What Kind of Day Has It Been Vol. 3
On November 9th, 2016 we woke up to a social media fervor of people all across the country claiming that this is “Not My America.” Well-intentioned mostly white liberals were floored, cut down to our knees with shock and fear, and it took awhile for another narrative to surface — the one that people of color and marginalized populations experience every day. This is your America, they said, it’s been like this the whole time. It took me a while to figure out a way to phrase the feeling. This was not where I thought I lived.
I never had that feeling about Charlottesville. Not about the KKK rally in July, nor when breaking news alerts started pushing through the negligible cell service on my vacation. At a school where we unironically celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, where the genteel old south still clings to everything from the football games and polo matches to the yearly excursions to the horse races, where those who exempt themselves from Greek culture are referred to as (proudly in my case) “god damn independents”? Of course not.
Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker writes more eloquently than I ever could about this phenomenon — the peculiar crossroads Charlottesville represents, where progressivism meets respectability politics and students eager to learn and to expand their perspective do so at a school built on the backs of slaves. It’s a strange place, all at once hopeful as we watch students defying white supremacy and standing together against hate, and cynical as the school’s denunciation fails to name racism as the culprit for this weekend’s attacks.
I met some wonderful people while I was at UVA. Some of my best friends, many from the same sorority, are the same people I talk to now about white supremacy and trans erasure and gender fluidity. They are people with whom I can discuss new ways we are learning and growing and trying to be better, and I know UVA played some part in that. I wasn’t often happy there, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t challenged, wasn’t growing.
But UVA is still an absurdly white school, a place that is uncomfortable for people of color, for people who don’t fit traditional modes of white middle class America. It was hard enough for me to stand outside frat parties waiting to be judged pretty enough to be let in. I can’t imagine what that would have been like for someone without my many privileges. And with only 87 black professors out of 2,754 the work of challenging students is left to a majority white faculty, many ill equipped or unwilling to do the necessary work in challenging their students.
And we can never forget that racism isn’t just demographics — it is a constant violence perpetrated on people of color, people like Martese Johnson, beaten by Alcohol Beverage Control officers, and Sage Smith, a 19 year old trans woman who went missing in 2012.
I wish I was surprised. I wish that I was floored that this ugly brutal face of our nation’s insidious problem with racism chose a small college town in the middle of my home state to make its stand. There are things I will always love about Charlottesville — things like dumplings and the two most beautiful weddings in the world, like afternoons on the lawn and outdoor bars and writing reviews of art exhibits for the school paper. Things like knowing that there is a powerful community of smart, engaged students working incredibly hard everyday to make UVA live up to its ideals — honor, truth, and especially self-governance, which pushes us to take responsibility for ourselves, our actions and our contributions to our communities and our country.
But we’re not there yet, not even close — not as a school, not as a state, not as a country. We have so much work left to do to keep bending that arc of history towards justice. And we can never do that by standing idly by while hatred and violence festers and grows and screams in our face. There are so many brave, engaged people fighting in Charlottesville and beyond and they need our help. I don’t want to feel this sick recognition of a place I learned too much about myself and not enough about the world. And that means I have a lot of work to do too.
Nothing I’ve said here hasn’t really been said previously by someone smarter than me, so check out these articles if you want to read further. There are some resources there as well for engaging in productive work against racism and anti-blackness. And always feel free to reach out if there’s something in here you want to talk about.
What UVA did wrong when white supremacists came to campus (it’s called grounds, actually, but that’s okay LA Times, you make many more important points so we’ll let it slide)