Reckoning with racism at college and beyond
It has been almost six months since America’s supposed reckoning with its horrific relationship with people of color. In Atlanta, a man went to three different spas and murdered 8 people, 6 of whom were Asian women, following a year in a pandemic that has exacerbated anti-Asian sentiments and actions. Lives stolen because we live in a society that made these actions acceptable; a society where warning people that calling a deadly virus as China Virus, Wuhan Virus, or Kung Flu would lead to hate crime is labeled “political correctness.” So it proved frustratingly predictable when President Biden said of these attacks: “It’s wrong, it’s Un-American and it must stop.”
It is wrong. It must stop. But is it un-American? I will concede that these attacks go against the values of egalitarianism and liberty that America claims to champion. However, a nation founded on white supremacy has a familial relationship with hate crimes. A nation that enacted policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and Executive Order 9066 wouldn’t have anti-Asian hate crimes out of its capacity. This anti-acknowledgment of this country’s real past proves symptomatic of its favorite pastime: forgetting.
White Americans have the luxurious gift of forgetting pain. I say this knowing that white people feel pain and encounter hardship. However, white Americans hardly ever feel pain or encounter hardship because of their whiteness. White Americans were not kidnapped, chained and whipped for centuries. White Americans were not murdered or had their land stolen. White Americans were not kept out of the country by law for decades. The white supremacy of America kidnapped and enslaved Africans. The white supremacy of America murdered the indigenous and stole their land. The white supremacy of America banned and excluded Asians and Latinx. The white supremacy of America thrived in the nation of “all men are created equal.” Those that suffered at the hands of white supremacy are cursed with those scars of memory. I don’t fault the descendants of those white Americans who whipped, kidnapped, chained, murdered, stole and excluded. No one should not be blamed nor irredeemably tarnished by the sins of their fathers. However, the sins didn’t die with the father. They stayed from generation to generation and century to century. And now that sin, the sin of white supremacy, has also created this prevalence of forgetting. Even when it appears that more white Americans will remember, the habit of forgetting will always return.
In 2020, America seemed to reckon with its abusive relationship with Black Americans. With mass protests occurring over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, this time looked different than all the other murders. However, the same hope for justice that appears with every high-profile murder dissipated and turned false. A few months afterward, support for Black Lives Matter dropped, even as the very same threat of state-sanctioned Black death remained. While all groups, besides Blacks, had lowered support, white Americans had the sharpest drop. It went from 60% to 45%. It went from a majority of white Americans supporting the movement to a minority. Contrary, other racial groups’ support decreased but maintained a majority. This could be possibly due to many reasons (decreased media coverage, etc.). But at the core of this situation is the power of forgetfulness that moved those numbers. If one pays attention to this country’s history, one could’ve predicted that George Floyd joined the all too long list of names forgotten by white America until it cares to remember. The pain still resides, but some have, by choice or habit, forgotten. Even in smaller arenas devoid of racial brutality, forgetting is still a tool for the privileged, while others still have those small wounds with them. I have my own remembrance wounds.
In my first year at Ithaca College, a predominately white college (a type of college that preaches about diversity and inclusion, but it had as much diversity as the Garden Party scene in Get Out), I joined Buzzsaw as a copyeditor. Buzzsaw’s ethos is this: “publish original creative journalism, commentary and satire that works to deconstruct society, pop culture, politics, college life and dominant Western beliefs.” This sounds attractive to me as a writer influenced by the politically conscious works of James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Three months into it, I made a joke to one of my colleagues there, let’s call her Emma.
I asked Emma to read an essay I wrote, to which she said yes. Later in the week, she told me she couldn’t because she was busy (which was no problem for me). When I went to our weekly meetings, she waited for everyone outside while reading a book. We, along with two other members, entered the classroom. I said: “oh, you have time to read a book, but not my essay,” in a slight ribbing fashion. It was not read that way. I don’t exactly remember what she said, but I clearly remember the tone. An air of condescension, mixed with a feeling of insult that I thought I would even speak to her in that way filled her voice. I sat in a chair while she stood up and looked down at me. My near 6 foot, 230+ pound body was subjugated and made small by a little-over 5 foot, skinny white woman. She reamed me out in front of the two people already there who watched with somewhat astonishment at this verbal stoning. What threw me off: I didn’t know why she was speaking in this way towards me. I had grown up around white people talking down to me and patronizing me in ways I thought I didn’t have to deal with when I went to school up North. Was Emma talking to me like this because she’s white and I’m Black? In the end, I diffused it by telling her that everything is fine. I tried to forget and carry on in the following minutes, but I am not spoiled with that power. I left the meeting lying about stomach issues. Later, when I got back to my room, I felt shame for causing conflict and potentially hurting her feelings. I sent her an apology text. To which she later realizes what happened and said I didn’t need to apologize.
Afterward, I saw one of the other people there, let’s call him Richard. He knew the truth of my departure. I sat with him along with his friends to start eating as soon as I got off work, and he said: “You both hurt each other’s feelings,” and overemphasized her feelings and never asked how I felt. I told him how I, as a Black person, feel uneasy when a white person talks down to me. He dismissed it as ridiculous. The table, who knew the situation, joined in Richard’s dismissal and laughed it off with him as well. A few weeks later, he told me, “It would be stupid if you were still mad about it.” This predominately white group dismissed me. And I never talked to him about this nor countered whatever he said because I was the new kid trying to fit in, trying to find a community, and I didn’t want to jeopardize it. However, I had talked to Emma about how I felt about how she spoke to me, and she completely understood where I came from. I am not burdened with this memory, but I carry it, and Emma carries a form of it as a lesson for her. However, I doubt Richard will remember those instances as if they’re mere throw-away instances for him, but I doubt I will forget them.
Forgetfulness is easy when it’s not on you to remember. We’re cursed with memory but also blessed with remembrance. We are more aware of the world’s true nature than the forgetful. The world shows us its ass, and we remember, so we’re not blindsided the next time by the world’s cruelty. When we remember, we remember those who have lost and those experiences to not create this repetition of those hardships and fate. And in absolute defiance, we live. We go out and live our lives because it serves as the ultimate payback for our memory. We counter by creating memories of joy and love and happiness against the memories of alienation and pain. Because life is not all misery. We also fight. However, what do we do when some choose to forget?
Kevin Gyasi-Frempah is a third-year writing major who will not stop asking you to remember. They can be reached at [email protected].