October 12, 2017
“America will make you and break you my child. Be vigilant, and walk good,” exclaimed my mother during a phone conversation. Immediately, she reminded me how the fault lines of race, gender, ethnicity, and citizenship status have shaped the Jamaican immigrant routes that formed our entrance into American society. We spoke about the series of racialized violence happening on college campuses. Her words clung like honey to the thick of my black skin, reminding me of the ever-present tensions of being a student while being both black and immigrant, and the challenges and possibilities that often evolve.
Her voice lingered in my mind as I prepared for teaching yet another section of my class on race, gender, and sexuality in American Culture. The morning sun shined brightly on my face as I welcomed another fall in Ann Arbor. As the brisk, cool air filled my lungs, a flood of thoughts pounds the walls of my mind: It is late September, a somber 10:30am, week three of school, a day after a White man violently attacked a Black U-M student protester near the president’s home, one week after several hurricanes raged through the Caribbean, two weeks after the posting of “Free Dylann Roof” and “I hate n****” on a building, three weeks after President Trump rescinds the crucial immigration policy, DACA, over a month after the attacks in Charlottesville.
Welcome back. Classes are in session.
This is year four of my doctorate and the final semester of teaching. Like many of you, I spend most of my days writing against time, burying my head in a book, and gluing my eyes to articles and my ears to the exciting work in my fields of study. With every new revision, I plunge deeper into the isolationist enterprise of graduate school within the four walls that surround my nomadic existence. Carefully, we jump milestone hoops that eventually end with the ultimate slamdunk: a PhinisheD dissertation (and a job offer?)! #Freedom
But this morning felt different.
It was the day after a student protest where approximately 150 U-M students organized against racist violence on campus and for the need for more transparency and accountability in U-M’s institutional response. As noted by an eyewitness account, this evening saw a beautiful display of student leadership and organized resistance before the violent attack of a White male bystander against a Black U-M student protestor. This violence is part of increasing attacks against immigrants and students of color on college campuses nationally. A Michigan Daily article (September 20, 2017) contextualizes the recent racial attacks:
“On Sept. 17, three Black student’s name tags were defaced with racial slurs in West Quad Residence Hall... The same day, Ann Arbor community members discovered racial slurs on a building on Liberty and State streets reading ‘Free Dylann Roof’ and ‘I hate n------.’ Earlier this year, students discovered anti-Latino and pro-Trump graffiti on the Rock, a University landmark. In February, Engineering students received anti-Black and anti-Semitic emails—later discovered to be spoofed—from a University professor’s account hailing “the return of the KKK” and Nazis. And this month a year ago, racist flyers propagating white supremacist messages claiming proof for ‘racial differences in intelligence’ littered posting walls around campus.”
These realities emphasize the anxieties regarding race that have solidified in our current hostile political landscape. Importantly, they raise three critical questions: 1) What happens when fears of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are expressed in violent attacks against students?, 2) What will students, administrators, and university leaders do about racialized violence and the organized resistance to it?, and 3) At what point will we meaningfully act?
I remember my mother’s words.
As these violent attacks have unfolded in our living and learning spaces, I often reflect on what it means to be a student while black and immigrant. To be framed by public discourse as both criminal and undeserving. To publicly and consistently embody difference while somehow resting in the periphery of many narrow conversations of diversity, equity, and inclusion. To swallow the bitter taste of imposed racialized normativity, and the systematic ways it includes and excludes me in the American scheme of belonging. To engage the deep tensions laced in my positionality as a person of color, immigrant, first-generation graduate student; researcher of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship; and as a public intellectual invested in social justice.
One learns, as I have, to hop, trample, and explode the lines of difference and silence that aim to write you out of existence.
To embody this while navigating predominately white, elite spaces means almost always anticipating the hesitance to honestly and directly confront my body and the racialized violence directed towards it. This is to say, what do we make of the silences surrounding the violent attack against Black students in particular? Does my adherence to traditional measures of academic success and productivity make me an honorable immigrant worthy of basic rights and protection? Which bodies and lives are legible to and worthy of recognition by social justice agendas and academic institutions? How long should those of us with intersectional identities be subjected to systematic erasures?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know that any response to them must be shaped by deep introspection followed by informed action and careful follow up. I know that the time for institutional transformation that embraces more intersectional approaches is here. That all institutional leaders in an age of transparency must act more quickly and aggressively. That we all have a role to play in creating futures worth imagining. That the fears of change linger over the thick of this skin. So Black. So immigrant. So everything we have been waiting for.
To address some of the challenges and possibilities I have outlined in this post, several graduate students and I have organized spaces and initiatives. I would like to highlight two:
- 4 Real Talk: A novel intervention in the DEI landscape locally and nationally that is funded by the Rackham Dean’s Strategic Initiative, “4Real Talk: Building Community Among Women of Color Graduate Students” is an initiative that explores the intersectional challenges women of color students face while navigating graduate school. It aims to convene women of color graduate students from various disciplines for two primary purposes: a) actively cultivate cross-disciplinary and intergenerational communities of support and b) develop instrumental material that offers additional tools to help them thrive in professional and academic spaces. To join, please read the Call for Participants and fill out this form as soon as possible.
- SCOR: Throughout the semester, Students of Color of Rackham (SCOR) will be hosting events to engage discussions and action around meaningful diversity, equity, and inclusion. Please stay informed via SCOR’s bi-weekly newsletter - email SCORcommunications@gmail.com or visit the SCOR website to subscribe.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Rackham Graduate School or the University of Michigan.