For Student Protestors, Standard ‘Lip Service’ Insufficient - Higher Education
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For Student Protestors, Standard ‘Lip Service’ Insufficient

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by Autumn A. Arnett


Brandeis University graduate student Christian Perry is fresh off an 11-day sit-in at the Bernstein-Marcus Administrative Center, which houses the president’s office, sparked by the failure by administration to meet the demands of Black students on campus to promote a more welcoming environment.

The students’ demands were not unlike those unfolding in recent weeks across the country.

“The interesting thing about us was that unlike all the other universities, we have an interim president,” said Perry, who called the limitations imposed by the temporary nature of the leadership “a very tricky, interesting and huge hurdle that we had to navigate.”

“There needs to be a sense of urgency and people need to understand that we’re not going to take the same kind of lip service that we’ve [been fed] for decades,” said Perry.

Dr. Christopher Emdin, an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too,” said the country is failing to realize the impact of a number of micro-aggressions and conditions facing Black students and faculty members on their campus experiences.

Emdin said the approach to students and faculty of color responding to what appear to be individual incidents of racism needs to be changed to viewing them through a framing of being plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder. Though the protests may seem to be “spurred by one particular event, they’re [fueled] by a bunch of little micro-events” that have taken place over an extended period of time, he said. “All of those things coalesce in that moment” that they are denied entrance to a fraternity party or a swastika pops up on a dorm wall or a noose is spotted hanging from a tree, he said.

Emdin says that for many ― particularly Blacks ― the death of “Trayvon Martin was such a powerful watershed moment that really awakened us to the differences in how we process these things.” And every time they are faced with what appears to be an individual incident on campus, “these events are triggers.”

Emdin also points out that for most victims of PTSD, the prescribed treatment is to remove them from the traumatic environment, but for students and faculty of color facing any number of micro-aggressions over a sustained period of time, they still must return to class the next day, which is “completely contrary to what is needed for their healing,” he said.

Referencing an advancement of W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness ― the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” described often by the renowned sociologist ―  Emdin said he believes this concept is “more of a reality on predominately white campuses than in the society at large” at this point, because increasingly the world in which we live is comprised more of people of color; but PWI campuses are not keeping up.

“I see people that look like me in every other place; on campus it’s an instant placing into a place where there’s no one like me,” he said.

As schools across the country begin to announce measures and plan steps to address some of the concerns set forth by the student protestors, Emdin said it is important to realize that “the failure to recognize that even the addressing of those issues [cannot be done] in spaces that [do] not allow the people who were affected to feel comfortable.”

“I hope that society looks at Brandeis and other universities, we’re just calling out what [this] society says it already is,” said Perry. “Brandeis says that it’s a social justice school. Brandeis appropriates the story of [student activists in the past] to talk about how it has social justice champions. It talks about Angela Davis, it talks about equality and uplifting those who are most marginalized … the Black students at Brandeis University and our accomplices, our White accomplices, our Brown brothers and sisters, everyone who was in this building was like, ‘Brandeis this is what you’re telling everyone that you are, but this is not what you are, so we want you to live up to the standards that you’re holding everyone else [to] and what you’re telling everyone you are.’”

It is frivolous for instance, said Emdin, to host panel discussions on sensitivities and campus climate if the faces on the panel do not mirror those of the students hurting, he said. Simply announcing plans to increase Black hires is not enough, he continued.

“We don’t want Black faces that represent White ideologies, we want Black faces that represent our communities,” he said, adding that making a hire for show who just “happens to be Black and just so happen to be at an Ivy League institution but has spent so much time trying to acclimate themselves to White norms that they’ve forgotten their Black identity” isn’t going to solve anything or appease students.

“They want something different,” he said.

That something different, according to Emdin, is feeling a sense of ownership, like they truly have a seat at the table. They don’t want to be banished to their own tables, they don’t want to burn the house down ― because then their loved ones would not be able to access the opportunities at the table.

“We are going to put our bodies on the line to make sure that Black and marginalized students that come after us have the experience that they deserve at Brandeis,” Perry said.

Why the explicit focus on Blackness? According to Perry, it’s simple: “When you lift up the most marginalized of you, everybody wins,” he said.

“The best advice I would give [to White students and faculty on campus trying to understand the plight of the Black students] is this notion of really understanding what your comfort is comprised of” and then “make sense of what other students don’t have,” said Emdin.

For White students and faculty, they “don’t have to think about that because [their] comfort and [their] norm is what is expected,” Emdin said, adding that the only way to promote a better environment for people of color on predominantly White campuses is for those in the majority to make a concerted effort to “make sense of what it would feel like for someone who has no normal” on campus.

“You don’t see it because you don’t have to see it. [People of color on campus] are simply arguing for their humanity,” said Emdin.

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