Lalu John: “Why we say black lives matter”

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Allison Hageman/THE REVIEW
Lalu John speaks on his experiences with racism and how his years at the university have shaped him.

BY MARGARET MCNAMARA
ASSOCIATE NEWS EDITOR

Three weeks ago, Lalu John was sitting on a porch with three of his white friends. Somebody walking by cracked a racial joke about only seeing three people in the dark, thus rendering him, the fourth member, invisible.

“There’s better ways to acknowledge the color of my skin,” John said. “I told him that upfront and he laughed it off.”

Exclusion is not new to him. He recounted his freshman year when he would walk home by himself after parties or not get the invite to go out with his floor.

John, a senior economics major, remembers an adviser telling him he would never be proficient in any quantitative study and that he should pursue something else after he expressed an interest in studying computer science.

Despite his eligibility for regular math courses, the adviser shut him down, telling him that he would not be “fit for that” and “should start thinking realistically” because his test scores were low. Meanwhile, it was the same summer his parents divorced, and he said his family “basically got kicked out of their home.” He didn’t have Wi-Fi and took his placement test on his cell phone, he said.

John said it was presented to him as if his abilities and choices were limited. He said he’ll never know for sure if his lack of academic support was because he was black, but when he talked to other students they told a different narrative.

“Of course I got a bad grade, I took an exam on a cell phone,” John said. “I tried to explain that to them, but nobody would really listen.”

John said the passerby came back later that night and apologized. They talked through it. He said he recognizes that racism is not always intended—most of this comes from ignorance.

“People act on what they understand at the superficial level,” John said. “I can’t blame them for any ignorance that might exist. We all have our own underlying biases.”

He removed himself from his freshman year experiences and regained a sense of community after joining the Center for Black Culture (CBC).

“I’m very much an individual,” John said. “I didn’t see the value of surrounding myself with people, and I guess my freshman year experience sort of jaded me from that.”

He said the CBC made him feel welcome and showed him the value of an organization that fostered individuality and inclusion. He said since black students are such a small minority at the university—about five percent—inclusion comes pretty organically with other members.

John was born in Nigeria to a low-income family and getting to America didn’t seem feasible for his family. His mom was a hairdresser and his dad was a medical assistant.

He moved to the United States when he was five, when it was suddenly urgent because his mother was pregnant with his brother, who has Down syndrome. The medical provisions in Nigeria wouldn’t have been enough to sustain his life. Fortunately, the timing worked out. His grandmother had remarried and got a visa, which enabled his father to get his and bring his family to the United States.

John said the last two years of his college career have been about shaping his identity and learning about himself and his history as a Nigerian and as a black male. He said this year and last year have been about using all of his diverse experiences to advocate on behalf of minorities at the university.

“The University of Delaware, at this current moment, is not a place for students of color to feel welcome and included on campus,” John said.

He’s a member of the Black Cabinet, a group he and his friends assembled to advocate on behalf of the black community. They organized the Black Lives Matter rally earlier this year. John said he feels responsible for making sure this conversation doesn’t die off.

“We all just went out on a limb and hoped that people would convey the message of the issue accurately without, you know, any uncivil conduct or hate,” he said.

Going into the rally he was fearful of potential backlash or conflict. He said prior to the event he had received messages from students who opposed the movement. He said they asked things like, “Why are you attacking white people?” John defused the misconception that it was an attack and explained that it was opportunity for growth and peace.

John said there were comments on social media that said things like “lantern lives matter,” which undermined the movement, insulted people’s intelligence and failed to acknowledge the emotions another human being was experiencing.

“That’s why we say black lives matter,” John said. “If you cannot sympathize with somebody that is feeling legitimate fear or pain—they can’t go to sleep, can’t finish their homework—because they think that someone on campus is threatening their life, then you obviously don’t care subconsciously about black lives and you’re not taking into account the humanity of that person.”

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