I am a SJ advocate, an ally for change. I am all too familiar with the rampant institutionalized racism on college campuses. I am a person of color and I can pass. I need to acknowledge that before I delve in because that impacts my view of the subject matter and my privileges.
Jonathan Butler is a graduate student studying a field not dissimilar to the one Tolu and I just finished. He is a young man I had never heard of until late last week. When I learned his name, Mr. Butler was 4 days into a hunger strike in protest of the racism occurring on the campuses of the University of Missouri system. Some immediate thoughts that came to mind:
- Why have I not heard anything about these occurrences?
- And two milliseconds later: because these sorts of things happen EVERY DAY on campuses so why would those at Missou make the news. Duh.
- IT IS ENTIRELY POSSIBLE MR. BUTLER COULD DIE FIGHTING FOR THIS CAUSE!!!
- Is it worth dying for?!!
- Yes, I think it’s a worthy cause.
- Would I be willing to die though?
- I don’t think so.
And there it is. There is my privilege. If I wanted to, I could close my ears and pretend I didn’t hear the things people say regularly about people of color because in some circles, people cannot detect the browness of my spirit. I’ve learned the limits of my own activism. This young Black man and many others already feel like they are dying. Dying to the point that actual physical death is an acceptable alternative to dealing with a system riddled by racism.
And then worry settled in. If there is anything I have learned in the recent history of this country, it is that Black lives don’t matter in our society. We will just as easily stand idly by while a system fails folks of color and allows them to die at the hands of law enforcement. And those deaths are brutal. A slow death by hunger strike? No way that would make headlines.
And then something magical happened. The men of color on the Mizzou football team vowed to not participate in any football-related activities until the president stepped down (the same demand needed to end Mr. Butler’s hunger strike). The twitter-verse started in on these young athletes almost immediately. Some thought the school would just revoke any scholarships these students receive. What we fail to realize is the large voice athletes, and those of color in particular have. Men of color so often populate the sports teams we cheer for on a weekly basis and yet the idea that they are human, have views and opinions of the world and aren’t just “they owe us for watching them” comes as a surprise to so many. And yet, this is not a new idea.
It was almost impossible to wrap my brain around the fact that all of these men came together at once. When I was in college, I had my own issues with race at my PWI. One of those issues was my own internalized oppression. And because of that, I didn’t have it in me to make waves. Again, maybe that was my privilege to try and fade into the background. Or maybe the conversation around race today is so in our face (in a good way) that it is easier for young people to take a stand. Either way, the main point is WOW!
And then the White coaches backed up their players.
And then the faculty called for a walk-out. A faculty-walk out?!? To support students of color?? DID I HEAR THAT RIGHT?!?! If only students felt this kind of support all the time. And if you do/did, congrats, you’re a lucky one.
And then Tim Wolfe resigned. And I cried, and I cried. I cried because of the fragility of life and the disregard we seem to have for Black ones. Because someone’s life would be saved. Because we live in a world where a student’s life LITERALLY HAS TO BE ON THE LINE for people to take notice. I cried because young Black men, who we look at as a commodity, used their position and power to help the cause of another young man with less economic power, and helped themselves and their fellow students of color in the process. I cried because of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
Mr. Wolfe’s resignation is only the beginning. There is a lot of work that lies ahead of the University of Missouri system before they can call themselves an inclusive environment. For this fleeting moment, let’s be happy a step has been taken in that direction.