Growing up in the segregated South, I was accustomed to seeing “Black only” and “White only” signs. As I was maturing in North Carolina these signs were posted at restaurants and theaters. While not specifically designated by signage there were Black schools for us as children and Black churches that we attended.
In addition, we as Blacks had our side of town and White people had their side of town. We seldom came in contact with each other. It didn’t trouble us as our parents provided us with happy, loving and safe environments.
As I reflect now on this period in my life, conversations about race simply didn’t happen. There weren’t any dialogues about issues of social justice. Interestingly, I attended a parochial elementary school with all Black students and all White teachers who were nuns. I never felt marginalized or discriminated against because of the color of my skin. Some reading the aforementioned statement might think that I and my friends were naive. But kids back in the day and today can tell when a teacher doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
If you fast forward to 2015 there have been countless conversations about race and how to improve communication and garner respect for one another. These racial dialogues have occurred in business and on college campuses. Community agencies have sponsored them and many have been held in our homes. All of which have been designed to bring the races closer together.
Still with all of these workshops and dialogues, America has a long way to go. We read the newspaper or watch television and the battles among the races continue in a number of areas, too numerous to recount.
Recently, a college student in Buffalo, New York, made what I believe was a sincere effort to begin some talks about race. Ashley Powell, a Black graduate student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, put up 17 signs around campus that said “Black only” and “White only.” This was part of an art project that she had created.
Posting the signs invoked feelings of ill-will and discord among some in the campus community. She said she wanted to show White privilege.
Talking about race is a sensitive subject, and most everyone cries foul when you bring it up. The term, White privilege, has been around for years and is a part of the racial lexicon.
Some would say that too much is made of the term. Maybe because I matured when I did, I was focused solely on my pursuit of excellence. If you are Black and a baby boomer like me, I am sure that you will agree.
Did Ashley Powell realize the firestorm she would create when she started this project? I can’t answer that question. However, I do know that it did take some courage for her to post the signs. Now that the signs have been posted, where do we go from here? I think she achieved her goal and that was to get students and faculty at the New York school to begin some conversations about race. Some would opine that her strategy was different and unusual but it is the result that counts.
Sometimes it takes “unusual strategies” to get people moving on a particular issue. Ashley Powell used her graduate school experience to become a voice for how to improve relations between the races. We really don’t know who was empowered by Powell’s bold move. It could have been her fellow students or it could have been one of her graduate professors.
It is good to see those engaged in graduate study understand the importance of race and gender in this country. Speaking up and taking a stand will always take more heart and more tenacity, so kudos to Ashley Powell who stood ready to tackle a tough issue.
The signs “Black only” and “White only” put up by this graduate student will make us look a little deeper and try a little harder to make America be one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.