Like most conversations, the best ones are around pizza. Easily one of the best benefits to being a live-in staff member is the access to peers to discuss campus climate while indulging at the late night option on campus. We are currently in the midst of student government elections and my colleague and I were thinking about our students’ political actions and their level of organizing. It was only when my colleague asked me, in the midst of sharing the variety of things I contributed to at my undergraduate institution, “how did you learn how to do that?” that I began to think about in what ways it is our fault for not providing that kind of leadership and resources to our active students.
My education wasn’t perfect but I thoroughly appreciate the critical thinking skills my undergraduate institution instilled in me. I learned how to do activism that demonstrated coalition by being challenged to construct multiple ways of participation for the cause through an upper-division higher education course. I was led by Residence Life Coordinators that would not wait to address oppression but practice empathy and work through the shame as a community—this demonstrated that our campus was intolerant of violence and gave us the opportunity to grow together. Lastly, my employers did a really good job of reminding me of my own journey when others “weren’t down” with dismantling oppression.
Every step of my journey in realizing my minoritized experience and advocating against oppression was with my undergraduate institution being my place of support and guidance.
Back then, when my peers and I wanted to push for a fee increase to support the expansion of the campus psychological services, my adviser showed us how to write a resolution to distribute to our student governments and various department directors on campus. When a classmate and I wanted to celebrate Asian-Pacific Islander Heritage Month on campus, our professor showed us how to bring in constituents from outside campus to participate as a part of a required degree course (which also happened to be an upper-division general education course). When I dreamed of bringing a young adult fiction writer to come to campus to break the silence around shame in suicidiation, I was charged to write my first grant. I had lots of opportunities to tackle the issues I was most concerned on this campus. At the end of my list, my colleague simply replied, “but where is that here?”
In late March of 2016, a video surfaced online. The video starts with a black female student and man confronting a white male student for wearing “dreadlocks”. The woman continues to articulate how the man’s hair style is appropriation while the man questions if the woman is “a part of Egyptian culture”. The black man asks if the white man is Egyptian and the woman continues to ask if the white man knows where Egypt is—which I can only presume is to make the point that Egypt is in Africa. The white male student then grabs the black female student’s arm to get away. She then steps between the white male student and the stairs while continuing to ask him where Egypt is. He is arguing that she has no right to tell him how to wear his hair and responds, “Yo girl, stop touching me right now”. As he makes his exit, she has him by the sleeve and asks him to come back and makes a comment about how he put her hands on her. He argues that it’s not ok for her to make a scene because of his hair and says, “There’s no reason, yo”. He walks away and the female student asks why the confrontation was being filmed. The individual behind the camera says, “for everyone’s safety”.
The video was only 46 seconds long, and a lot of folks have lots to say about the behavior of all the students in this video. Oof. If you read the comments, it’s clear we’re busy critiquing the actions of all of the students. The discourse about this incident was only focused on the individual actions of the people involved. What would it mean to shift our thinking away from “individual conflict” to “institutional failure” or, more kindly, “a disservice” to our students? Should institutions, and those who work for them, see themselves as responsible for students’ shortcomings when experiencing shame in the wake of being made aware of their oppressive action?
It is time to move away from blaming the very people we are responsible for educating. There is a deep need to examine the institutional structures that failed to provide the tools for the white male student to handle the shame that came with being addressed on his impact on others. I wonder, what general education requirements and courses would help the student acknowledge the harm that has been done—systematically and interpersonally—to the black students. Additionally, where are the spaces for black students to build affinity and talk about the harm they experienced? Where can the two students go to feel heard about their culture being misrepresented by people occupying the same space? There is a need for resources where racial identity development is fostered and nurtured and this resource needs the staff that will work with students of color through that growth. And in order to forge these spaces or changes, we need to admit responsibility for these kinds of interactions between students.
Janine Silvis is a first-year student at the University of Vermont’s Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration M.Ed program. Prior to graduate school, Janine has served in residence life as a live-in professional staff member at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and the University of Oregon.