Today, while eating in the South Residential Hall on campus, I noticed a familiar encounter that could quickly have escalated into a physical altercation.
A young white student brought her boyfriend on campus to eat. Her boyfriend, a young white man (non-student), began to use racial slurs against a young black male student.
The black student’s friend decided to walk over to confront this verbal abuse. Almost immediately, the white man walked away, leaving his boastful girlfriend to provoke this black man.
I’ll pause here. I’ve seen this played out too many times to count. First, a part of me will gracefully accept the fact that racism today is easy to spew but hard to defend and a swift exit is the only line of escape for ill conceived actions.
Second, given the scenario of a white girl provoking and cursing at a young black man, if that provocation had ended in a physical encounter, I know which one in this scenario would be given the benefit of the doubt.
I wonder, echoing a colleague’s words, what are we truly doing to protect our young black men? Are we ever going to have the very tough conversations about race-related confrontations and what our minority students have to deal with?
Back to the story. Standing in between an aggressive white female student and a black male student whom I had convinced to sit back down, I couldn’t help but hear the deafening silence around me.
A university police officer, secluded but within in eyesight, was eating his lunch. Cafeteria workers and students were looking on in attempts to figure out what the commotion was about. Nobody stepped in. Nobody said a word. It was as if this was commonplace.
I took no names – I took no statements. Instead, I demanded that this aggressive young lady exit the cafeteria.
I stayed behind to tell this group of young black men that I get it. I understand. I know that they deal with impossible situations and that more often than not their actions are used against them. They were justifiable in their outrage, wanting to eat lunch without racial tensions.
I only wish I had spoken words of affirmation to them, letting them know that they are valued beyond the words I could ever express.
I followed the girl and her boyfriend upstairs, asked them a few questions and determined (through his own confession) that this white, male non-student was in fact using racially insensitive words against one of our black Ole Miss students.
He mentioned that he was reacting, that maybe there had been some background between him and one of the students. He said he had no problems with the man who confronted him, that his racial remarks were aimed at his friend.
I told them both that they too needed to learn to walk away, to mind the words they use and that he should never come on campus and assume that those words would be acceptable. They both left.
Subconsciously I think back and wonder a few things: How did I know instinctively what was escalating? What would have happened if I had not been there? Why didn’t I immediately get the officer’s attention?
I wonder how many times I’ve witnessed black men detained and their images ruined at the aggression of white women trying to provoke them. I suspect perhaps knowing this caused me to not bring immediate attention and try first to calm this him, telling him that he needed to walk away.
Is that where we are? Is there any pride in having to tell a black student that he should walk away from every racially charged attack – not only because he will be the better person – but moreover because his role would be misconstrued and he would fall to blame?
Are we so uncomfortable with having real conversations about race that we are we forced into soothing the emotions of whites because we need them as ‘allies’? Do we coin diversity and inclusion as tokens of progress without truly making change?
This piece is merely my observation, and I would invite all students involved today to speak their truth – to add light to this story. I have only what I witnessed, and in the process of reading this I know that some will understand, some will be outraged and others will simply dismiss it as another attack on whites.
One may even pose a counter argument on progression and how “this is not ‘our’ Ole Miss.” What if it is? Where do we go from here?
As I stand in front of a predominantly white classroom, I know my presence is an anomaly. Until now you may have inferred that I am black, simply by the story told.
The truth is that I am you – every good thing and every bad thing you’ve ever done. Yesterday I was the student. Tomorrow I’ll be the educator. Today I was simply the best and worst of all of us.
Jennifer Sadler is an integrated marketing communications instructor at the university.