~Jessica King, Staff Writer~
When do we speak up against injustice? This was the topic of a CNU Brown Bag event, a small discussion group I attended pre-pandemic, which is open to all students. Their main mission: to allow a safe space for students, professors, and alumni to speak openly about issues concerning the CNU community. The event began in a formal fashion, with the question “What is injustice?” posed to us, much like the beginning of a normal day in class. The conversation quickly shifted to campus life and the student experience. Slowly and hesitantly, a Black student began to recount an experience of feeling left out of the community because of the color of her skin. Another student began by expressing her confusion and hurt about how the CNU community has a rhetoric of fear about the surrounding community, and how we are often warned to “not go down to the numbered streets” (areas that happen to be primarily Black). Another student chimed in, who spoke about how the friends she had started college with had left CNU due to feeling out of place, unaccepted, and in some cases, discriminated against because of their race.
Many people in the room shifted in their seats, some nodded their heads, and others stared down at the floor. There is an atmosphere of discomfort, pain, ignorance, and defeat all in one. A professor spoke up and said something I had always felt but could never quite define. “There is a culture of fear to speak about race on this campus”. Many professors nodded and chimed in. One said, “We see this going on… students come to us with incidents… we want to speak up for them, but if you don’t have tenure… we could lose our job”. I gazed at the seriousness of their statement, and suddenly professors seemed more human than before. Then they said something that would stick with me and howl through my mind daily “Many of you don’t know it, but students have much more power than we professors do.” The people that teach us all that we know, assign us our grades, and basically determine our future have less power than we do? They said it’s because the university can’t fire us as students… I began to feel like Katniss in The Hunger Games. Who holds the true power?
My mind struggled to take in all the information. There are Black students at CNU who are dropping out or transferring, suffering with the feeling of being unwelcome or out of place, and are dealing with racial microaggressions daily due to their race. On top of this, our professors are in fear of their jobs because they want to stand up for their students, but also do not feel they are allowed to speak on this subject. I suddenly realized my shock is a product of my white privilege, and that it is this same white privilege held by a majority of CNU students that allows this cycle to continue without great deal of notice.
The discussion became more emotional and heated as time went on, people on the edge of their seats just trying to get a word in. And suddenly, our time was up. An hour. People grabbed their backpacks and rushed out of the room. I found myself stuck to my seat, my face red from emotion. That’s
it? Now we go back to class, walk back to our dorms, do our homework and fall asleep? I had a thousand questions. I felt confused and disgusted at everything, including my own ignorance and lack of consideration for my fellow Black students and their experiences at our predominantly white institution. I stuck around to join a small group of professors and alumni talking, in desperation to continue to discover and engage in the truth. I’m not ready to pretend what I heard was acceptable on any level. The small group recounted stories of blatant racial discrimination both towards themselves and others they knew, both within classrooms, and on campus, as if it was a well-worn fact of life.
Since that day, I see things differently here. How can I feel the same about my university when I am aware that many of my fellow peers are experiencing extreme emotional distress and often even drop out or transfer due to feeling unwelcome in our community because of their skin color? How can I feel right knowing our professors are scared to speak up against known discrimination? How can I do nothing when I am told I wield the most power?
When do we speak up against injustice?
The answer is when you know something is wrong.
The other day I walked past that room, where we felt safe to speak the truth, and I wondered why isn’t our campus a safe space to express our truths? Why don’t we make this university a legitimate and campus-wide safe place to speak our minds on hard issues? Why do we facilitate silence? Silence not only in the literal sense, but also in the silence of the voices of the many Black students who are no longer here because they did not feel comfortable enough to stay, learn, and grow as students.
This is not their fault; it is a failure on the part of our student community and the university. The university cannot, in good faith, profess to value inclusivity and diversity unless we make great strides to end discrimination when we see it or feel it, and students and faculty feel safe to discuss it. Some may argue that all predominantly white institutions have these issues, but if we are truly the game-changing school we say we are, one that values leadership, then why aren’t we the leaders on this? We cannot truly profess to value inclusivity and diversity until EVERYONE feels legitimately and equally seen and heard. It is not a matter of if the university is promoting this atmosphere unintentionally or not. The impact however does matter, because these things are happening now, and it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and to use our own privilege by having these hard conversations. The way to change this culture of silence is with one voice speaking up and it is our responsibility as fellow Captains to change this culture of fear. WE have the power to do this. Until the silence is broken, there is no justice at this university.