The students, united, will never be divided! The students, united, will never be divided!
The Black Lives Matter movement was news to my peers, my campus, and apparently, my country. For me, it was just a matter of putting a name to feelings long-felt. There’s a stereotype—with some truth to it—that every student of color goes through some sort of activist phase during their undergraduate career. Whether it has to do with actually discovering your identity, trying to embrace your culture, or simply “sticking it to the man,” it’s assumed we’ll eventually try the activism hat on for size.
Let’s just say my freshman year roommates weren’t pleased when I first began making a ruckus about BLM. Before, I was black in all the right places, but I guess the combination of looking and playing the part was overwhelming for them. With my newfound unwelcomeness, I ventured out to make new friends. By the second semester of freshman year, I was ravenous for the Black Student Union discussions held every Monday night. There was never an open seat in the center back then. I would sit on the floor with my back pressed against the wall and just watch. Watch my older peers passionately speak on their experiences of injustice and discrimination. Acculturation, assimilation, and appropriation became staples of my verbal arsenal, and I was made altogether alert, sharpening my knowledge of the counter-narrative and attuning my ear to the frequency of microaggression. I was armed for war.
The Demands came in the fall. I was trekking across campus with friends one evening when a group of students approached us, asking if we’d join them in interrupting a meeting happening just inside one of the buildings. We agreed, and minutes later professors, administrators, and students were staring back at us. Our ringleader, whom we’d just met, addressed the meeting panelists before producing a document I’d never seen or heard of before. The Demands, they were called. I stood, setting my expression as not to give away my ignorance, as members of our alliance popcorn read clause after demand after grievance from the packet. The ringleader praised and likened us to student unions on campuses nationwide that were demanding justice, equality, and representation from their universities, saying our Black Student Union was no exception. Students I’d never seen before shared their testimonies about the strife they’d endured over the years. I was convinced of how terrible the university was, and everything I thought I knew about the university was, apparently, a facade. After over an hour, my cohort walked triumphantly out of the meeting and formed a circle around the hall’s fountain in celebration. We’d won.
The demands took no time to hit the campus community. I heard about upperclassmen visiting sociology and ethnic studies classes to openly read the demands. The president of the university emailed a blanket statement about the meeting and the university’s commitment to its Catholic values, saying that he’d be working with students to address diversity concerns in the near future. The Center for Inclusion and Diversity held a meeting to hash out the strategic plan in collaboration with students. Professors offered their quiet support and praise for what we were doing to change the dynamic of the school. The student body was catching up, unsure of what was happening in the first place, and I can’t say I was any exception.
Ayodeji rushed into the black student resource center, closing the door behind him. “Bruh, did you see the Yik Yaks? Shit is crazy.”
“What’s Yik Yak?” I was working on homework at a table with three other people.
“It’s an app. Kids are going off about the demands.” Ayo said, plopping down beside me. “Let me read this shit to you.”
“SLP just announced fried chicken, watermelon, and purple drank for dinner tomorrow, as a show of solidarity with the BSU”
“The demands are such bullshit. Trying to get whatever they want from the school, they are not the centre of the universe”
It wasn’t hard to tell that my peers were out of touch with the black campus community in general, but I was stunned by the magnitude of utter ignorance. In fact, no one seemed to know the difference between the black student body, black student resource center, or the black student union.
“Clearly, nobody actually read the demands,” someone yelled from across the room, as if on cue.
“But wait, there’s more!”
“Ayo, it’s not funny,” I said. “How are they doing this?”
“It’s all anonymous.” He continued.
“They have made me afraid to be a white girl on campus with all this white shame going on”
“Every time I walk [past] a black student they say under their breath ‘white bitch’”
“Pause!” I couldn’t help but crack a smile. “People said that?”
“Like, it’s so blatantly untrue,” my roommate said.
“It’s straight comedy, son.” Ayo continued reading.
There were also rumors swirling. People claimed the BSU wanted President Harris to wear a “Black Lives Matter” shirt every day. Every day. One of my classmates said the BSU wanted a separate building specifically for black students. The most ridiculous of all the lies was that black students were going on a hunger strike. And boy, were there responses to that one...
“If you’re not trying to eat give cocaine a try. Well, I guess I should say crack.”
“Do black students really think a hunger strike is going to solve their issues? Please get in touch with reality. You will die of starvation before anything changes.”
I didn’t necessarily disagree with that one because I feared nothing would change. Everyone involved was gearing up for an uphill battle, but never conceiving change to be impossible. After all, “Changemaker” was boldly featured on the university’s posters, website, and stickers. And, gradually, everything began to take a turn. For the worst.
“Black people need to chill out. They are the most racist ppl out there and want us to feel sorry for them”
“BSU students. Please leave.”
“If it’s not racist get off yik yak”
I stood my ground. It was my school just as much as everyone else’s. But the faceless didn’t think so and made it known. The first time I was called a nigger on campus, I was standing alongside the through street adjacent to one of the halls. A Ford Fusion raced past us as a man shouted the slur, laughed, and sped into the night, blowing straight through the stop sign.
One coward wasn’t going to deter my commitment to the movement.
At least, not a coward alone. There were subtle signs following the advent of the Demands indicating the movement would disintegrate just as quickly as it sprung to life, hard as we hoped it wasn’t so. The sheer amount of non-black students eager to join the committees and bolster their resumes should have deterred me or at least made me question their motives. Our ringleader’s incessant group chat messages and calls to encrypt our email accounts piqued my concern. All hell broke loose, though, when the three leaders of our collective appointed an innocent, unsuspecting freshman to facilitate a meeting addressing the Demands. Black athletes who’d never stepped foot in the Black Student Resource Center before showed up, angrily making general statements about how someone needed to “fix this.” I guess the demands removed the camouflage they’d been enjoying, but still, I empathized with their frustration. There was no longer a safe space for us, and I accepted that I couldn't trust anyone, not even my fellow black student, to be my keeper. The leaders ghosted when the stakes rose, the freshman was bombarded with attacks, and a permanent schism was created in the black student body. Allies in the multicultural center and LGBTQ+ orgs backed out and fell silent with no warning. What’d begun as an overhaul for the empowerment of all marginalized students was revealing itself to be a result of the emanations of our ringleader’s struggle to find her identity. I subscribed to an experience that, valid as it was, was not my own, but nevertheless I carried all its baggage. I wish I could have seen it earlier.
I stopped trying to make friends and left the city nearly every weekend, trying to find refuge in my relationship at the time and forget my blackness, my hypervisibility, if only for a few hours at a time. I toyed with thoughts of transferring to another university and starting fresh as I turned a tattered business card from a Pepperdine representative in my fingers. I eventually threw it away, figuring the transfer would only allot the same ugly problems in another picturesque beach location.
I instantly regretted confiding in my parents about my part in activism. Against my better judgement, I ignored their advice to step away. They meant well, but if everyone adopted their attitudes, nothing would ever be made right. I felt this duty to be a part of a cause because, in the suburbs, I was never called to stand for social justice, even when I was discriminated against. I lived a cushy, comfy life which compelled me to act now that I had a platform to do so.
“Fuck BSU if it wasn’t expulsion id kick the shit out of all of you #juice not sorry.”
“This is a hostile learning environment now and the BSU is to blame”
“I demand that if you don’t like this school you get the fuck out. Go push your ignorant, childish victimhood at Cal or a $15 min wage rally. Fucking scum academic Terrorists.”
Fear often gives the gift of hyper awareness, and in the days of the Demands backlash, I was eerily aware of the layout of the BSRC. A single door serves as both an entrance and exit to the center. There are no windows. In other words, when multiple students expressed their concern over rumors someone was plotting to open fire in the center, I understood that we were sitting ducks.
The administration came to our rescue, or so we thought. A few deans were arranging a focus group to get the first-hand accounts of black students concerning their specific needs, fears, and vexation. In between classes for the span of two weeks, I went to a classroom in the basement of the university center, sat at a roundtable, and poured my heart out to whoever was there to listen for the hour. Some of the most profound reflections and critiques of the university I’ve ever heard were offered in those meetings. We were recorded, photographed, and probed with questions that would keep us rambling, rehashing the lowest points of our college careers and, in some cases, our lives. At the end of the “data-gathering” period, we were told the information would be presented to the president, other administrators, and eventually the board of trustees.
We never asked to be the poster children of black pride, but the opportunity seemed worth it. All signs affirmed our victory.
Years have passed since the focus groups. We’re still waiting for a report and follow up interviews. I’d be surprised if those records ever see the light of day.
I managed to pry myself free of all urges towards activism once I recognized my roommate and I were experiencing depression. We persevered, always, but we were low. We never left our room and refused to talk about it. I watched her unspool. She suffers from severe anxiety attacks and sleeps with a weighted blanket just to avoid waking up in the middle of the night breathless and afraid. But she has not let go of the cause. I think if I told her, after the trials we’d faced together that year, that I donated my BLM shirt, she would not forgive me. I can’t tell you exactly why I feel so guilty, but maybe it’s because success feels like a form of resistance to me.
No, when I walked across campus in those tensely quiet days, I didn’t mumble “white bitch” under my breath. Nor did I slander the center that’d provided me refuge for nearly two years. I was full of heavily inflated emotions and had no room for petty hatred. But I did often wonder, when my eyes met with those of a passerby, regardless of color, sex, whatever, did you have anything to do with this? Are you one of them who hates me?
The answer became simple to me. Hurt people hurt people.
Jaded didn’t begin to describe me after the fallout. I was guarded and focused all my attention on my major. I avoided social groups, never wanting to experience the pain of eventual but certain disbandment ever again. In essence, I floated and learned to be content with independence bordering on lonerdom. When my activist friends invited me to marches or town hall meetings, I said I’d try to make it, knowing good and well I’d never show up.
“I’m glad we caught this now!” the counselor said.
“What do you mean?” I stretched out my neck to see the monitor. She’d called me to an emergency meeting in the midst of junior year.
“You need to pick up more units every semester to graduate on time.”
“How can I do that?” I was in anguish. The thought of taking a heftier workload than I already had was intimidating.
“You got nominated for the writing center, right?” She looked eager.
“I don’t know if I’ll even get it.”
But I did get it.
I was skeptical the first time I came to the writing center after my training. Most the students were white, and everyone looked so established in their friendships. Great. I slipped into the back without a word for all of thirty seconds before someone addressed me.
“Dominique?” I turned to see a white guy with glasses staring at me.
“I go by Dom.”
“Where’re ya from, Dom?”
“Valencia, Calif—” I could already see the confusion on his face. “It’s where Six Flags is.” “Ah! What do you write?”
“I’m in Intro to Creative Writing now.”
“What do you wanna do with that.” He pushed his glasses up on his nose.
“I think I might wanna do screenwriting.”
He proceeded to interrogate me for what seemed like forever. Other tutors fluidly jumped in and out of the conversation between us. My conviction that all students cared to know nothing about me was the first of my barriers to collapse. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to have people take genuine interest in me beyond the superficial. I submitted to off-campus social gatherings with my fellow tutors, during which we played Cards Against Humanity and argued over Myle’s idea to create a mansplaining-centered web show with Joey.
I can’t tell exactly when I began coming to the center in my free time just to hang around and strike up a conversation. No one pretended to be color blind—we embraced our differences and built on our similarities. It was a non-threatening space, the demilitarized zone in the heart of the English department where I could just breathe. Within fifteen weeks, I surrendered to the kindness, safety, and validation freely given and received in the space. Each day, I was being mended without them even realizing it. I stopped reading into color and started looking into character. As if by magic, I wasn’t depressed anymore.
In the last semester of my senior year in high school, I received an invitation to interview at the university I would eventually attend. I still hadn’t received my acceptance letter and was under the false pretense that my admittance was contingent upon my performance in the interview. I’d rehearsed possible answers to probable questions with my father on the three-hour drive to San Diego.
The interview was nearly over when the woman sitting opposite me asked my thoughts on diversity and how comfortable I’d be attending a school whose student population was 70 percent white. I chewed on her words for a moment before responding. I’d gone to predominantly white schools thus far, so it was not shocking or difficult for me to adjust to environments where I was overwhelmingly outnumbered. Diversity, I explained, came in forms of race as well as religion, culture, and life experience. In a word, yes, I would be comfortable, even thrive, at the university. As I left the room, triumphant, I passed my eyes over the waiting room crowd and was elated, at the time, to see other faces of color.
It didn’t cross my mind until years later, when I was sharing stories with other students about my college experience, that I discovered that very few of my white peers had to interview before being accepted. Those peers who did interview were also asked the diversity question and, like me, spouted sweet nothings about the various manifestations of diversity. Not one of them believed their own words—they simply wanted to get into college. I felt tricked, manipulated into giving the answer the school wanted to justify their institutional flaws.
If I wanted to be cynical about the university, I could easily find every reason to be. But to what effect? I tried activism, which nearly engulfed me in an eddy of frustration and inaction. I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t change the school in a short four years, but it was the truth. The real question was how could I make my mark, in some small way.
I’m not bothered by my answer anymore. I let it go. Of all things I’ve become, I’m thankful not one of them is bitter. When a freshman is fired up about a cause, I never smother their electricity. I just remind myself to thank my university for the people who held me together, whether knowingly or not, when I didn’t have the strength to do so.
Dom Shank graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing in May. During her undergraduate career, she worked with students from various fields and degree levels as a writing center consultant. She was a member of TRiO McNair Scholars program, Student Support Services, and the Black Student Union. She plans to earn her Ph.D. in English at the University of Georgia next summer.