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By Iman Williams
It’s been two years since I signed the papers to withdraw from Emory University. When signing, I recalled a college counselor assuring me that I was not qualified to receive admittance in an institution as prestigious as Emory. To be a little Black girl from the hood is to be told that you are not good enough. It is to survive the incalculable, is to be a problem, is to navigate a triple consciousness, is to work three times as hard as the person working three times as hard, is to defy gravity, is to do the impossible with a blindfold only to be reminded that you are not good enough.
What I knew as I signed the papers to withdraw was that Emory University, like most academic institutions, does not care about Black life.
James Wagner, the president of Emory University who has only recently stepped down, made this clear when he praised the 1787 three-fifths compromise that allowed one enslaved person to be counted as three-fifths of a person. However, Emory University demonstrated its commitment to working in the service of white supremacy long before President Wagner’s statement. Emory University was not only created on the backs of enslaved Black people, it continues to uphold white supremacy by deliberately dismissing the needs of its Black students, faculty, and staff members. The people who put their lives in danger to develop and renovate infrastructure on every Emory University campus, the people who put their lives in danger to fix the roads and pipes, the people who clean the bathroom stalls in the university, the clinics, the hospital, the classrooms, dorms, kitchens, and halls, the people who cook for students, administrators and other employees at Emory are all treated by the Institution as though they are subhuman. This mistreatment is only tolerated because they come from underrepresented communities.
So it came as no surprise to me when a Black staff member was fired for arriving to work after working at Emory for twenty years. It came as no surprise to me when a Black staff member had a chronic illness and died from a seizure in Emory University’s cafeteria without medical or financial support from the Institution. It came as no surprise to me when I was forced to move out of the Black Student Alliance House after a student who lived across the hall from me stated that he wanted to run around the house in Blackface. It came as no surprise to me that he was not reprimanded and it came as no surprise to me that the University was more interested in protecting his anonymity than they were in ensuring that I was safe. This experience reminded me that people of color can and do work in the service of white supremacy and the anti-Black violence that non-Black people of color inflict upon us is a heavy load to carry.
With a endowment of $6.7 billion, Emory continues to prove that it does not care about Black people by making cuts to departments- including the visual arts, physical education, and journalism program, which disproportionately affects non-white students. That is to say that academic reorganization and reinvestment is a means by which to further isolate students of color. Wagner continued to demonstrate his and the University’s disinterest in Black students and their dehumanization when he deliberately failed to attend the demonstrations organized by Black students at Emory following the verdict of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It comes as no surprise that President Wagner intentionally failed to attend the more recent vigils, demonstrations, and forums organized by Black students to discuss Anti-Black violence and misogynoir in and outside of academic institutions.
It came as no surprise to me when, like robots, we were expected to show up to work the day Mike Brown was murdered, and like a robot I continued to attend classes, complete assignments, and pretend not to be overwhelmed by the fact that Black people were and still are under attack by white people and non-Black people of color.
A month after the murder of Mike Brown, I noticed Sojourner Truth’s name on the syllabus of my Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS) class. I also noticed that she was only one of very few non-white women listed as required reading. The systematic oppression of Black people manifests in a myriad of ways. Oppression can also look like a department failing to necessitate, and engage with, the work of Black scholars. I was both unsurprised and disappointed to find that after waiting several months before reading material written by a Black woman, the professors was never, in fact, interested in engaging with the work of Sojourner Truth. The discourse on Blackness is nonexistent in the classroom unless the course is in the department of African or African-American Studies. Simply put, the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality department at Emory University does not care, in the slightest, about women of color, let alone Black women.
After having listened to the class speak about Emma Watson, who was not on the syllabus, for three consecutive days I decided to take a ten minute break from class. Before opening the door to leave I glanced at a sticker on the door that read “Safe Space.” Nothing is farther from the truth.
The Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Department at Emory did not put Sojourner Truth’s Aint I a Woman as required text in their syllabus because they valued her work and intended to discuss the relationship between Blackness and feminism. The professor had no intention of requiring students to speak about or even read Sojourner Truth. I grew increasingly frustrated with the class discussion centered on Emma Watson’s address to the United Nations about feminism—an address that failed to acknowledge the plight or humanity of non-white, poor, disabled, Muslim, immigrant, and/or queer women.
As if there is a shortage of white women with a feigned interest in feminism.
As if the humanity of non-white women is something that is not worth acknowledging.
As if denying the humanity of non-white women is something that deserves praise.
After interrupting the class presentation on Emma Watson and demanding the conversation to focus on intersectionality and Sojourner Truth, the instructor apologized to the students on my behalf and dismissed class early. The irony lies in the fact that I, after providing a critique of white feminism for silencing Black women, was silenced by a white feminist. Instead of saying anything else, I pushed my chair in and left the class with the rest of the students.
I was subsequently reported to the department chair of WGS at Emory, the Office of Intervention Services, the deans, and the Office of Undergraduate Education (though I had an A in the class and was always two to three weeks ahead on the assignments) and was required to attend a meeting to discuss my “disobedience” at the Office of Intervention Services on October 16, 2014. While standing outside of the office of the administrators I was scheduled to meet with, I overheard their conversation:
A.S. “This little ghetto girl from Baltimore is coming in next.”
C.L. “She needs to take that behind back to Baltimore if she wants to be ghetto. She doesn’t need to be here she needs to be in Baltimore City Community College.”
After the women finished their conversation, they gestured outside of the door for me to come in. Each step I took towards the office took an incredibly amount of energy out of me because I was overwhelmed with anxiety and frustration.
Members of the administration pathologized me before they had met me.
Their violence made me realize that who I was did not matter to them or the University. It did not matter that I attended a prestigious independent High School on full scholarship, it did not matter that I was the first Black girl to be the president of the student government at my high school, that I was the leader of debate, that I was an athlete and scholar that got accepted into every school she applied to with scholarships, that I was recognized by the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, that my activism was acknowledged by Tom Joyner and NPR, that I was awarded scholarships for my community work and civic engagement. What was in my heart did not matter to the University. Who I am and what I accomplished did not matter to these people. Because I am Black, Emory University, a place I once called home, believed I was the problem.
This violence became even more intense when I asked the administrator why she called me ghetto:
A.S. “You are ghetto and I was going to tell you that to your face. You are lucky to have gotten out of Baltimore without getting pregnant.”
My heart sunk as I watched these words roll off of her tongue with so much ease. After filling out a bias incident report I learned that the administrators that called me ghetto were on the bias incident reporting committee. Whiteness protects itself. It was always already exhausting to be a Black student at Emory University and this experience took even more time and energy out of me than I thought was humanly possible. The racism, classism, and sexism I experienced led me to leave Emory and return to a place where I knew I would not be pathologized—Baltimore.
After I returned home, one of my sheros, Dr. Zandria Robinson, came under attack by a university she too used to call home. The general public and the University of Memphis targeted Dr. Robinson because she wrote about white supremacy and white privilege. After watching the situation unfold, and reading Dr. Robinson’s post on her website Zeezus Does the Firing ‘Round Hurr, I was reminded that it is okay, and often necessary, to refuse to assent to the violence that is inflicted upon Black women and other members of oppressed and underrepresented communities in and outside of academia. In “How To Support A Scholar Who Has Come Under Attack,” Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman writes,
“Simply put, academia is behind the times. And, there’s far too much academic cowardice, rather than academic bravery, to entrust our protection to our universities. Controversy — the very thing that academic freedom is designed to protect us against (professionally) — is feared rather than embraced. But, let’s be clear: the pattern of attacks on scholars appears to suggest that people of color, women, and other scholars of marginalized backgrounds are most vulnerable to these attacks. Women of color who publicly write about racism and white privilege seem to be overrepresented among the targets of these witch hunts for critical and public scholars.”
It is clear that most academic institutions are committed to ensuring that the University is a safe space for cis, wealthy, white, abled-bodied, and heterosexual people. However, that same level of commitment, protection, and care needs to be extended to members of the community that are marginalized and underrepresented.
It should not be a controversial for me to say that Emory University, like most Universities, promotes anti-Blackness. And it should not be controversial for me to expect the University to stop reprimanding and targeting those who challenge anti-Blackness and other structures of oppression. It is time for folks and academic institutions to be brave, have accountability, and deconstruct the anti-Blackness that weaves the very fabric of academic institutions.
Iman Williams is an organizer, scholar, and writer from Baltimore Maryland. She is currently pursuing her B.A. in Comparative Literature and Philosophy at Emory University. Her writing has been published by, or is forthcoming in, Entropy, Enclave, Moonsick Magazine, Acro Collective, and The Volta. She is also the Founding Editor of the literary journal Subjugated Knowledge. When she is not reading or writing, Iman spends much of her time studying performance art and cooking.