The American People: 1.24.18

The morning of January 24th, we were supposed to have readied ourselves to say goodbye to the nation's capital. Instead, we found a side quest! Eduardo would later tell me that the great thing about producing a documentary was how efficiently malleable the process became as we filmed. He was absolutely right; I was excited to see find out what Sincerely, the Black Kids would look like in my head after today.

Upon touching down in DC the previous day, I sent a quick "what's good?" to Raina Nelson, a former New College peer of mine who graduated in 2016 and had since moved to Washington to pursue policy research as part of their post-grad fellowship. During their time as a student, Raina served as Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion in our student government association (the New College Student Alliance) and delivered the commencement speech at their commencement ceremony; naturally, they were someone that a lot of the younger black students in my entering class (all six or seven-and-a-half of us) often looked up to as a paragon of stuntin' while black at a Primarily White Institution. I told them about my project and they were more than happy to get on board/on camera to help out. We set to meet them at the end of the evening, giving us an empty calendar of an afternoon to fill before we left the city.

We originally were set to meet up with Devontae once more to catch a quick tour of American University's Center for Diversity and Inclusion, but unfortunately it was still the middle of a school weekday for everyone who wasn't Eduardo or myself. Though that meeting didn't come to pass, he encouraged us to head there on our own to interview whoever we felt could help our project out. Personally, I was imagining that walking into random offices with just a camera and a well-to-do smile on my face wouldn't get us that far, but we finessed. The students and staff at American were very receptive to participating anyway, and seemed to have no worries about saying something that might tick off that private institution money... which was dope. I was hoping our film wouldn't end up dry snitching on anybody.

Our first sit down was with the AU Center of Diversity and Inclusion's Director of Programming, Outreach and Advocacy Sara Bendoraitis. Giving us a solid 30 minute interview in her office, she quickly let us know that she was all the way 'bout her job description and had no problem bringing up the banana/noose incident before we did. She was also the interviewee to initiate the chain of stories containing new racist public incidents that we had no previous knowledge of before arriving, as most of the following interviews would also (sadly) unveil. This time, were we told of a past instance the previous semester where confederate flag posters adorned with cotton balls were hung "anonymously" around student centers.

After wrapping up with Sara, she introduced us to Sade Tuckett, a graduate student studying international affairs who worked as a coordinator for the CDI. A woman of color herself, Sade held nothing back in her interview, sharing her experiences as a transplant from Spelman's Afrocentric undergraduate curriculum to American's less-than-considerate international studies curriculum that she's had no problem contesting with students and instructors alike. Not that I was keeping count or anything, but new incident #2 we learned from Sade was actually an expounding upon the initial banana/noose incident towards the SGA president. Not only were those items hung outside of rooms inhabited by women of color, but also inscribed with names/initials and even thrown at some students. It would be difficult to give up the entire feel of her interview in such short form here, but I began to feel the impression that AU's students of color shared the complaints of New College's students of color as well - why should students have to shoulder all of the diversity/inclusion work of addressing overt (and hidden) racism? The ones who came to learn found themselves teaching on an everyday basis.

Sade then directed us to the Antiracist Policy Research Center of AU, where we interviewed yet another grad student: Clarece Polk. A friend of Sade's, Clarece confirmed previous concerns whilst adding her own perspective as someone for whom this was not their first go-round at a PWI. The sad part about this recollection is that I lose count at this point as to which person told me about which new story of racial harassment incidents we came across. She did bring up, though, that there of course exists a certain degree of separation between graduate and undergraduate students on campus in regards to what occurs to whom. With AU boasting a roster of 17,000 of the latter category, we decided to seek some of them out on our own.

Even for a "majority liberal campus" as many characterized it, finding consensus between 17,000 students is not easy, and we certainly didn't try. We grabbed like 10 of them as non-awkwardly as you can when randomly approaching as many students of color who looked like they might have time for you today as possible. From that sample of the willing, the similarities between accounts made some sentiments way more clear than others.

I even decided to confront the inevitable "Well, how come you guys didn't interview any of the white students?" retort early on. We certainly did interview white students as well, and while most would freely admit that race and the racial incidents on campus were conversations that rarely happened without an offense occurring to begin with, I of course was no more successful at finding any banana throwers as the institution itself was - judging from our interviews, I would imagine we put in an equal amount of effort in our single day of public filming.

Obviously, much more is going on at these universities than racial climates, and students of all races shared their hopes for the campus' future. One of those hopes included a cease to an institutional boast of "30% students of color(!)" for prospective students. That gave me a hearty Uncle Ruckus chuckle.

After leaving American, we finally met with Raina (note: Raina is not affiliated with American University for those who are tl;dr skimming). They welcomed us in their home and sat with us to relive their experiences as a person of color stunting at New College. Highlights included: being called a reverse racist in several emails from otherwise smiling faces IRL, having their victory in the vote to choose their graduating class's commencement event speaker both contested and fiercely monitored, etc. More than anything, though, speaking to Raina again now that they were years removed from the institution was enlightening, encouraging and validating. Often times I (as well as many others, I'm sure) do confront that feeling of wondering if the forces we see as combating our success our just as real as they feel to us. Even as I complete this project, I've had the thought once and will have it several more times, I'm sure. But Raina's interview did manage to remind me of my appreciation of New College that kept me here all four years. Of course, they reflected on positive memories and gave New College it's due for it's strong education offerings and the warmth that we can find there. Even though they had no regrets and claimed that they would do the experience again if it meant becoming the person they were today, Raina kept it a buck and left our shot off with words I'm still thinking about as we move on to Clemson University:

"[As of] Right now, I would not tell a black kid to go to the college I went to."

Would you?