On a brisk Friday night, Aryn Frazier, who is studying politics and African-American and African studies at the University of Virginia, found himself locked in a church full of people in the midst of the Charlottesville riots. Upon his arrival to Emancipation Park, he was “talked at by a man wearing a red shirt,” who told him “Africa was for the black man and America was for the white man.”
According to his account, that same man “told a white woman, who was holding a sign promoting peace, that she was a race traitor, and despite her wide hips, he’d be willing to show her what a real man was all about. He spouted racist theories about the testosterone levels of black women and the difference in brain sizes between the races.” Despite the chemical attacks from white supremacists throughout the night, perhaps one of the scariest moments for Aryn was that the man truly believed what he was saying.
Aryn’s story isn’t just limited to UVA. As we’ve seen, colleges from Auburn University to Texas A&M University have invited and therefore, empowered divisive figures such as Richard Spencer, an openly white nationalist leader who took the initiative to organize the Charlottesville rally himself. And while it may be shocking to some, such experiences are not new to college students across America and therefore students at Penn.
With destructive intentions, racism in higher education was and is designed to stagnate the intellectual growth of black students. And as students with so much untouched growth, we need to remember to not let the fight against that stagnation hinder us from our growth and and reaching who we want to be. Because after all, the act of existing in the midst of something or someone that doesn’t want you to is groundbreaking.
We see this in the spirit of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, who managed to become the first black woman to graduate from Penn Law School. She was able to practice law in Philadelphia despite being segregated and excluded from every restaurant near Penn by their owners and white clubs on campus by Dean Edward Mikell. We heard this at the Convocation ceremony of the Class of 2021 just a few days ago, in which Claire Lomax, a member of the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women, reaffirmed Penn’s diversity through her own campus experience and the bomb threats received by Du Bois College House in 1993. We even saw this last year during the GroupMe incident in which black students united and managed to go to class in the midst of threats of lynching.
But with white supremacist flyers on campus, “preachers” that infect our campus with views that disagree with the existence of so many and a professor in the Law School who believes that all cultures are not created equal and that “the anti ‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks” is “not suited for 21st century culture,” how do we manage being both activists and students while taking care of ourselves?
About a week ago, Michelle Houston, associate director of Makuu, shared a quote with me from Toni Morrison to live by. It’s simple. “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction.” I cannot find this to be anything short of true.
Instead of being able to focus in class, you’re stuck thinking about how your professor believes Anglo-Saxon culture is superior to others in 2017, and whether or not that will affect your grades. Someone in your study group reiterates a sexist stereotype about women, and you find yourself trying to prove it wrong despite having a midterm to study for. Instead of doing your homework, you can find yourself explaining, over and over again, your right to exist freely to that one racist friend you have on Facebook. And just a little too late, I’ve realized that not a piece of this is necessary, because you will never be able to satisfy those who do not believe in you.
Simply existing as a minority at an Ivy League institution such as Penn is a revolutionary act in itself. Take pride in that and celebrate it. Caring for yourself and reaching the person you are destined to be in spite of bigotry are just as important as tackling the injustice you may face in your day-to-day life. So, as a student activist, be able to operate among that line without letting discrimination define your experience at Penn — because after all, we are here to be students first.
CALVARY ROGERS is a College junior from Rochester, N.Y., studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Cal’s Corner” usually appears every Wednesday.
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