“That was so brave of you.” Those are the words I have received since giving my Gathering speech on Feb. 25. I spoke about my own experience as a black woman at John Brown University and how JBU could improve the way it treated it has persons of color (POC). I talked about listening, acting and researching when it came to becoming better allies of POCs.
I’m not sure I feel very brave. Of course, I was very nervous before I gave my speech. I was so worried about what people would say behind my back, that I asked the other black women of JBU about their testimonies, because I was afraid that my own testimony wouldn’t be enough. I feared that someone would come up to me after my speech and tell me that I was over-exaggerating or straight up lying. Once I gave my speech, however, I didn’t feel like I’d done some great thing. I had simply told more people the things I often face at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI).
Let’s be very honest. I am a single black female voice calling out. According to the Diversity page on JBU’s website, there are 27 black students on campus as opposed to the 1,005 white students with a total of 1,352 undergrads. Black students make up less than 2% of JBU’s population, according to statistics. On a mathematical scale, my issue shouldn’t matter much or even have an effect on JBU. As I said in my speech, just because there are a few of us on campus does not mean that our voice matters less or that our voice isn’t important.
All I, and the other black students of JBU, want is to feel safe and like we have a place on campus. We often feel ostracized. When we sing that one gospel song in chapel, we get stared at. When the conversation of diversity comes up in class, heads turn toward us. I tense up when I know I’m going to have to interact with a student who cannot keep their foot out of their mouth or a professor who will never apologize for their hurtful words. It is exhausting to be a POC at a PWI. We’re constantly trying to blend in, trying to avoid the stares in class or chapel, trying to pretend that what that person said was not worth a fight. Imagine being stuck between feeling like you are a rare exhibit and feeling like you are worth less than those around you. Those feelings are what I bounced between going from class to class at JBU.
I have gotten a lot of good responses from people who heard my Gathering speech. Some have made a pledge to do more research and really focus on the impact of their words and privilege. I’ve heard stories of students listening more or researching how to be a better ally. Some students have truly apologized for words that may have been hurtful to others and this is a fantastic start. I’m so glad people are putting actions to words, but this can’t just be a temporary thing. We must always endeavor to make JBU home to all who enter, no matter who they are.
JBU is not a perfect place. No place on earth is. JBU has lost many of its minority students due to lack of diversity as well as the way POC students have been treated on campus. JBU must strive to do better. I know change takes time and that what I said at the Gathering won’t drastically change JBU overnight, but even the couple students that have begun researching how to be better allies have already improved JBU’s atmosphere. I am grateful for the education and friendship I have received at JBU and I truly do believe that one day, JBU will be a wonderful and peaceful diverse place for all who attend.