Questions of racial injustice at Boston College were addressed in the fifth installment of BC Ignites, which was hosted by the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) on Tuesday. This latest edition of the student lecture series was titled “Injustice is Here” and took place in Gasson 100. Previous BC Ignites have discussed, among other things, socioeconomic status and mental health issues. One keynote speaker, Anjali Vats, an assistant professor in the department of communications, and three students spoke about their experiences. Then the FACES council, an organization that works to address problems of racism on campus, facilitated multiple discussion groups.
Lucas Levine, a member of Student Initiatives and A&S ’15, introduced the event. He said that students may be uncomfortable talking about issues of race, but these conversations were important to have. Levine states that although injustice may seem like a distant idea, it is something concrete that BC students have experienced.
Vats first began to think about the problem of race when she was an undergraduate at Michigan State University. She left home when she was 16, and did not know much about race, she said. She first started talking about it with a friend on the debate team at her university.
“We quickly realized we were the only people of color in this environment,” she said. “We talked a lot about race in the early hours of the morning on the van rides home. And these conversations, even though we didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about race, mattered a lot.”
These conversations ultimately led Vats to a career in academics, teaching on issues of race. It is critical to talk about race because of recent events—Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner—that cannot be ignored, she said. Vats challenged the audience to engage in questions of race, and to be an ally with those individuals who fight structural racism.
She said that this cultural moment is something that does not come along very often, adding that these conversations in which race is discussed will stick with those who do talk about it.
“It’s an opportune moment for you all to connect with each other, to have these types of conversations, and really engage with the question of race,” she said.
Kareemuh Sabur, GSSW ’16, spoke about her experience being called exceptional, and how she realized that separating herself from her heritage just made things more difficult. She was called an exception for her race for the first time when she was 14 and asked her mentor, a graduate student, if it was true that black students are less intelligent than white students. She noted how both white and black people had labeled her as an exception for a poor black child from a poor area.
“Soon I started to believe it,” she said. “That I was the exception and that the group I belong to was somehow flawed.”
Sabur lived in a housing project and was bussed to selective, predominantly white schools from the age of 10. She then went on to Harvard University for her undergraduate and law degree. Being called an exception is a triumph in some ways, she said, but a danger in others.
“I was not understanding that the idea of separating myself out from the people who shared my own background was toxic,” she said. “As soon as we become spokespeople for that toxic system we begin to hate ourselves and we begin to become oppressors.”
Next, Sonia Okorie, CSON ’17, responded to quotes from Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She also reflected on the first time she had been referred to by a racial slur, when she was 16. Race can be a burden, she said.
“All that time it had not occurred to me I was black—I thought I was Nigerian,” she said. “Sometimes race is a rude awakening.”
Okorie responded to one quote in particular from Americanah: “The manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not.” Now, Okorie said, people do not look for people to blame. Instead, she asserted everyone needs to participate on all fronts, because race is an obligation.
Third, Cusaj Thomas, A&S ’15, discussed the various internalized biases against black students. Based on his own personal experience, he said that underlying racial biases are more painful—the hidden, preconceived biases held by students at BC, who are educated, are the ones that hurt the most.
“Underlying issues and underlying biases run much deeper than overt action,” he said.
Featured Image by Michelle Castro / Heights Staff