[Savage Minds is excited to present the second essay in the “Making Black Lives Matter: Reflections on the Declaration and the Movement“series. The author, Nicole Truesdell, is Senior Director of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Beloit College. Her research focuses on race, racism, citizenship and belonging, community organization and activism, inclusion and equity in higher education, and radical black thought. A founding member of #blacklivesmatterbeloit, Nicole is committed to pushing against dominant narratives to ensure marginalized voices and bodies are seen and heard.]
What does it mean to do anti-racist activism as a black academic at a Primarily White Institution?
This is the question I asked myself after the non-indictments of officers in the shootings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. I was tired of seeing black people unjustly and unfairly detained/killed/murdered by the police. I was sick of having to bottle up my anger and grief, wishing I could “call in black” to deal with having to work within a white environment seemingly oblivious to the trauma and violence black people experience on a daily basis. I was angry as hell and felt compelled to action.
So on a cold December day in 2014, myself and three other colleagues sat in a small room on campus and created #blacklivesmatterbeloit. We came together as faculty and staff because we felt issues of racism and police/state violence were not being acknowledged or addressed on campus. We were inspired by, and took direction from, the national #BlackLivesMatter movement started in 2012 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. That movement started by three black (two queer) women – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – was a call to action for black people in this country to rise up and make our plights known.
Our call to action started in January 2015 as we kicked-off a semester long series on anti-black racism and police violence both locally and nationally. Three interactive panels brought together for the first time in a long time the campus and larger multi-racial community. Our first panel spoke on the emergence and importance of hashtag activism as a way to mobilize marginalized communities and pointed out new cyber spaces that have emerged to allow these voices to be seen and heard. The second panel then led the campus and community into a frank discussion with academics and activists on institutional racism and the black body, with a focus on the real effects racism has on black people and communities. Our third panel moved to policing in Post 9/11 America as we talked with a number of police officials and academics on the increased use of force within particular communities. This was a space where community members talked directly to the local police chief and were able to challenge recent fatal police shootings of black youth in town. We finished the semester with a die-in on the steps of our Middle College.
The responses we received for #blacklivesmatterbeloit mimicked those the national movement has seen. Some were positive as they saw our work as needed and necessary in this space. There were those who were angry, confused, or unwilling to engage with this work and instead responded with hate-laden speech on walls and nooses drawn on posters. Then there was (and still is) top down pushback to our work. These reactions reiterated the need for #blacklivesmatter to be in this space, on this campus, doing this work. That work is forcing conversation and action on race and racism within a white institution that holds tight to its historical privileged roots. That work is having the frank and uncomfortable talks needed to ensure black lives matter. That work is getting white bodies to understand that racism was not created by black people, but instead is something we live everyday. Rather racism is, and has always been, constructed by the majority to define and justify whiteness. Any effective anti-racist work to be done has to focus on that.
This summer alone in the US shows us there is work to do. While our campus quieted down the country revved up. From Texas to Charleston, Cleveland to Madison, Detroit back to Ferguson this summer showed the country and the world we are not done fighting for the rights of black people in this country to be seen as full citizens, with rights, that we are allowed to exercise without fear of being detained, arrested, beaten, or murdered. Our campus community does not live in a bubble (evidence again by our own racial charged incidents that happened on campus) and all of us at some point leave this space. We have to understand the impact these larger issues in the US have on us individually and collectively.
Last semester #blmb’s charge was to talk openly and honestly about racism. This semester we continue this charge by turning our attention to whiteness – both as a racial identity and an operating construct that allows for the perpetuation and continuation of racism. We want people to wake up to the fact that racism is real and white people must take responsibility for this. We are doing this through interactive panels, films, and talk backs that bring together the campus and surrounding community to promote dialogue and sustain action planning around anti-black racism and state violence.
For me personally as a black woman working in the academy my first job is to teach my students radical black self-love, along with practicing it everyday, as a way to resist the dominant narrative of blackness in this country. For me, and colleagues like me, our work is different from the majority. Now is the time for the majority to truly understand and do their work in anti-black racism if we are ever going to have black lives matter.