Institutions: Back Up Your Statements
Updated: Jul 14, 2020
This is going to be personal because it can’t be any other way. I am tired and anxious and frustrated and all the things you’re not supposed to be if you want to be a successful student. If you are not willfully ignorant you know that protests have erupted all around the nation against police violence and their treatment of Black Americans. The police response to these largely peaceful protests has been swift and violent. And, as usual during any social movement academic institutions are slowly putting out statements about the events and their stance on this civil movement. The quality of their statements varies from as meaningless as an empty tweet from a corporation to a detailed recognition of their institution’s history with race and resources to engage in anti-racist content.
Now, I cannot speak to how it feels to be a Black American or what these statements mean to them. You can read and listen about that here, here, and here. I am speaking as an Asian American that is part of a graduate program whose director has made declarations of solidarity and from a highly diverse state university that has acknowledged the current climate. Though I am an underrepresented minority, I am aware of my privilege and that this movement requires me to be an ally. Therefore, I’m using my platform and privilege to demand that organizations, particularly academic ones, do more than make statements of solidarity.
I was an undergraduate student when the Black Lives Matter movement began, when Trump was elected, when alt-right speakers were invited to speak, and when many other protest events began. Almost without fail my school would send out a statement following each of these events filled with phrases such as “[school] is committed to supporting [a community] that is inclusive and respectful to people of all backgrounds” or “The unequivocal goal...is to protect all members of our community”—not too dissimilar from the phrases that you may see now. But these statements are hollow. Without clear concrete measured actions from the university to improve their community. Meaningless.
Something that academic institutions always forget about the POC experience, especially in STEM, is that our disappearance from disciplines is not due to a lack of interest or effort, but instead it is a death by a thousand cuts, many subtle slights that tell us we’re unwelcome. And the hollow, empty statements promising solidarity but delivering no change is yet another cut. Time and time again we are seeing organizations put out statements of banal support only to be immediately called out by POC for not actually standing by their words. It might be hard for schools to reach out to underrepresented minorities, but I assure you that it is a hundred times harder to be a minority in the institution and to be ignored.
The common piece of advice that professors pass on to their graduate students is “wait until you have tenure.” Essentially, wait until you have institutional power before you start attempting to make change. But professors do more than just teach graduate students. They are mentors, role models, and when they do nothing graduate students are left wondering when life stole the fire from them, as Prometheus did from Mt. Olympus, and if that will happen to us. Many of the older generations question why the youth are so eager, so destructive, so demanding of attention and immediate, concrete change. But the answer to that is self-evident: what’s the point of waiting for power when most of us aren’t sure we’ll last long enough, in our discipline or in life, to obtain it.
So I urge you, reader, to examine the institutions that you are a part of and ask: Did they make a statement? And if so, what specific, concrete changes are they planning to implement? If they haven’t made a statement, insist that they do. Demand they acknowledge the hardships inflicted on people of color and especially the Black community. Call for concrete changes to be enacted both in the short term and the long term. Activists and people of color have been doing this for a long time already, but if you are a professor, a person of influence within any organization, or simply someone with more privilege than others, then be an ally and pressure your institution for active measures of change. All that power you’ve banked on and gained with—now is the time to use it.
Below are several resources that folks can use to support protestors and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Specific Organizations to Donate to:
Resources for the Frontlines: