Calling a Spade a Spade: On #ItsBiggerThanKSU and Being a Black College Student

by Nneka M. Okona

Last week was one where I made a concerted effort to limit my social media usage. I go through these periods every now and then when consuming the never-ending amount of information becomes too much, and I need a reprieve.

I tried to ignore the tweets I saw on my timeline by Kevin Bruce when I logged on Twitter really quick, before the video amassed thousands of retweets. Before more people started talking about and chiming in with their comments. Before the hashtag #ItsBiggerThanKSU appeared tacked on to the commentary. Before many students, Black and White, were vouching for their negative experiences with Abby Dawson, the employee in question who threatened a student with campus security for no valid reason at all.

I have to admit I was stunned to see this news pop off, as I attended Kennesaw State University as graduate student some years ago. KSU is known in the metro Atlanta area as being the second biggest public university in the state but not many people outside of the metro area or Georgia are familiar with the school. To have my alma mater make headlines for this? Well, it speaks volumes.

The story is that Kevin Bruce, a current student at KSU, went to his advisement office, without an appointment. Going to the office was a last resort, as he had tried on several attempts to get an appointment with his advisor and assistance through email as well (which he showed screenshots of). Assistance through email proved unhelpful and each of the prior appointments he’d made had been canceled last minute. When he arrived at the office, Abby Dawson accused him of harassment because he was waiting, in a waiting room, to speak to his advisor. Dawson appears to be getting more and more frustrated and ultimately asks Bruce if he’d like for her to call the campus security and walks off in a huff.

Bruce has said he doesn’t think this incident was racially charged nor were any of the others, as other students came out of the woodworks, both Black and White, agreeing with the runaround they’d gotten from Abby Dawson. And although I respect Bruce saying he was just treated unfairly and he felt it had nothing to do with him being Black, I have to refute the assertion. I know better and to think otherwise would mean I was caught up in naïveté.

To provide proper context, Kennesaw State University is in Kennesaw, Georgia, a suburb north of Atlanta in Cobb County. Kennesaw is roughly a 40 or so minute drive from where I grew up in Stone Mountain, a suburb 20 minutes east of Atlanta. When I applied to grad school at KSU, I knew very little about the city of Kennesaw because realistically, I had no reason to go there. It’s far from my dwellings although it isn’t far from Atlanta. I applied there because I wanted to attend a school that was affordable after attending an expensive private school for undergrad. KSU also had a Master of Arts program which was comparable to an MFA and would give me the option of being able to take classes part-time, in the evenings, while allowing me to keep my full-time reporting job.

Native Atlantans are familiar with what Cobb County represents — insidious segregation which is visible in little pockets throughout the metro Atlanta area. There have been many segregation shifts in the metro area through the years. I remember vividly seeing one in its earliest stages when my family moved to our house in Stone Mountain in the late 90s. It was around that time when a lot of White families that were in our neighborhood, and in Stone Mountain in general, began scattering out of the particular side of DeKalb County where I grew up, in favor of other counties where they’ve remained — Gwinnett, north Fulton, north DeKalb, Cherokee, and Cobb.

During the two years I was a graduate student at KSU, it wasn’t unusual for me to see dozens of cars in the student parking lots or in the parking decks with confederate flag bumper stickers or the confederate flag slapped on the leather tire cover on the backside of a jeep. It was so commonplace I shrugged it off whenever I saw it. I knew that many of the students, many of them White students, clung to the confederate flag as a means of proclaiming their historic, Southern roots they were proud of. The same tragic, violent historic roots which exploited and terrorized those who looked like me.

I’d also heard from other students, Black students, about the lack of support and guidance during their years at KSU. It was a source of frustration which often deterred them from being sold on the idea of being a student there. This isn’t an experience I had while there. My two years at KSU were very hands-off and I’m not sure if this was because I was in a grad school geared towards working adults or what, but I had very little interaction with administration at the school.

I knew very intimately, almost immediately, my difference was something which meant my experience in a writing program, writing about my lived experiences, as both a Black and African woman, meant there was always something about me that wasn’t understood. There were countless workshop sessions where I was either the only Black woman in my class or one out of two or three. I wrote heavily about my struggles with discerning both my Black American and Nigerian identity and most of the feedback I received surrounded my classmates not understanding my experiences and asking me to explain. To break things down. To qualify my lived experiences as being something White people could easily digest. These were clear microagressions. And they were exhausting.

So, no, although Kevin Bruce insists that incident, which quickly went viral, prompted news coverage from local Atlanta affiliate stations and a statement issued from KSU as well, was not racially charged or motivated, I can’t agree. It might not have been a violent example of but it was brash. It was aggressive. It was blatant.

I doubt very much that Abby would’ve reacted that way to a White male in the waiting room who challenged her, at least not in terms of threatening him with campus security, a situation which never escalated beyond her becoming more and more irate. Because of course, scary Black man. It’s a classic case of the vilification of Black bodies and making us to be a boogey man and a source of fear for others who are around us. “I feel unsafe. His presence makes me feel unsafe as a White woman. I must threaten him, his existence, his presence with some presence who has the ability to emasculate him and make him feel less than. For my own comfort.”

Furthermore, this incident was a clear symptom of the lackadaisical notions doled out to Black students at universities across the country — students who are in lack in terms of support and resources from their school while trying to complete their degrees. And yes, race has everything to do with it.

Photo: Kevin Bruce / Twitter

Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. Visit her blog,, her website, or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka.

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