It has been five months since Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson. Then a N.Y. jury chose not to indict the officer who choked Eric Garner to death. On Dec. 4, Rumain Brisbon, an unarmed black man was shot in Phoenix, Arizona. Every day it seems like I am confronted with news that another black person has died. Everywhere I turn, I see images of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, Los Angeles; the image of Edward Crawford throwing a tear gas canister back towards policemen is ingrained in my mind. Social media has become a battleground for extreme opinions, and racial slurs have been thrown around thanks to the security and anonymity provided by the internet. White and black friends began posting articles and opinions about who was right, and you had to pick one side.
Then school started and no one mentioned Ferguson. Not a single teacher brought it up in class. In the little bubble of my predominantly white, private liberal arts college, Michael Brown just disappeared. What did not disappear was the pain, the alienation I felt, when friends referred to black Ferguson protestors as, “those people,” while stating that, “I was not like those people.” What this friend thought was a compliment, distinguishing me from what they believed to be “bad black people” made me sick to my stomach. This continues to be a distinction that has only gotten worse, as more and more black people begin to protest in America.
Being black is uncomfortable, but being a black student at a predominantly white school requires another layer of armor. In most classes I am the only black person, and in most cases the only person of color. I am the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, and if they do it usually accomplishes nothing. When I try to discuss it with my peers, I am accused of being racist and sexist for making the comment that white privilege does exist. Other classmates pretend that racism does not exist, because we have a black president and live in a post-racial society. Talking about race is uncomfortable, but we cannot continue to ignore it.
Liberal arts colleges have not talked about it enough, and the ramifications of silence are numerous. Black Student Unions who have held die-ins or 4.5 minute protests are met with contempt and threats. Black students are accused of making everything “a race issue” and condemned for using their First Amendment rights to explain how they feel. For black students, it appears that it is okay for white students to protest their school team’s loss, but not okay for black students to express their anger and fear that they might be the next black person to die. As a black woman, I sometimes feel like there is a target on my back; from white men who have never “had” a black woman, to white students who felt uncomfortable during my school’s protest and are now seeking to retaliate. A liberal arts education is meant to push your boundaries, force you to experience new people and ideas in a safe and nurturing environment. But when I have to go to school the day after reading messages like this:
When I read this, all I could do was cry. I felt so much hate and alienation. What is worse is that I am scared to go to school; to wonder if the person talking to me is the same one joking about lynchings. Being a black student at a predominantly white university means that occasionally, I do speak up to explain what is going on in my community and respond to criticism from students who have no frame of reference when they decide to discuss the black community. I understand why my professors ask me about African-American issues; because usually there is no one else to answer their questions. But when other students make jokes about lynchings and slave auctions, I have no desire to put myself in the line of fire, especially when the response is disinterest and snide comments. Yes, I made the conscious decision to attend a predominantly white school; and I know that not everyone at my school feels the same as the cowards on social media. But the fact that anyone thinks it is acceptable to joke about the experiences of African Americans from slavery to lynchings is disgusting. No human deserves to be treated as less, to be made fun for the things they cannot change.