A Letter to the RIT Community from the Women of Color of Student Government
by The Women of Color of Student Government | published Oct. 19th, 2020
To our RIT Family,
It is unfortunate that 52 years after the Civil Rights Movement ended, we are still fighting for the civil rights of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Many of you may be aware of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations across the country following the brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May. As this summer unraveled, more names of people of color were added to the already long list of BIPOC killed at the hands of white supremacy: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and Rochester’s very own Daniel Prude. Seeing the little justice they have received speaks to the lack of value placed on the lives of Black people in this country. Each day, Black people are unfortunately treated as though they aren’t as important or as deserving of life as their white peers. The Black Lives Matter Movement, which is the primary organizer of the nationwide protests, is part of a global foundation:
"#BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc. is a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.” - The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation
The Rochester Institute of Technology’s community is very familiar with institutional, structural, interpersonal and internalized racism. This university has a history of promoting blackface and devaluing Black people. Recently, many BIPOC have come forward on social media to share their experiences with racial prejudice and discrimination on this campus. RIT faculty, staff and fellow students have contributed to the sense of discomfort and exclusion that BIPOC feel while attending this predominantly white institution. As elected student leaders of color at RIT, we are not oblivious to the fact that we represent not only our constituents but the RIT community as a whole, including and especially BIPOC.
Earlier this week, a conflict emerged among Student Government members via a Snapchat group chat discussing the Black Lives Matter Movement. In the midst of the conflict, students of color made it clear that Black lives do, in fact, matter and that saying this and working to bring this to a realization is not a “political statement.”
However, they were shut down by their white peers in Student Government's Cabinet. The students of color were told that it was the wrong place and wrong time for such a discussion while the topic was also dismissed as being inconvenient and too political. To add to this, the Student Government members who were not in the group chat were kept uninformed of the conflict that occurred until after the start of an emergency meeting on October 16th.
Regarding the conflict that has unfolded this week and how it was handled, we are disappointed but not surprised. It is frustrating to see white student leaders dismiss the issue of racism to maintain their own sense of comfort. It is also disrespectful when white student leaders decide on behalf of BIPOC students when, where and how they are allowed to speak out against racism. White student leaders have benefitted from and continue to benefit from, the racist oppressive system that harms (and sometimes kills) their peers. White student leaders must recognize that, for people who look like us, racism does not pick a more suitable day and time, nor does it pick a more comfortable place for it to show up in our lives. It is just there, everywhere, all the time.
For the emergency meeting that took place this week, white student leaders got to decide when the best time was for them to listen to our experience with racism. Those same leaders then got to decide when everyone stopped listening to us as students of color. After that meeting, we are still left with the sadness, pain, frustration and anger. Our white peers, on the other hand, have probably already forgotten about it. And that is one of the ways in which white supremacy works. It tells oppressed people to quiet down when they speak out against oppression. It tells oppressed people that they are too passionate, or too loud, or too demanding when they ask that their lives be treated with equal value. It tries to reason with oppressed people that there must be some other day when everyone can deal with their pain. On October 16th, the emergency meeting was a short hour that was set aside to finally pay attention to some of the issues that have plagued the lives of Black people since the day they arrived in this country. Martin Luther King Jr. criticized this kind of behavior. In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much morebewildering than outright rejection. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” - Martin Luther King Jr.
As members of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Student Government, we represent the entire student body and are equals. At least, we are supposed to be. When issues impact other marginalized communities on campus,we work together to address the injustices with no hesitation. Yet with issues that impact the Black community, there is doubt, waves of uncertainty and disregard. We make space for other marginalized cultures, yet we do not do the same for Black culture and Black issues. It is unsettling that a governing body at this university is so dismissive of the issue of racism but is eager to be an advocate for any other issue.
To set the record straight, a flag or symbol is deemed political if it is used to promote a campaign for a political office. The RIT administration not only supports the Black Lives Matter movement, but also has approved the movement's flag to be hung on campus in the Student Alumni Union. Student Government goes against the statements and actions of the RIT administration simply because some of its members do not want to recognize their privilege and listen to marginalized students. When our white peers see our demand for equality and fair treatment as political, they are treating racial discrimination as the norm that must not be disturbed. The BIPOC faculty, staff and students on this campus are not walking political agendas. They are human beings who deserve the same respect and space that their white peers are given. Why is it an issue to step aside and make sure BIPOC voices are heard? This is a question we ask ourselves more often than we would like and, unfortunately, we don’t see it being answered anytime soon.
To address the pervasive and persistent racism witnessed and experienced throughout this university by BIPOC, we request that the following actions be taken:
- We request a 60-minute mandatory Student Government presentation and training within the next four formal senate meetings. The focus of this presentation will be on how to deal with co-workers who use rhetoric with racial and/or xenophobic undertones and co-workers who take space instead of make space for BIPOC here at RIT. This will be facilitated and organized by members of the Division of Diversity & Inclusion.
- We request the creation of a “Director of Ethical Governing” position in the Student Government. This position’s first term shall be during the 2021 - 2022 academic year. The purpose of this position is to:
- Lead in conflict resolution.
- Ensure that all members of Student Government (Cabinet Members, Senators, Committee Chairs and Representative Student Organizations) are being equally heard, respected and appreciated during discussions and decision-making processes.
- Act as a liaison between the Division of Diversity & Inclusion and Student Government.
- At least two members of the Division of Diversity & Inclusion must be present during the hiring process of the Director of Ethical Governing position. This includes the outreach for encouraging applicants, the interviewing process and the onboarding process.
- We call upon the Division of Diversity & Inclusion and the Division of Student Affairs to collaborate with the Director of Ethical Governing in order to create, administer and publish an annual racial prejudice and discrimination climate survey. We request that the University give them access to all information needed to do so in a timely manner. This survey must be comprehensive in scope, collecting the experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination on campus from full-time and part-time undergraduate students. The data collected from this survey must be used as a guide by Student Government and University Council in creating concrete action steps that work toward lowering the occurrence of racial prejudice and discrimination on campus.
- We call upon the Division of Student Affairs and the Division of Diversity & Inclusion to collaborate in creating an annual Tiger Talk, formatted as a townhall, that focuses on collecting feedback from BIPOC students regarding their experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination on campus.
The Black Lives Matter Movement is not political. It will never be political.
Black Lives Matter, forever and always.
The Women of Color of Student Government
Caitlin Pope, School of Individualized Study Senator
Anika Griffiths, Women's Senator
Alexis McNeill, Greek Senator
Zakia Azad, First Year Senator
Bayleigh Thurston, Director of Marketing
Jessika Quijada, ALANA Collegiate Association Vice President
Isabel Lopez, Global Union Presiden
Zayneb Jaff, ALANA Collegiate Association Events Coordinator
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