The 5% Project (It Really Be Ya Own People!)

La'Kayla Celeste
May 1, 2018 · 5 min read

I don’t make a habit of reading The Daily Texan, one of the nation’s largest college newspapers and source of great pride at the University of Texas at Austin. I don’t pick up the paper because of the residual bad taste in my mouth from several casually racist encounters I’ve had with the Texan over the 4 years of my undergraduate education. Now, as a second-year graduate student at the University completing a Masters Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies, my main concern is meeting my deadlines. This was the business I was minding when I happened across Volume 118, Issue 131 of the publication while on campus one morning a few weeks ago. It was the image that struck me: a close-up of Daniel Nkoola, Black creative and undergraduate student in Radio-Television-Film, the major I earned one of my bachelor’s degrees in. I picked up the paper, excited to read when something else in the top, right hand corner caught my eye. A graphic proclaimed that this story was the 6th installment in ‘The 5% Project,” a collaboration between The Daily Texan and UT’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalist. I stared at the notation for a few minutes before snapping a picture on my phone, leaving the paper where I found it.

The University of Texas is a hostile place for Black students. The frenzy surrounding Abigail Fisher’s lawsuit was in full swing in 2012, and before I could step foot on campus, I was contacted via Facebook by a Texan reporter, and asked to speak about why I was in fact qualified to attend the University despite me being, well, Black. I was 17 years old, wide eyed and mostly ignorant to the systemic racism that had plagued my existence, and to which I would be subjected to continuously for the next four years. My entire freshman year I kept that issue of the Texan on my desk as validation that I was a part of the great Texas tradition.

By the time I was a junior, the full reality of the racism entrenched in UT had hit me square in the face. I was known to be vocal on social media about the injustices my classmates and I had faced at the hands of white administration and other white students. I was connected with then editor of The Daily Texan Riley Brands, and asked to write a piece about the infamous Fiji fraternity “Border Patrol” party that took campus (and the internet) by storm. The piece ran under ‘Anonymous’ but I have maintained the communications between Brands and myself, just in case anyone needs to see the receipts.

After the piece ran I was in talks with Brands to put together a ‘Minority Advisory Committee’ which would serve to consult Texas Student Media on issues concerning race. Brands invited me to speak at a meeting with the TSM Board of Operating Trustees, but failed to give me the correct room number or respond to my requests for the information via text message. When I finally found the room, the meeting was in full swing. I walked in and was immediately on display to a room consisting only of cis white men who needed to be convinced that Black students were oppressed on campus, and deserved representation. I’ll spare the details but that interaction convinced me that I no longer wanted anything to do with TSM or the Texan. Brands’ Minority Advisory Committee never took shape.

My senior year, the president of Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically Black fraternity, was walking outside of his apartment when two drunk, racist, white male students dropped a heavy vase from their 2nd or 3rd story apartment. Black UT boiled over. I worked with fellow students such as Loyce Gayo and professors such as Dr. Christen Smith and Dr. Edmund T. Gordon to set up conversations and administrative actions to address the Black undergraduate experience on UT’s campus. Before a town hall, Gayo mentioned that we needed a simple hashtag that could serve as the umbrella to all of these efforts. I came up with #TheFourPercent, rounding up from the commonly cited, and troubling statistic that Black undergrads made up 3.8% of the campus population. That town hall was full to bursting — members of the Nation of Islam came out. Videos were shot, the hashtag was tweeted, the conversation buzzed, and once again I have all the receipts, just in case anyone needs to see them. But after the administration quietly “resolved” the issue with the racist students who could have killed my classmate, instituting a gag order around the nature of their punishment, the momentum died, and the hashtag with it.

So it was a big surprise to see an altered version of the hashtag being used in this way, and in collaboration with The Daily Texan. I immediately posted the picture on my Twitter and Instagram, mentioning the Texan. No response. In the days following I sent a DM to the Texans’s twitter, asking who I could speak to about the situation. I was told to contact the managing editor, which I did on April 17th. 10 days passed and I received no response. So I took to Facebook, explaining the situation and asking what could be done about contextualizing all of the labor that went behind this, that was now being dangerously erased. At this point Brianna Stone, a worker for the Texan and the President of the UT chapter of NABJ asked me to contact her, which I did through Facebook messenger. After going back and forth with Stone and her managing editor Ellie Breed (who finally responded at Stone’s request), I realized that neither party was at all interested in properly citing and contextualizing what is and remains my intellectual property, as well as the work of other Black women. Additionally, Stone drew up a ‘statement’, casting me as a false accuser, and dragging my name through the mud. I was beyond hurt. I had at no point named anybody, and an organization claiming to be dedicated to Black people was railroading me, a Black student at UT who had been involved in activist work. I was frustrated as well, but not at all surprised. This is similar to several stories coming out of The Movement for Black Lives, where Black women’s labor is exploited, and their voices are sidelined. This is a travesty; in no way does prioritizing institutional connections help Black people — it never has. It was clear to me in my conversations with Stone and Breed that the interests of image was of more importance that practicing due diligence. I am disappointed but not surprised. I flirted with letting this go, in light of my impending graduation, and knowing that I needed to save my energy for my upcoming web series The Work, premiering this fall. But I wasn’t going to let it slide knowing that I’m not the only person hurt by this. I do not know what will happen, but I am more convinced than ever that institutions such as the NABJ and the Texan serve only to leech from us. If we continue to put our trusts into these institutions, we will forever be screwed.