I can only imagine what students must have felt—particularly students of color who are all too familiar—with the episodes of racism that transpired over the past couple of weeks. It started with an anonymous phone call on a black male who seemed “agitated” as he walked the compounds of his place of work: the Whitmore building. The campus police responded to the call. Then, someone scrawled racial slurs on one of the bathroom mirrors in the Melville residential building. Both events happened 6 days apart. I wonder what our incoming class might be anticipating for the rest of the year?
With all the spectacles of the racist incidents happening on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, I am inspired by the efforts undergraduate students have been making to discuss their grievances. These efforts have manifested in the Melville Community—that is, the undergraduates of the Melville building—and the Student Government Association (SGA) holding a forum with the University of Massachusetts Police Department (UMPD) and a rally titled “End White Supremacy,” as the Melville Community calls it, which was eventually postponed.
Two things struck me immediately when confronted with the idea of these meetings: are we going to obliterate the United States of America and are we going to occupy the campus buildings to eliminate tuition and fees in the process because why pay a school that proudly claims “hate has no home” here? I don’t think the purpose of either meetings was for either outcome, although, I’m sure both parties would welcome the latter goal over the former.
My questions aim to interrogate the limitations and concerns that both events bring about in terms of action towards an anti-racist campus and solidarity. Operating from a humble knowledge of Black Radical Thought and Afro-pessimist informed ideas, I worry that the energies of the campus youth will be exhausted in a corporate process that will maintain and sequester the radical potential of the undergraduate students. To be clear, I am in full support of any community-led endeavor to end racism and oppression of all kinds, especially when it is led and organized by young people; however, I am interested in a conversation about their tactics in terms of their goals to “demand steps to be taken to create an anti-racist campus,” and “End White Supremacy.”
Beginning with the SGA and their forum with the UMPD, one of their goals was “to discuss the incident and for students, faculty, and administrators to discuss the community impact and strategies for building more inclusion and awareness.” It troubles me that the UMPD was only able to inform the wider community on their procedures and regulations that they follow when called to address issues of security. It’s a very objective way to respond to the subjective nature of the rest of the forum where people shared their feelings and thoughts on their own experiences with racism. Furthermore, the discussion was meant to determine how the cadre of racism experienced on campus—present or past—can inform a “space of dignity, respect, safety, and inclusion!”
It would be inappropriate to suggest that the UMPD is the sole culprit for acting upon the racist suspicions of an anonymous caller. Their procedure in addressing the call was a response to and not initiation of racism. Yet, their response is part of racism in that black bodies are always under suspicion in America. A police force of any kind has traditionally been utilized by whiteness to carry-out surveillance of people of color, particularly black people. Reginald Andrade had this to say on the matter: “No one else gets racially profiled in my office, just me. I’m the only Black male who works in our office.”
White supremacy is a position of power. It is a system driven by racist ideology. Thus, no one is looking at white Whitmore employees with suspicion. Therefore, as real as microaggressions, individual confrontations with whiteness (which is always hostile against non-white bodies), and racial profiling are, these incidents are rooted in a long history of racial oppression and systematic operation. Accordingly, organizing must consist of a plan of action that does not simply rest on a discourse between students and administration—as the students emphasized, the administration responded very late to the situation—instead, clear demands must be made and met for the students to begin to reach an anti-racist campus without compromise.
So, again, what can be achieved with a forum with the police? Can we conceive an anti-racist community with a traditionally systemic racist institution of force? The Melville Community had a different idea in achieving its aims. In response to a threat against black students in Melville—which I will not repeat here as it perpetuates anti-blackness—the students organized a protest due to the disappointment in the school’s lack of initiation toward resolution and justice on the matter. However, the Melville community made a list of demands that include a “plan of action,” to have dorms create clusters to discuss “racist hate speech,” and transparency on the school’s part to include the entire campus in future reports. This rally was student-centered as the discussion to plan action was internal with those who attend the protest. The SGA is better equipped to promote their events given that they have a staff and financial resources of $4 million dollars, compared to the Melville community which is an informal organization of students, and therefore, the reason they have not formally reached out to the wider campus community. Regardless, those details are not the concern of this graduate student’s opinion.
What is my concern is that: to sincerely end white supremacy, the energy for radical action must go beyond the campus, beyond Amherst, and beyond Massachusetts. It is too early to expect the energies of the undergraduate community to be confined to the university, however, that is also the reason why I write to them: don’t let it end here! How I would expect the university to respond is in a progressive manner that offers more and more programs and trainings revolving around racial tolerance. Once that happens, my imagination makes me wonder if these kinds of incidents were to happen again, what would future demands consist of? What does future political action look like? Who will have the energies to organize again and again? By interacting with the institution, formal or informal, it gives the administration an opportunity to respond in a manner that may hinder or stretch out the process toward an anti-racist campus. In other words, it gives the administration the upper hand to dictate the pace of change. Reform is different than revolution in that there are no drastic changes in the former, only new(same) additions(expansions). Therefore, when I thought about alternatives, I considered what kind of discourse would take place if students decided to occupy Whitmore? How soon would the administration listen to student demands if the central hub of student financial power were to be filled with tuition-paying bodies? What would the country look like if we mobilized ourselves en masse in schools across the nation? Would school be free; imagine that. I say, why not?
I hope I am not misinterpreted in my counsel to the undergraduates taking action. I do not intend to critique those who have amassed students whom feel a common frustration and wish to weaponize their energies to create a just world. I’m no armchair revolutionary. My worry lies in watching the energy disappear, watching a potential movement fade away because of a bureaucracy, administrative schedules, or the satisfaction of training programs or discussion panels. Understandably, the work must start somewhere, and I am attentive to where it will go. I can only hope that more students—graduate and undergraduate—faculty and staff will meet them once they get moving.