#BLACKOUTSLC Brings Racism Faced By Students of Color to the Forefront of Campus Dialogue

Black students speak to the crowd about the racism they’ve experienced during their time at SLC. Photo credit: Carolyn Martinez-Class ‘17

Black students speak to the crowd about the racism they’ve experienced during their time at SLC. Photo credit: Carolyn Martinez-Class ‘17

Despite the anonymous negative comments on Yik Yak before and after the event, approximately 400 members of the Sarah Lawrence community attended the #BLACKOUTSLC event earlier this semester.

Many students expressed distinct surprise regarding the event’s turnout—“There turned out to be a lot more people than I expected, but there should have been more people. Students, staff, and faculty on the Sarah Lawrence campus are very good at showing what they care about, and they have showed students of color exactly how they feel about issues of racial equality,” explained Imani West ’16.

“I was glad to see so many people come and show support. It did mean a lot considering we, black students, only make up 4 percent of the student body...They need to understand that being a minority is hard. You have to accept respect our blackness because we, as minorities, have no choice but accept your whiteness,” said Monet A. Thibou ’17.

Students were called to walk out from all on-campus obligations and meet on the South Lawn on Monday November 16 at 3:30 PM. During the event, students of color spoke about their experiences regarding race on campus. 

Najah Aissata ’17 said in her speech to the gathering: “Today, we are here in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Missouri. Black students around the country are at a time of reckoning and it is time people start to listening. This year has been a challenging one with each day bringing a new hashtag, with each day bringing a new black body plastered all over the internet and news, with each day passing we lose another one of our own.”

The statements made by the students of color mainly addressed specific microagressions and racial injustices they faced on a regular basis. “It is extremely clear that people of color don’t feel safe on this campus and that we need change. Microaggressions and acts of hate happen in quiet corners of the school and foster places of darkness where no one can move forward from. I hope this protest illuminates that darkness, and at the very least allows people to understand that they can help make sure that this institution is open and comfortable for all,” said Andre Snow ’16.

Those who criticized idea of #BLACKOUTSLC—most of whom were able to hide behind anonymity while doing so—claimed it was ridiculous to have students miss class for something they didn’t believe was a real issue on campus. Trivializing the issue, some even went as far as to make jokes claiming that the speakers never felt “true oppression.”

“I have read some quite disturbing reactions on social media,” said Ayanna Harrison ’17. “Students have taken to Yik Yak to voice their opinions. While I agree one has a right to freedom of speech, it really gives me pause when I read Why do black people deserve more things than anybody else? or Yeah black people deserve so much more than everyone else. Black people need entitlements because they can’t make it on their own merit.

Additionally, Ayanna voiced concerns for effective measures of progress: “While we recognize the school’s efforts, making committees is not enough...Committees don’t protect us from having racial slurs being written on doors. Committees don’t protect us from our safe spaces being demonized and ostracized by our peers.” 

#BLACKOUTS is not an SLC exclusive movement but rather a national effort to center on the issues of black students, faculty, and staff around the US. The events at Mizzou ignited schools across the country to look inwardly at racial issues their own students face. Students nationwide have participated in both sit-ins and marches to bring attention to these problems.

“I know some professors made it mandatory to attend the event. What happened was largely what I had expected to happen: students rallying to acknowledge flaws in our system but what was surprising was seeing Karen Lawrence actually there...I felt that the students that went up and spoke said things about this school’s atmosphere [that] had been on my mind for years but put in a more eloquent way,” said Malcolm L. Knowles ’16.

The meeting at SLC began with a list of demands that were read in front of those who attended. President Karen Lawrence was in the crowd, and stayed for the length of the event. 

In a video interview that student Jack Califano ‘16 conducted and posted directly after the event, he asked President Lawrence about her viewpoints on the various issues brought up.

“I don’t think we’re complacent about […]having a progressive institutional past, I think we should be proud of that, but it isn’t enough,” she said. “I think there are things that go on on every campus including Sarah Lawrence, and clearly there is a lot of pain associated with that.”     So far, there are a total of eleven demands—the complete list can be found on the Facebook event page #BLACKOUTSLC.

Arguably, the most notable demand is that the College create a million-dollar need-based scholarship fund for the recruitment of students of color to campus. Some of the other demands included that the college create a 5-year plan that will increase retention rates for people of color, and also that the college require all students to partake in an anti-racism course for a number of credits.

Student-led activism when it comes to issues of on campus are not new. Present are similarities to the ‘89 Westlands sit-in, during which multiple racialized incidents on campus led to a four day sit-in by students. The demands at the time led the administration to help develop Common Ground, broaden courses to include aspects of Black, Hispanic and Asian history and culture, and hire eight additional black professors and a black admissions officer.

Since #BLACKOUTSLC, Dean Green, Dean Trujillo, and President Lawrence have met with representatives of Blackout SLC regarding demands made. Senior staff and groups such as the General, Admissions and the Diversity committees have been working to address the demands as well. 

Admissions has proposed two initiatives to bring more students of color on campus. One is a web presence designed to enroll more students of color to campus. The second involves working to engage alumni of color in the recruitment of prospective students of color. Members of the General and Diversity Committees will work together to plan for cross-campus dialogue on racial issues. 

Regarding the scholarship fund, the President has stated that while the college has an existing scholarship fund of over a million dollars dedicated to students of color, she said student scholarships were their highest fundraising priority and they will continue to gather additional funds for students of color.

Students who attended #BLACKOUTSLC applauded many of the statements made by the students of color. “I’ll never understand what it is like to be a student of color at this school, which is why it is essential that people with privilege like myself listen to and uplift the voices of marginalized people. Today was wonderful but this is a protracted struggle, and it will take real effort by the entire campus-not just students of color-to make this school an honestly safe space,” said Scarlett Ferman ’17.

“I know this walkout got some attention, but I’m really looking forward to taking part in a upcoming action that would hopefully be intense and large enough to force the administration to act. I can’t imagine how exhausting it is for POC to keep having to explain their struggles to white people, over and over again, and to no avail,” added Hank Broege, an SLC grad student.

Julius Powell left the crowd with an inspiring message: “Hug your black brother or sister today. Remind them of their worth in this world that frequently forgets them. That remembers them only when they are criminalized. Remind them that they are talented, intelligent, capable and strong. Just as capable as the person sitting next to them in the classroom. Just as capable as the white body that stands next to them on stage. Remind them that they matter in your academic environments. Encourage them...equally.”

Joseph McFarland '16

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The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.