Over one hundred USF community members participated in an emotional conversation last Thursday when the Black Student Union held a campuswide Black Out to stand in solidarity with students of color, particularly the black students of the University of Missouri who received racist death threats.
Crowded into the communal area of the UC 4th floor, a group of students and faculty dressed in solid black clothing listened to the stories of USF students of color who have struggled and continue to struggle with racism in their daily lives.
“I think that it was definitely an overwhelming space of various emotions — just raw, unapologetic, real emotions that students were feeling,” said Black Student Union President Sarah Toutant, the organizer of the event.
BSU members stood beside Toutant at the Black Out, encouraging the participation of student voices in the conversation. “The people that needed to speak, they spoke,” said Toutant, a senior. “No administrator, no faculty member, no staff member said anything because we made it clear to them that this is a student space. We are here and we are happy that you are supporting us, but it’s for students.”
“It almost seemed impossible not to say something,” said sophomore Maya Berry, who volunteered to share her experiences as an African American young woman at the Black Out. “I think it was an amazing thing, getting together in solidarity, because it was a chance for people to release some of their pent up frustrations with what is going on right now at Mizzou. We all had strong feelings, whether that be anger, sadness, or otherwise. It’s good to talk with those who understand.”
University of Missouri students have been voicing complaints about instances of racism there for many years now, but this year’s events have been based on a recent wave of racist incidents on campus. Over the past year, various people on campus have made racist statements and gestures, such as scattering cotton balls on the lawn as a symbol of slavery and drawing a swastika on a bathroom wall with feces, without any repercussions from administration. After black rights advocacy groups, including Concerned Student 1950, Racism Lives Here, and the Legion of Black Collegians, held various protests across Mizzou’s campus, administrative figures acknowledged the racism prevalent in their community.
University of Missouri system President Tim Wolfe was one of the final administrators to speak out, and his silence up to that point resulted in a list of official demands that Concerned Student 1950 released on October 21, requiring MU administration to address those concerns by October 28. If those demands were not met, Concerned Student 1950 vowed to react with “appropriate nonviolent actions.” The organization included in their list the implementation of racial awareness curriculum, an increased African American faculty and staff, and the official removal of Tim Wolfe as University of Missouri system president.
The demands were not met by the Oct. 28 deadline, and as a result, MU graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike, which lasted for eight days and ended with Wolfe’s resignation. Students created an encampment in a public quad to support him and protect his privacy. On Nov. 7, University of Missouri football players announced that they would boycott all practices and games until Wolfe resigned or was removed. The following Monday, Nov. 9, Wolfe announced his resignation. This was shortly followed by the resignation of MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, after nine deans of the University requested his dismissal. For the time being, former Civil Rights lawyer Michael Middleton has been named interim president at the university.
Since Nov. 9, death threats have been made via anonymous social media app Yik Yak towards black students on campus, and a suspect was arrested by MU police.
USF politics professor James Taylor, director of the African American Studies Program, said, “The Black Out put on full display the array of student experiences — some hopeful, some demoralized. Others called for unity and solidarity for the moment that crystallized in Missouri, but what they expressed must be understood in national and even international dimensions, as well as in the classrooms and offices on campus.”
Junior Pearci Bastiany was another student who shared his experience at USF’s Black Out last Thursday. As chapter president of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African American intercollegiate Greek fraternity, and the Students with Disabilities representative for ASUSF Senate, he offered the perspective of an African American student leader. “Being a person of my position, I definitely felt inclined to get the conversation started. I know that there’s a lot of people on this campus that feel the same way about what’s going on recently, and that we have the support of a lot of students and a lot of faculty to create change when the time comes,” Bastiany said.
Black student organizations at colleges and universities nationwide responded to the call Wednesday night to join in solidarity with black Missouri students on Thursday. Supporters were asked to wear all black. Toutant planned the event with little time to prepare and alert the campus. After creating a Facebook event and sending emails to a select group of faculty and students, she was unsure what turnout to expect. “I made sure to make the Facebook event at 10 p.m., when I could’ve made it at 5 or earlier,” Toutant said. “Then the people who actually wanted to be there would come. It wouldn’t be a publicity stunt for the whole entire University to prep for. I was excited to see that people came out.”
The events at Missouri come at a time when there are many concerns calling for actions to address microaggressions on the USF campus. Microaggressions are brief, intentional or unintentional statements that convey negative or hostile opinions towards marginalized groups.
“These things are not isolated to Missouri,” said Toutant. “We can take Missouri and use it as context for what we are doing in this country. It’s just another example of what students, particularly black students, are facing. It’s another wake-up call that there is still work to be done, and that we still live in a society where we’re fighting for certain civil rights.”
Photo courtesy of Cathy Nguyen/Culture Centers