Same campus, different experience: a discussion with the Black Student Union

Illustration courtesy of Gordon Johnson

NATE LEMEN | OPINION COLUMNIST | nlemen@butler.edu

“Being black at Butler is way different than being white at Butler.”

This is the adage junior Makiah Harper, treasurer of the Butler chapter of the Black Student Union, told me during a conversation I had with her and two students from BSU. It struck me at first with its simplicity; well, of course the experience is going to be different.

But after talking with these students — the others were junior Khayleia Foy, actuarial science major and the president of BSU, and sophomore Alex Kassan, gender, women, and sexuality and Pre-medicine major and the vice president of BSU — about the experience of being a black student on a overwhelmingly white campus, it became clear just how chasmic the differences of experiences can be.

On Aug. 11, white nationalist groups across the country gathered together to “unite the right,” an attempt to preserve white heritage against perceived oppression from minority groups. The events that followed shocked and shook the nation, forcing many people — if we are speaking honestly, mostly many white people — to the brutal realities of the country in which we live.

As I watched the events unfold from the safety of my home in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, I was not able to comprehend how anyone could any longer deny the problems the United States faced. But that, fundamentally, is where I found the disparity between my line of thinking and that of black students living on campus.

Now, before we go any further with this story, I think it is imperative to acknowledge a crucial disclaimer: I do not pretend to speak for every white student on this campus, and I do not intend to portray the words of the students I spoke with to act as the definitive feelings of all black students on campus.

The best I can do is take my own personal experience and the thoughts given to me from the students kind enough to let me interview them and frame them in the most thoughtful way I can.

I went into the conversation with Harper, Foy, and Kassan fully expecting to talk about how the events in Charlottesville changed their perception of being black students on a white campus.

But when I posed that question to them, what they focused on instead was how they were shocked more people did not really know a lot about what happened in Virginia a mere two weeks ago.

“I feel like we [minority students on campus] understand that that is not good…there needs to be a different population talking about it, “ Harper said.

“If we show up [to an event regarding the aftermath of Charlottesville] and it is us three, how far is that conversation going to go,” Kassan said.

The idea that was most commonly stated during our conversation was how easy it was for Butler students to shelter themselves from world events and live their lives unconcerned about what happens outside of campus. In the words of Harper and Foy, it creates a dangerous vacuum.

“We’re like, ‘That’s not gonna touch us, that’s not gonna happen to us,’” Harper said.

“I feel like that could be a bad thing if the wrong person did come here and gave a negative influence on something and encouraged people to do something.” Foy said. “The Butler vacuum could also be hindering in that way.”

Looking back, talking about that idea is when the impact of Harper’s adage started to make sense. I did not even know the rallies in Charlottesville were happening until the day of, and, in reality, they had been planned months in advance. I did not know because I did not need to. It did not affect me.

And as much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I do not think I am the only person who was in this position. It is easy to not care about stuff, even horrific events such as what happened on the University of Virginia’s campus,  when it does not affect us directly. In the eyes of the women I talked to, that is the real lasting damage of events like what happened in Virginia.

There are solutions to this problem, however. Foy spoke of receiving an email from administration officials in the Diversity Center and from the Center for Faith and Vocation about having small meetings with students on campus to discuss how to increase the campus-wide level of conversation.

They also suggested a stronger collaboration between students and professors to address these problems.

“I think a new population should take that, and that would be radical for Butler,” Harper said. “That is why I think if an FYS teacher brought it up and was like ‘So, have you heard about Charlottesville?’ First…I  think a lot of students haven’t even thought about it.”

The most important thing for students to do going forward, they all agreed, is to stay informed.

“You can get alerts on your phone, you can get news on your phone every morning,” Foy said.

“But also if you turn it on, look at them, do not just cancel the notification. Be open to reading and learning,” Harper said.

Kassan perhaps said it the best and most succinctly, cutting right to heart of the issue: “Be invested.”

 

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