It's Time for Predominantly White Institutions to Wake Up and Recognize their Racism

by Brittany Dawson

Courtesy of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, every Wednesday is considered Hip Hop Wednesday at the University of South Carolina. A pleasing mixture of current radio hits to 90s throwback jams blare across Greene Street, a popular hub for Carolina students to unwind before and after class. Athletes, members of Black Greek Letter Organizations, and other Carolina students dance, catch up with friends, and chatter during this time. What makes Hip Hop Wednesday so empowering and unique to the university is its ability to encourage mingling of students of diverse ethnicities, genders, and religions: we all gather and enjoy the music together. Hip Hop Wednesday is a staple of the Carolina community.

However, according to several social media reactions by White University of South Carolina students, you would think Hip Hop Wednesday was something to be abhorred instead of cherished.
Students used Twitter and Yik Yak, an app to share anonymous thoughts, to aim their festering vitriol.

One Yik Yak post read, "Who let the Ferguson Zoo out on Greene St.?"

Another declared, “Greene St. rallys [sic], the reason why I will never truly understand black people”.

The most frightening and acerbic tweet stated “Ya’ll n*ggers always ruin everything”.

Uh huh, you read that correctly. No, I’m not reading an article from The Onion or a parody sketch from SNL, these posts are from 2014. They derive from a generation of future leaders who will someday be entrusted with making equitable judgments for all. If this is remotely suggestive of where we’re headed as a nation, I am gravely concerned.

Hours following these tweets and Yik Yak posts, protests in Ferguson were gaining national momentum and news on the Eric Garner verdict slithered its way into campus conversation, widening the divide between students who either found both to be unjust or scoffed at the mere entertainment of another “race baiting” news story. In either case, these tragedies bolstered my fellow peers to unveil their discomfort with Black America and, most blatantly, Black students at the University of South Carolina. To my knowledge, up until this point there has never been an uproar over Hip Hop Wednesday.

Of course, Black students at the University of South Carolina are outraged. It is no secret Black and minority students at predominantly white institutions feel misrepresented, particularly in the Deep South. Racism continues to mangle and scorch the self-esteem of groups who are not part of the dominant group. No university is invincible to the infectious claws of prejudice.

In sum, greatest insult is (a) students believe the University of South Carolina is impervious to racism and (b) we live in a “post-racial” society.

Newsflash: neither are true.

The term post-racial is a nonsensical term used to placate Americans who feel uncomfortable talking about race in 2014. I’m sorry, but comradery at Gamecock football games or slurping a Diet Coke through a shared straw with someone of a different ethnicity does not supplant racism. This is not to suggest the University of South Carolina hasn’t made progress toward cultivating safe spaces for all, but what is clear though, is a widely accepted dismissal of how these comments disrupt the campus climate. Saying things like “I’m not racist, I have a Black friend!” or “It didn’t hurt my feelings,” are comfortable go-to statements for those who deliberately seek to avoid confronting systemic and overt examples of racism. Above all, as demonstrated by flippant, nonchalant attitudes of White students, simply thinking these thoughts sustains the notion that Black lives are undeserving of space.

How dare these students have the gall to speak so inconsiderately? I cannot help but remember how hard those before me fought for equality: we are not as far removed from the Civil Rights Movement as we like to believe! The University of South Carolina didn’t admit its first Black student until 1963, a landmark decision of barely 50 years ago. Let’s rewind another 16 years: the 1947 Briggs v. Elliott case in rural Clarendon County (with the help of four other court cases) resulted in another milestone ruling, Brown v. Board of Education. Students who believe “this has nothing to do with race” lack an understanding of the university’s history, becoming silent agents of oppression.

Founded in 1801, the University of South Carolina is lauded as one of the nation’s best schools for diversity. An award winning faculty coupled with a commitment to all things related to Gamecock sports are valid reasons to believe the University of South Carolina is an unblemished, Southern university. Accolades aside, we can’t be complacent with addressing how minorities feel on predominantly white campuses.

If students are representations of the Carolinian Creed, a list of rules all Carolina students are expected to follow, what do these tweets, thoughts, and comments suggest about the state of safety for Black students at predominantly White campuses?

What will it take to prove racism is not a mirage or a myth we tell our kids before bedtime?

What will it take to prove racism is REAL? Obviously bearing psychological scars and personal accounts on how we live, breathe, and endure racism’s suffocating grip is not enough. What more can we do?

A recent Bloomberg poll alleges that race relations have gotten worse under Obama’s presidency. More importantly, though, is that racist attitudes are unabashedly worn like a new pair of shoes or a gold watch. Let’s face it, while Black America—and other marginalized groups—continues to wriggle around a slew of institutionalized parameters that mold who is deserving of recognition and protection, others willingly choose to deflect these powerful outcries for help by pretending it doesn’t exist and marveling in the riches and spoils of a life of privilege.

Black voices continue to be muffled at predominantly white academic institutions and beyond. Black students—including LGBTQ and gender nonconforming folk—deserve to feel represented and valued. While I am hopeful we as a society and university can improve, I fear that those who stand in silence will ruin the progress for all.

Don’t we all deserve space?

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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