“A sea of whiteness”: Seeing through the eyes of black students

Black Lives Matter
Kirk Smith/THE REVIEW
A look back on a year since the Katie Pavlich protests and alleged noose scare, and how those events still shape the hearts and minds of the university’s black students.

BY
ASSOCIATE NEWS EDITOR

Junior Malik Cupitt was walking back to his dorm on the eve of the first football game this fall. He found himself behind a group of students that were returning back to campus from the game. Cupitt remembers them acting rowdy and rambunctious, singing a rap song he couldn’t quite make out. A familiar occurrence, he said.

Then, from the middle of the crowd, Cupitt heard a voice:

“Man, it’s really cool that there are only like six black kids on this entire campus.”

One voice from the crowd – enough to drive home a sentiment Cupitt and members of the black community have felt since Katie Pavlich’s talk last year, the alleged noose scare and far before those events even transpired.

“It wasn’t even that statement itself that bothered me,” Cupitt said. “It was the underlying feelings behind that statement. They assumed then and there that hip-hop music is exclusively for blacks, made by blacks, and because of that, other groups of people singing hip-hop music is suddenly offensive to black people. And then on top of that, they felt okay with offending black people.”

It has been over a year since the forum in response to the alleged noose scare took place on the steps of Memorial Hall. Cupitt and president of the university’s NAACP chapter Garry Johnson were there, among the hundreds of students, intently listening to the stories of discrimination and prejudice. What stood out were stories of a school that wasn’t fully inclusive of the black student’s voice, the two said.

Even though the events – and the subsequent whirlwind of emotions – are a year removed, both Johnson and Cupitt clearly remember the emotion teeming from that event.

“A lot of black students really felt threatened,” Johnson said. “A lot of kids did not want to go to class the next day, and the people that did go were afraid to talk to the people next to them. I could relate because I was one of those people.”

It was their friends and classmates they saw walk up on the stage, explaining to the crowd what it means to be black on this campus. The narrative heard was one of ostracization, with many students feeling as though being black meant isolation from the rest of campus life.

But with Carol Henderson, the vice provost for diversity, announcing a diversity action plan at the rally last year, Cupitt and Johnson said they felt their grievances were heard. Discussions with many in administration about seeing inclusivity and a better understanding of the black community materialized. Former Acting-President Nancy Targett and her staff held roundtables, and discussions included a wider representation of diversity in the Perkins Live and Trabant Now events as well.

However, continuations of these talks have become stagnant, Cupitt said. The transition from Targett’s administration to Dennis Assanis is one of the reasons for the holdup, and the two hope that talks will continue shortly after the president becomes acclimated.

As president of the NAACP chapter on campus, Johnson too is part of the movement to talk about race more openly and inclusively. His group strives to improve the quality of life for all racial minorities at the university.

The chapter will be hosting talks about racial identity and what it means to be of a certain minority group during the fall semester. This kind of conversation, Johnson said, is the crux of why the gap between white students and minority exists on this campus. It is through these forums that Johnson hopes to convey what it means to be a student of color.

“For me, it’s a privilege and honor to be here,” he said. “We had to fight to be here. There were times where we would be spit on for thinking about going to college or reading a book.”

Looking back on the events of last year, senior Branham Menard remembers seeing the picture of the noose on his phone from a friend and not being able to pinpoint his feelings. The rest of the day was spent alone in his room, unable to express the gravity of the situation, he said.

But Menard received overwhelming support from his friends, regardless of color.

“Some of my good friends who aren’t black or brown were actually the first ones to reach out to me,” he said. “But I couldn’t sleep that night.”

When speaking about what it means to be black, and more generally a minority, on this campus, Menard can’t speak for everyone. There are common metaphors, he said, that help sum up the way many students of color feel on this campus.

“A fly in milk” or “walking through a sea of whiteness”: No matter the structure of the metaphor, Menard said that for minority students, it’s the overbearing nature of white culture that can evoke the feeling of being separated from campus life.

“Me being a senior, honestly, you become numb to it,” he said. “It definitely has been a struggle from freshman year until now, being comfortable with my identity and who I am. Who I am today definitely took a lot of falling and taking strides to be this person.”

The four year search for a firm sense of self has not been tackled alone, Menard said. Many resources, including the Center for Black Culture (CBC), the Multicultural Greek Congress (MGC), the Cultural Programming Advisory Board (CPAB) and being a Resident Assistant (RA) have been crucial for Menard in setting up a support system.

These pockets, Menard said, have provided him with numerous conversations with people of color and white students, where they talk about the larger racial issues of the university.

And in light of conservative blogger Milo Yiannopoulos coming to campus in late October, Menard remains wary of what is to come of it. He too was there during the forum, the Black Lives Matter protest and remembers how he and his classmates felt. This speaker, in Menard’s words, doesn’t promote the kind of conversations the campus should have.

But if the past year indicates anything, strides towards a better understanding of race are happening.

“On an individual level, I do see hints of people making strides and understanding more,” he said. “Even in the different departments I’m involved in, I’ve seen baby steps. Small, small baby steps.”

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