http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/).
While many white people write-off the college activists by dismissing their experiences or saying that they should be “grateful” for the opportunity to be in college, we acknowledge that college campuses were built by slave labor for wealthy white people. Historically, only wealthy white men were allowed to occupy institutions of higher learning, while all others have had to fight for their seat at the table. We still see the harm from this historical racism existing in these institutions today, coupled with sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism; all of which undeniably create conditions for the dominant group to continue to thrive at the expense of all others. While students of color have limited access to these spaces, these institutions continue to benefit white people, and put the burden of multicultural education on students of color and marginalized groups. The history, comfort, and education of white people is prioritized in social-emotional ways, and in measurable institutional ways. One look at the board of trustees for almost all universities tells us that white men remain solidly in control of these institutions. We must work together to make our universities places where Black and non-black people of color receive the institutional support that they deserve to attain an education that honors their history and experiences.
To the white people that may agree with the message but disagree with the tactics, we urge you to think about why it feels uncomfortable. For years, college campuses have responded to racist incidents and tension by calling for more dialogue. While conversation is necessary, we also know that it is safer and more comfortable for white people than putting our bodies on the line for change. It is our belief that increased space for discussion is crucial, but until justice is achieved, dialogue cannot replace action. Sit-ins, hunger strikes, boycotts, and walk-outs have been and continue to be extremely effective change agents on college campuses and beyond. Despite being successful, these tactics often make liberal white people uncomfortable. Remember: it is this kind of strategic organizing that makes room for Black folks. It was this kind of strategic organizing that interrupted Bernie Sanders at a rally to demand a civil rights platform- this demand was successfully met within the following few days. Push back on your desire to avoid conflict and keep things comfortable; it is that sort of thinking that has kept the status quo in place for so long. We want to affirm the importance of lifting up ALL Black voices at the forefront of the fight for justice and to trust the chosen tactics of people fighting for their liberation.
We urge white people to work with other white people to unlearn racism, to invite each other in, and to make an impact in our own white communities. For college students, this means continuing to build a network of white people who will stand in solidarity with the people of color who are leading the movement toward racial justice on their campuses. It means setting intentional community guidelines of engagement for how we, as white people who are mindful of our power in society, will choose to show up for racial justice. It means having difficult conversations with other white people about race and racism, and it means being honest with ourselves about how to move through the world in a way that recognizes our privilege and the ways our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors can cause harm. We must fully commit ourselves to a lifetime of self-education and the development of an anti-racist practice. To the college students of color who are showing up boldly for racial justice: we see your struggle and its connection to the eradication of white supremacy throughout society as a whole. Your actions set an example for all of us, and remind us of our responsibility to live solidarity as a verb.
White People 4 Racial Justice (WP4RJ) is a white anti-racist collective and activist project of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (AWARE-LA) and operates within a national network of white anti-racists called Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). WP4RJ is rooted in acting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles.
Additional support for white people taking action for Black Lives Matter can be found at http://www.chalicepress.com/Towards-the-Other-America-EPDF-P1632.aspx