Our Next-Door Neighbors
Why was anyone surprised?
Our university: adorned with shrines to the Confederacy, built on top of graves where slaves were buried after their backs were broken building its white columns. Where our president and deans speak of incredible diversity as they stand in front of the Confederate plaques at the Rotunda. Where we black students try to push back that little voice in our heads asking:
“Do they really mean it?”
“Why is OAAA confined to former slave houses on Dawson's Row?”
“Why is the Multicultural Student Center hidden away in a basement?”
“Do we have a space here or are we simply guests in their white home?”
We push away those voices and work twice as hard to PROVE that we deserve to be here, in an attempt to silence the white gazes that shine with suspicion about why we walk on THEIR grounds.
White supremacy is more than torches, KKK hoods, and Nazi flags. White supremacy is every professor who assumes the students of color in class are cheating; every lecture hall with only one black student; every POC party shut down by the police; every first year of color stopped from entering a frat house; every white professor teaching in African-American Studies, Latin American Studies, or Middle Eastern Studies departments, working jobs--it would seem--that could have gone to qualified intellectuals of color who are experts in their fields both on an academic and personal level.
White supremacy is giving a tour of UVA without going to the gardens and making the “history tours” optional rather than including it in the main tour; it is allowing white University visitors pick and choose which parts of this city’s history they want to hear, and allowing them to remain comfortable with what they know.
To be able to feel like you lost control of something, you have to have felt like you owned it to begin with. When people demanded the white supremacists “Get off our lawn” or “Get out of our town” they failed to realize that for most people of color living in Charlottesville…it was never our lawn, and it was never our town.
But for a while it almost seemed as if the students of UVA might unite over the pain of August 11th and 12th.
As if, even though we don’t completely understand each other, we could come together and address the institutional issues that made those events possible in the first place. As if white silence would really be understood as violence, and students of color could finally get the support necessary from the majority of the student body.
For a moment it seemed like people were waking up.
The implosion of the moment happened at different times for everyone. Perhaps for those wiser than I that moment never even existed. But for me, I was slapped back to reality when Student Council had a meeting to consider passing BSA’s demands. Watching people I am forced to call my peers stand up and insist they hate white supremacists,
insist they love all their fellow students,
insist that they are not racist but only speaking logically,
and argue that our demands are unrealistic,
a waste of resources,
an attack on history,
a result of irrational and emotionally motivated actions…
I was numb as I watched people say, “Everyone raped black women, not just Thomas Jefferson”;
“We should address the failing schools and high drop-out rates in the black community instead of just trying to inflate the number of black students”;
“Let’s try to turn the other cheek and smile as we walk by Thomas Jefferson’s statue, and remember the good.”
And I wondered, why was anyone surprised?
They already live among us,
they just don't wield torches and flags in their everyday lives;
and attend vigils,
and make Facebook posts,
and convince themselves it's not white supremacy if they have friends of color,
and we continue fighting,
against forces that don’t even realize they’re being fought.
Editor's notes: Just before publication, the BOV announced plans for and completed removal of the Confederate plaques at the Rotunda. The BSA Demands, published following the August 21 March to Reclaim Our Grounds and supported by various students groups who signed on to them in the days following their publication, are also referred to as Demands to Reclaim Our Grounds.
Photo credit: Richard Dizon