At UCI: Do #BlackLivesMatter?
A space with the intent and potential of being a critical discussion on black issues became a toxic space to run away from. It’s no wonder that many began walking out at the #BlackLivesMatter: Campus-wide Teach-In. Perhaps they walked out because of the unconventional nature of the audience — a majority non-black students and faculty. With this array of different perspectives, experiences and positionalities, the conversation took some weird turns and became messy. This is the price we all have to pay for being in an education system which fails to provide us with the political education necessary to understand the basic power-relations that operate this country’s institutions.
It seemed like the attendees were incapable of giving proper attention to something as specific as the experiences of black people under institutional oppression by the familiar hands of the school and the police. Yet, often times, a lot of applauding happened after certain questions and comments that were seemingly pro-black. I say seemingly because it became hard to judge the difference between comments which were pro-black, anti-black or neutral. People began calling out others who “stepped out of line” and those who were being called out were hurt. This is where we collectively began focusing on the feelings of individuals as opposed to the reason why we came here in the first place. On one hand, there was anger, vulnerability and raw emotion: talk of safety, life and death. Such a narrative was met by superficial, personal opinions regarding love and respecting one another. Black people in this country and on this campus have a right to be angry and do not owe anyone an apology for that. Yet one non-black girl, toward the end of the Teach-In, implored everyone to be “polite.” I could sense that the word “civil” was on the tip of her tongue.
Some members of the administration spoke during the Teach-In, addressing the black students in the following manner: “Make use of the resources on campus.” Thankfully, many elected black representatives were able to respond immediately. Co-Chair of BSU, Mia Ogundipe-Tillman, says “You ask us what we need and we tell you every time and you derail the conversation by telling us ‘Do you go to this? Do you go to that?’ Well, no I don’t go to that because its anti-black. This university is anti-black. This university hates me!”
Jazmyne McNeese, co-chair of the Afrikan Black Coalition Conference, follows up Mia’s statement. “People in this room have been to every single one of these people’s offices, we know all of their names, we use all of their resources. But the fact is that there’s nothing left. The people who have the money and can help us, aren’t even in this room … Who else are we going to call?” A few seconds passed before a few exclaimed: “Gillman!” To which McNeese answered in a low tone, “He got the letter,” before taking a seat.
A lot of space was taken by “allies” with their poorly thought out declarations of solidarity and color blindness, which never seem to lead anywhere. There are certain ideas which should be understood before entering a politically black space. If I learned anything from the Teach-In, it’s that non-black people are truly a hindrance to macro and micro forms of black liberation. Only now do I understand the phrase: “There is no such thing as allies.” With their inclusion, the conversation moved backwards instead of forward.
Let’s take talk about the Teach-In specifically. Where did we go wrong and how can we prevent a productive conversation from being contaminated by “allies.” A few questions about becoming a better ally were thrown into the conversation. McNeese responds to this by saying “I don’t think these black students,” she points to her peers, “should have to continue to teach non-black students … it should not be our job to teach you what you (should already be) educating yourself on these issues.”
Non-black students should be very hesitant before speaking in politically black spaces. If you can Google it, take a class, or ask a friend then don’t speak. You will be doing everyone in the room a favor. You are contributing to the mobility of the discussion by not contributing. Only in non-black, non-political spaces and in the event that a black voice is being silenced, you may echo them. You have non-black privilege and may be taken more seriously. If you really want to help the cause just re-iterate what has already been said. Otherwise, do not steal their agency and ownership of a narrative by speaking on behalf of them. You cannot “engage in conversation” because black people and their experiences have nothing to do with you. By not speaking sometimes, you are able to contribute by simply listening.
Marwa Aboubaker is a fourth-year comparative literature and film and media studies double-major. She can be reached at email@example.com.