November 13, 2015
Another season, another movement.
This time, college campuses are being taken to task.
Student-led protests at universities and colleges across the country calling for equality and respect for black students became a trending topic this week. #BlackOnCampus trended on social media worldwide and revealed the traumatizing experiences that black students face on college campuses in America.
Many spoke of the subtle microaggressions, the racial slurs and offensive themed parties they have endured. Some questioned their campus administration’s integrity and humanity for students of a darker hue. As a recent undergraduate alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, many of their disappointing experiences mirrored my own.
But when I saw the responses to these individuals’ tweets, I became enraged. White naysayers online were quick to deny people of their experiences with remarks like “not all white people are racists” and “why is race always brought up against white people?”
Despite the discouragement of their tone-deaf remarks, I decided to “tweet up” about institutions rather than people to back my black peers’ dissent.
I wrote the following tweet and it went viral:
Being #BlackOnCampus means you're beloved in brochures & "diversity" campaigns, but isolated & disregarded in campus access & equity.— Ernest Owens (@MrErnestOwens) November 12, 2015
That was how being #BlackOnCampus felt like at Penn many times. Sure, I enjoyed the sometimes-notable attention I received for being one of the few black students on campus. But I soon realized that the free food fairs and over-flattery were overcompensation for the lack of proper resources such predominately white institutions often have for my placement. There are better resources and accommodations for wealthy Jewish students at Penn than there are for numerous students of color.
Penn has a faculty ridiculously lacking diversity and those who are hired have to wear multiple hats in order to empower students of color. A black faculty member isn’t just a staff member of the university – he/she is a counselor, mentor, public servant, educator, advisor, social worker, family member and every other thing that is lacking elsewhere for students who look like them. At a school that has billions of dollars in endowment money, you would think that swift action would be taken to address this strain.
Let me put it like this – my alma mater has completed renovations on its newest buildings before it has seriously addressed the age-old problem they have of creating a more diverse and inclusive campus. As a result, Penn continues to see racial transgressions against black students occur because we are often exploited for our quota value rather than our actual capability to succeed.
I don’t question my admission into an Ivy League university; neither do I think affirmative action is to blame. Because when I walk into a campus where nepotism is the law of the land and money talks more than the black box I checked on my application, I’m unbothered by it.
But what I am bothered by is the lack of proper equity that has pervaded my alma mater for decades. Why is it that the Arch, for example, which is known for housing several minority-based resource centers, have them housed in the old basement cramped side-by-side like a hole in a wall? Sure, they are newly renovated after spending years lacking proper updates and fixtures. Now, they are placed underground where they can’t be seen unless you choose to go downstairs.
Consider this a metaphor for what black student life often feels like in colleges like Penn, and many others across America. It’s not just about people, but also about physical spaces and access. My alma mater also just decided to combine the Africa Center and the Center for Africana Studies as one academic center while various European countries have their own departments.
Notice I haven’t called out any particular faculty or administrator who I think bears the blame for any of this. Because collectively, there needs to be an entire culture shift in values and how blacks on campus are regarded.
No one wants special treatment, just the same level of respect and acknowledgment as our white peers.
And we shouldn’t have to go to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in order to be treated fairly. Just as much as whites shouldn’t be excused from addressing race just because they aren’t black.
#BlackOnCampus is a call for fairness, not about assessing white guilt. I don’t personally care if you feel wrong for being oppressive or not – I just want individuals to stop perpetuating it.
Stop denying opportunities and access to resources to students of color. Stop putting the onus on our community to be the only ones wanting to enact change. The fact that in 2015, black students not only have to maintain reputations as scholars but also as activists in order to ensure basic liberties speaks volumes by itself.
What can white people do? Just listen and clearly comprehend. This isn’t a debate, nor your opportunity to grossly misconstrue what freedom of speech is.
Listen, and don’t just form an opinion, but form a plan to actually co-address this problem. It can’t just lie on the shoulders of black students, but those who are smart enough to be allies in solving many of these doable problems.
It’s about fixing the system, not making you feel guilty.