warning: some images included use strong and racist language
The Douglass Leadership House (DLH) at the University of Rochester, as written on its home page (link listed below), holds the mission of “celebrat[ing] and rais[ing] awareness of the many facets of the black experience including its culture, politics, history, and Diasporic roots.” The student group, who takes its name after the powerfully just and outspoken promoter of equality Frederick Douglass, has put forth such effort toward bridging students of different identities so much so fulfilling their mission through community engagement that it was awarded the Student Organization of the Year Award from the University for the 2012-2013 school year.
I want to make a few things abundantly clear here. I am not a member of DLH, nor am I a student of color. I do not know what it is like to be oppressed because of my skin color. What I do know is that DLH is important. DLH promotes conversations vital to the progression of our collective student understanding. I write this article not because I have to (DLH does not need a queer white boy sticking up for them to be valid, they are valid simply for being) but because I want to.
On the 20th of February, the University of Rochester chose to extend the Douglass Leadership House’s lease on their on-campus house, situated on the fraternity quadrangle, for another three years. Rightly deserved, I should say, as simply the existence of DLH opens doors of cultural understanding otherwise closed shut by a predominantly white campus.
Outrage ensued among the student body, taking the form, of course, of anonymous social media hate posts. I could try to describe the Yik Yak posts from that night, but I would rather show you what was said over the course of several hours:
Of course, there were the straightforward racist comments.
Then, some escalated to threats.
Some seemed to have forgotten how racism works (more racism doesn’t cancel out racism).
Others took it upon themselves to decide racism just doesn’t exist
or to decide what DLH can and can’t do, as well as deciding to being able to speak for an entire “minority community.”
Some even abused Mean Girls quotes to fuel their hate.
In short, people of the university chose to take to anonymity to express anger in the form of deep-seated racism that still clearly penetrates our daily environment. Seeing these posts enraged me, and I considered what it must be like in the wake of this event to be a student of color on campus. What do students of color experience in all this? Furthermore, how do Douglass Leadership House and the greater student of color community play into this experience? I originally was going to summarize my observations, but it is much more powerful to let these students speak for themselves:
What has DLH done for you? What does it mean to you?
“Without DLH, I’m not sure how I would have navigated life after hearing that Black lives don’t matter in the eyes of the law. It is my heart and my reason for fighting.”
~Alanna Hardy, Treasurer of DLH
“Douglass Leadership House has been everything to me while here at the University of Rochester, my home, family, a source of encouragement…everything.”
~Caprecia Singleton, Member of DLH
“Since my freshman year it has served as my safe haven. DLH serves as my refuge, a place of peace and restoration from the micro-aggressions that I experience on a daily basis at the U of R.”
~Sequoia Kemp, Member of DLH
How do you experience the racial environment on this campus?
“I don’t raise my hand in fear that if I say something, I might get judged by the students around me. It is difficult to explain my experiences as a Latino male at a private white institution because most of the people on campus can’t relate.”
~Edwin Aguila, Member of DLH
“I’m conscious of the fact that there are not as many students of color here, and that makes me more conscious of my blackness here. I feel that we all look at each other in a certain way because of this.”
~Amber-Danielle Baldie, Previous President and current member of DLH
“I think this is a serious issue. There are many instances where it may be present but because it isn’t overt it’s overlooked.”
~Sadé Richardson, President of DLH
How has the students of color community helped you with this?
“The community of color has given me a safe space to go. Being at a predominantly white institution everything on campus is geared towards making the majority (white people) happy. With this, many times I feel forgotten on this campus.”
“The students of color community rally together to fight off another beast that rears it’s ugly racist anonymous head at us. We mobilize, much to their chagrin, but we do it stride, so that students coming up behind us after we graduate, have a better chance at a safe campus atmosphere.”
There is an oppressive atmosphere of racism over this campus. These six DLH members represent only a fraction of the students of color at this school, and every one of them experiences it every day. Douglass Leadership House provides these students a safe haven where they can feel comfortable in their own skin. But more than that, Douglass Leadership House promotes conversing about these issues and working them out.
“Our door is always open for conversation,” Amber-Danielle Baldie says. “These conversations are important, and we want to have them.”
There is no denying this racism on campus; there is no pretending it doesn’t exist so one can be comfortable in their whiteness. This is a problem, and we need to talk about it. Not over anonymous social media apps—in person. Face-to-face. Every racist post, anonymous or not, furthers this oppression rather than solving it. It will not go away until we come together to resolve it.
In the meantime, Douglass Leadership House will not be going anywhere. To go out on a powerful quote from member Sequoia Kemp, “The racist comments on Yik Yak hurt us, but they will not destroy us, nor the legacy that DLH has created. Their legacy, strength, and importance will not be compromised by cowardly comments made on an anonymous app. The members of DLH will continue to thrive, persevere, and make noble contributions to our campus community, and I will gladly stand in support of all their future endeavors.”