Black Lives Matter, that increasingly catchall movement asserting black dignity, is having a major moment on college campuses across the country, including Southern California. The dean of students at Claremont McKenna College resigned after a damning comment caused protests from black students and a brief hunger strike. At Occidental College, USC and, farther east along the 10 Freeway, the University of Redlands, protesters are demanding a response to the concerns of black students and other students of color.
This movement isn’t only about inclusion or diversity — buzzwords from the last couple of decades — it’s about respect and regard. It’s a deeper and more subtle ask than for, say, voting rights legislation. But it’s no less crucial, and it’s frankly more difficult to attain. Call it the last frontier of civil rights: not a matter, ultimately, of laws and admission rates but of relationships.
The experience was surreal; I felt like the hapless protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”
What this black student moment makes clear is that a refusal by whites to meaningfully engage with minorities only reinforces the status quo of privilege and inferiority that’s had us all in headlock for the last 50 years. Real equality means disengagement isn’t an option. Ignoring or downplaying black people’s views, feelings — our very presence — is as much an expression of white privilege as insulting us to our faces.
It’s also dehumanizing. I know this firsthand. Last year, I ran into a buzz saw of dehumanizing disregard at the University of Redlands, where I was part-time advisor to the student newspaper.
Unlike many of the black student protesters who have cited histories of neglect and disrespect at their campuses, I was caught off guard by what happened to me. I’m black, Redlands is predominantly white, but I had been on campus eight years and had always had a reasonably good relationship with the student government and higher-ups. The university was pleased with the progress of the student paper overall. Until it wasn’t.
Last November, the Bulldog Weekly published a front-page story about a record $35-million donation made to Redlands in the form of a scholarship fund. The money would go to students who, among other criteria, could demonstrate “entrepreneurial ability.” In the story, the reporter quoted one student who expressed concern that such a requirement might be coded outreach to “rich white men” (for the record, the reporter and the quoted student were white).
The reaction to this sentiment was extraordinary. The papers mysteriously disappeared from the stands. The way the quote was obtained was picked apart, along with the paper as a whole, and the Redlands student government quickly voted to put the Bulldog on hiatus — to shut it down, in other words. The official reason was lax standards, and besides, wasn’t it expensive to produce and didn’t it reach only a small number of readers?
From what I and others saw, no one in power at Redlands wanted to address that key part of the controversy. And no one wanted to address me, the black woman in charge of advising the student journalists. Even though for nearly a decade I had been a liaison between the administration and the Bulldog — even though it was my job to field complaints about content — no one in the administration contacted me about the offending story or the cascade of events that culminated in closing the paper. No phone call, no email, no letter, nothing.
The university higher-ups recently said they spoke with students because the Bulldog was student-run. The concerted avoidance I experienced, however, was obvious. It was also politically and personally shattering. When I showed up at a campus meeting about the future of the paper, I was ignored. Literally. In a roomful of mostly white people, no one in favor of dismantling the paper would speak directly to me, though I quite forcefully spoke to them. The experience was surreal; I felt like the hapless protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” I write about racism all the time, but to run up against that wall of silence, to be looked at but not spoken to as if I were a ghost, by people I thought I knew a little, was stunning. It hurt.
After about 10 minutes, I made my stand by declaring the meeting illegitimate and walking out. I staged an impromptu protest. But how much more satisfying it would have been to have had a conversation about what was objectionable in the story, about how the paper could have responded with a letter to the editor or an opinion piece from the administration or with follow-up stories about the scholarship fund and its criteria. But nothing like that happened. In the end, the Bulldog stopped publishing for almost a semester. I was on hiatus too, and then my contract wasn’t renewed — not surprisingly, with only the barest contact.
But empathy and practice are different things. The black fight for official recognition, through diversity programs and such, has more or less been won. Heads are rolling; new programs aimed at fostering multiculturalism are in the works. But the fight to make black lives matter by truly engaging black people as equals — especially when the going gets rough — has a ways to go.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Opinion. Her book, “I Heart Obama,” will be published in February.