Voices Behind the Student Protest at Convocation
By Tari Gunstone
Two students interrupted this year’s convocation with a sign reading, “Evergreen cashed its diversity check but doesn’t care about black students.” These students, Lawrence Walker III and AR Rushet, spoke with the CPJ about their motivation for this protest and issues of racism at Evergreen. They felt that convocation was a way for Evergreen to sweep it’s racist, transphobic, and ableist history under the rug for the new students arriving here and thus felt compelled to speak up. “We were angry and carrying so much steam behind us on top of that,” said Walker.
Standing silently under the podium, many black students and a couple of white students joined them up front in solidarity. The students were told to wait until the convocation’s events ended, then George Bridges opened an invitation for discussion about the meaning of the protest, but did not stay to participate. The conversation that ensued among the students who stayed behind was passionate, emotional, tense, and at times messy, but most importantly, a crucial examination of racial inequity at Evergreen was sparked.
The intent behind the protest sign’s statement addresses students of color’s feeling that their role here is to fill a diversity box. Ruschet told me, “It’s as simple as going on the Evergreen website. Right away, you can find at least a handful of pictures of people of color, that’s the selling point for diversity: black students, brown students, diversity!” Walker added, “But those students are treated on campus like trophies who are super disposable.”
For many new students, this criticism came as a shock. Evergreen has a reputation as being liberal progressive, which connotes an idea of open-mindedness and social justice. But, Walker and Rushet point out that the terms liberal and progressive are not synonymous for equality. “It’s important for us to challenge what’s being said when the words liberal and progressive are freely thrown around. We should ask if those people are caring for the most vulnerable, trans folk, trans folks of color, queer folks, queer folks of color, disabled folks, disabled folks of color, etc.,”Rushet suggests.
Racial bias is not an uncommon experience at Evergreen (see Forest Hunt’s article in this issue). For new student Halla Warner who joined in with the protest, her hope is to be at a school that is “going to help me grow and learn and nurture me—one that doesn’t only want me so that it can check a box, and post pictures online to prove its differences.”
Warner hasn’t personally experienced racial bias at Evergreen yet, but she’s encouraging all students to keep their eyes open and not make assumptions. “Think about this: How are the African American students in your class being treated differently than you? Are they? To whom is the class you’re taking being catered or centered towards? Administratively, how many black faculty and administrators are you seeing? How many black students are in your class? How often do they get a chance to speak? What’s being said in response to the things they might be saying? How does what they’ve said (for example at convocation) make you feel? How do you think it makes them feel?”
So where can students of color go for support when racial biases comes up? Walker and Rushet told me that in general, they both have felt so fundamentally unsupported here. Walker shared that student groups of color are not treated with priority at Evergreen. For students interested, there is the Black Student Union, but they describe it as more of a space for black people to hang out and less of an action-based hub. Warner just joined the group Black Focus on campus and really digs it, “If you’re a black student and you’re wondering where all the other black students are, that’s where you’ll find them. It’s a hugely compassionate and welcoming community.”
Walker and Rushet acknowledged that some people of color (POC) faculty members have done their best to be supportive, but the small amount of them as well as differences in political philosophies have often interfered. Rushet told me that they “do want to acknowledge the work faculty do amidst the predominantly white faculty here; I imagine it can’t be easy for them to navigate that space that they’ve had to work so hard to get. As POC, you have to work 10 times harder and be 20 times smarter in order to gain credibility. There comes a point, too, where those sort of politics become damaging because they don’t allow those people to be human—you always have to be on your game, the strong black person that crushes through white supremacy all the time.”
For Walker and Rushet, the education at Evergreen still centers largely around white perspectives. We discussed how Evergreen’s emphasis on environmentalism often erases or dehumanizes people of color. They’ve heard vegan activists on campus offensively equate caged animals to slavery. Rushet lamented that, “even when we study queer folks it comes from a hella white perspective.” They would like to see a Black Studies Department form at Evergreen. Lawrence idealizes an education “where we begin with people of color and the most marginalized communities first, and then work backwards from there.” Both agreed that, “keeping action at the forefront,” rather than verbalized reassurances from George Bridges and the rest of the administration is absolutely fundamental in moving toward equity. Bridges has apologized for not supporting Walker and Ruschet’s voices at convocation and met with them in person to make further amends. He promised them to be more transparent about what the college was doing. Walker and Rushet remain skeptical, but hope that active follow through is indeed a possibility.
Signs of progress so far from Evergreen’s administration in creating spaces for marginalized communities on campus can be seen in the Unity Lounge and the opening of the Queer and Trans Center, but Walker and Rushet note that people of color and trans and queer folks have worked hard to create that space. They also hope that these spaces, which are located on the same floor of the Library, will not be thought of as two separate things, because, “To us they are the same thing. We are queer and trans, we just happen to be black.”
Navigating that intersectionality of identities has of course been difficult for Walker and Rushet. “Yes, we are black, which is what people recognize first, but we are also hella gay and hella trans and that influences our politics, too. Both of us are non-able normative, always anxious, we go through cycles where one person is more anxious than the other, so we help each other when the other person needs it.” Rushet experiences another layer of prejudice due to their disability, expressing that, “we are much more hesitant to trust institutions to take care of us, so we sort of take care of each other.” Their blackness seems difficult enough for white faculty and staff to “deal with” but Rushet shares that the whole package of “black, tranny, fag, gimp,” can really shut people down.
Even within the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Walker and Ruschet have felt a lack of acknowledgment for the nuanced experience and identity of black individuals. “The movement is still learning how to properly provide trans solidarity. It still feels like when black, trans folks die there isn’t marches for them and protests to come together to battle transphobia,” explained Walker. For them, BLM has defaulted to a niche of who to rally behind and seems to operate under what they call “respectability politics,” where there lacks a “by any means necessary” push toward liberation.
Walker and Rushet have both recently started viewing themselves as anarchists mostly because of the absence of radicalism that exists in other forms of black politics. They point out that there’s actually a very rich history of anarchism in the black liberation movement, even if it’s not called anarchism, the spirit of it is deeply present. The roots of anarchism can be seen in slave revolts as well as the resistance seen today in Ferguson, Charlotte, Baltimore, and the prison strikes. Even black people’s historic hesitancy to get the police or government involved is a sign of anarchist resistance, but Rushet says, “black folks don’t recognize that.”
Walker explains that they are, “coming to terms with our history and our tactics. There is a realization of how we put our bodies on the line the moment we walk out of our house.” Rushet adds that, “I’ve gotten to this point where I feel that liberation is going to be messy and hella violent. Yes, non-violence has gotten us to a certain point, but also, we are still here living in a neo-colonialist, white supremacist society.”
This recognition of just how much further there is to go in the fight for racial equality is why the statements made by white students at convocation like, “All lives matter,” and “You can’t fight racism with racism,” are both offensive and blind to the reality of the current context of the black struggle in America. The quick, emotional reactions of white students at convocation that ranged from emotional tears and students getting on their knees to defensive shouting and dramatic walk-outs were a reminder to Walker and Rushet of the many forms white fragility comes in, “White folks have a really difficult time sitting in their emotions.” In fact, Rushet points out that the “Mammy Archetype” is a common way white people seek comfort from their black peers regarding their emotional unrest about issues of race. Warner reiterates this idea that white folks often look to black folks to liberate them from their white privilege and racism, “I am certainly not here for you to cry to, I’m definitely not here to liberate you from your preconditioned racist ideologies and explain to you how you’re benefiting from racism and draw you into my arms and hold you while you take the veil off of your eyes and join hands with your local black person or whatever, no. I am here to say, this is my opinion on what’s happening and what needs to stop, and what needs to change. It’s up to you how you decide to make that happen, it is not my job, and it isn’t going to be my labor that “liberates” anyone from their racism.”
Warner also expressed that the first step a white person can take toward being an ally is “to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say to yourself, “I benefit from racism. This does not mean I am racist. It simply means that the systems set in place in this country were meant to benefit some, and roadblock others.” When you as a white student can say that to yourself without feeling uncomfortable, or wanting to get defensive, or arguing about how you “don’t use your privilege like that though” then you can get started.” From there, you can work toward action.
Walker and Rushet encourage white students against passivity in their their desire to be an ally, “if white people aren’t willing to put themselves at risk to break down white supremacy, I sort of don’t want to hear from you. It shouldn’t just be black people’s job to engage in this because we are not the ones who made this system.”
Other pivotal suggestions Walker, Rushet, and Warner all cited for how white people can effectively stand in solidarity with the black community is to, “know your history,” and “listen to people of color.” The black struggle in America is multifaceted and preconceived ideas about it are so ingrained in our culture that well intended white individuals can further perpetuate racist ideologies when a strong foundation of understanding is absent.
I asked Walker, Rushet, and Warner for specific resources for students interested in expanding their education on racial justice. For those ready to learn more, here’s a jumping off point for diving into the discomfort of our own inherent racism and a tool to help us effectively engage in the much needed action toward bringing equality to the most marginalized groups in our community both here on campus and out in the greater communities we interact with:
- Black Lives Matter homepage and the Black Lives Matter Syllabus website
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Rushet tells me this was their first wake up call to think, “oh my god I’m black and I’m fucked!”
- Prelude to bruise–poems by Saeed Jones
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Americana by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry
- The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America by Tamara Winfrey Harris
- Marsha P. Johnson—iconic black transgender activist during the 1960’s to 1990’s
- Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha—queer, disabled, non-binary, femme writer of color
- Janet Mock – black, transgender author, activist, and TV host – check out her show “So Popular”
Lastly, engage in any works of art by people of color. Search for black trans folks and read femme folks of color. Use representations of people of color in media, movies, books, etc. as an opportunity to notice narratives and deconstruct the dichotomies present. Don’t dismiss the problematic movies or T.V. shows, learn from them.
You can read the transcript of the entire interview with Lawrence Walker III and AR Rushet here.