Letter to the Editor: Read the room

Letter+to+the+Editor%3A+Read+the+room

Illustration by Sean Brewer

Letter to the Editor

Sean Brewer ’21

I was the only Black person in all of my classes last semester.

That simple sentence was to give you a basic understanding of the enforced isolation Black and Brown students are often placed in at this university. But, to give context to my perspective I attended a predominately white private school in Washington, D.C. receiving an education that tasked me with ensuring that my opinions are based in fact and my innate need to express myself is spoken from experience and with gumption. My high school was a place of comfort for me. It was there I was able to truly come into myself and become confident in my ability to hold a conversation and engage in dialogue no matter how opposite the opinion. In receiving an award before I graduated, they reflected on a moment where I did not allow a peer of mine to promote the ‘angry black woman’ narrative when discussing literature by Maya Angelou and spoken words performed by Crystal Valentine. I was the school president, captain of many teams, a leader on many projects, but it was at that same school where I was threatened to be kicked out for playing around with a friend after a white female classmate had misunderstood the situation and went to the school administration crying and saying that she felt I was a “threat” after having known me for years and to what I thought, understanding that that simply is not who I am. It was mentally taxing and painful to be dealing with blatant racism from an institution that built me to be above the bad and not face the inherent societal realities that they had so easily placed me into and forced me to tolerate in my time at the school. I recently spoke on a zoom call with the senior leadership team at my high school and discussed the ways in which that situation, amongst others past and current, continue to be handled improperly solely to keep white peers complacently comfortable in their ignorance. It truly is the subtle shifts in legislative reform that publicly enlighten people to see incremental changes in the system but the problem lies in the fact these tiny allocations prove to only remain minimal in impact.

As a Black person, living, or perhaps surviving, in America means forcing yourself to be comfortable in the most uncomfortable situations, especially in settings like the predominantly white institution which I was and am attending. When I chose to enroll at UVM, I was hopeful that my experience would be filled with open-minded people who, too, were comfortable with being uncomfortable while simultaneously being given the opportunity to build personal and professional relationships that are respectful, mutual, and built on a basis of understanding and empathy. In many ways, I have found that. Through my work with the UVM Program Board, I have not only come into contact with a team that actively works to create inclusive programming on campus but also some of the most gifted and impartially approachable minds I have met in my time at UVM. From day one, the team and its administrators made it our collective mission to understand that acknowledging one’s differences is truly the first step to learning how intersectionalities are effective in diversity management and honest individual growth.

Through my work with UPB, I am able to remain confident in my workspace because my peers acknowledge my identities and understand the ways in which we have experienced the world differently but also in some ways see it the same. Acknowledging my Blackness has given me the freedom to live in my truth alongside my team, bosses, co-workers, and campus partners. Planning concerts has been challenging and humbling but ultimately an exciting and privileged job. I am able to interact with local vendors and represent the student body in a way that I believe to be professional and reflective of the music taste shared, along with my coworkers, by the UVM community. But too often on campus, am I placed in situations where it is made clear to me that my opinion and voice are expected to represent that of all black people and that is the problem. Too often am I expected to be comfortable with the microaggressive comments and jokes that are furthered by the connivance of my peers and colleagues. UVM plays a major role in the tokenization of its Black students and expects us to be above some of the issues rampant in the university. One being the “performative wokeness” that is engrained in the culture and foundation of the school. When I, as a Black student, saw the populated turnout to the Climate March but did not see the same insatiable turnout at a Black Lives Matter rally, I was stuck wondering why that same energy was not sapped by the community. The discriminatory and ignorant conversations that are constantly entertained in classrooms by professors who claim to promote unbiased professionalism, only work to keep white students complacent in their privileged comfortability and keeps this campus unsafe for others involved.

Though UVM is confident in promoting ‘Diversity and Inclusion,’ in my time they have proven that what they preach is different from what they practice. In simply reflecting on my interactions with some peers and associates at UVM, I have been able to fully recognize that there is an overall sense of entitlement that exists on campus where some feel that they are above the issues, narratives, and realities that Black and Brown students in this university are faced with.

In my time attending these predominantly white institutions, I have grown to learn that I am a very tolerant and patient person and that through this tolerance I have become more confident in my ability to articulate myself and thoroughly communicate my emotions. In noticing a pattern between the two institutions, I have come to recognize that in subliminal and blatant ways people will regressively remind you of what society sees us as. I have grown to recognize that I genuinely have learned more from my experiences while being Black more than I have from my time in the classroom. I have learned that when I get mad at someone or something, I don’t necessarily get mad at what they’re doing but how it makes me feel because my anger, although valid, is too often placed at the forefront of my narrative and used to misconstrue my experiences. I am a person who has always been in love with diving into discussion and dialogue to truly understand one’s current state and where they are coming from in their perspective. I  live in a constant state of self-reflection meaning when I enter a room I am actively working to acknowledge my existence, how I can use it to positively affect those around me and the ways in which I can learn in any given situation to better myself. I look at every day, every relationship, every space I enter into as a learning experience, trying to understand who I want to be in this world and the ways in which I will work individually, collectively, and effectively to get there. This is not to say that I am perfect because I too can be wrong and am comfortable in conceding to criticism and learning from it but I’m afraid the same cannot be said for my white peers.

I made the conscious choice to attend UVM to receive a quality education, but time and time again, after interactions with professors and students alike I have continuously been in the space of asking myself, “At what cost?” At what cost do I have to sacrifice my sanity and opinion to keep those around me comfortable with their ignorance? At what cost do I have to consistently deal with being invalidated and challenged by my peers when working to ensure dialogue and conversations are built on a foundation of mutual understanding and ethical respect? At what cost do I continue to try with a community that is truly selective with who they deem worthy of admiration and regard?

Too often have I encountered people at this school who don’t care to acknowledge my race or my existence simply because my utterance, perspective, and intentional communication simply make them uncomfortable. But understand that one second of discomfort that you feel is a snippet of what I have experienced my entire life. My whole life I have been told that I am Black as I watched an elitist country exercise militarized force on All Black Lives and police the spaces at which people who look like me know to exist. I have grown to know that I live in a country that hates people who look like me for not tolerating the brutalized force and acknowledging the notion that something is owed when history has proven that comfortability has been created in this country at the expense of Black people. Specifically Cishet and Trans Black and Brown Women. They were the ones leading the initial fight for equity and within this same demographic are seen to be being killed at alarming rates.

When being asked to write about how it feels to be Black at UVM, I was honestly overcome with mental exhaustion and an intense wave of anxiety. The projected tolerance is what brought me to this University but the displayed intolerance is what has shaped me into being less naive about the status of the patriarchal society in this country. The ‘fishbowl’ way at which culture is consumed at this school serves no other purpose but to harbor this communal lack of subliminal acknowledgment and blatant intolerance of perspective and identity. In my time I have come into contact with the greatest of people and the worst of people, but through it all have personally chosen to learn something from it rather than allowing it to weigh me down. To be Black is to be born with a target on your head but a beating healing heart trapped in your chest. To be Black is to live your life knowing that your race is resilient. To be Black at UVM is to allow that resilience to carry you on its shoulder through your best and worst of times and to not allow that invalidation affect how you view yourself.

I am grateful for my time at UVM, the people I have come to interact with, and the organizations in which I am a part of the same way any other student should be, but I will not be subservient nor apologetic on my thoughts towards my experiences in pursuing my degree. I have found in my time that I used to actively work to prove people wrong in the stereotypes perceived to define me. I have willfully ignored outrageous comments to avoid conflict at the price of sacrificing my comfortability.

In my Blackness, I have grown to learn that people’s intolerance and inability to not acknowledge me is not a reflection of myself but simply the narrative that this country wants me and people who look like me to live in. I am happy, healthy, open-hearted, and open minded and no matter the number of bad situations I experience in my lifetime I hope and know that I will never let the divisive, discriminatory, and unacknowledged ideologies of being affect the way in which I hold myself and my loved ones around me to a higher standard. To be above to the critical conflict and remain at level with the progression of constructive criticism. I will continue to unapologetically be myself and exist in spaces that deem me worthy of respect and that I deem worthy of my time. It is not my job to live my life educating people on facts of history that explain why we are where we are now but it is my intention to remain engaged and involved in furthering dialogue, projects, initiatives, and moments that are inclusive and tolerant. I hold zero tolerance for zero tolerance. You’re inability to acknowledge Black existence is complacently self-satisfying as an institution and an individual. Admit that there are people on this campus who hold no real desire to change their paradigm of privilege and if that is where you find yourself then you are a part of the problem. Acknowledgment is abolition and we begin the process of dismantling racism when you begin to recognize it as a reality.

 

“When the Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles or the Irish or any white man in the world says ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.” James Baldwin

 

**Please note that I spoke and will continue to speak from the ‘I’ perspective and that though some of the thoughts I have shared may be similar to some of my Black and Brown peers understand that all of our experiences are Autonomous