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Part II: A Graduate Student’s Take on Diversity at the University of Kansas

Editor’s note: Last week, Dion Simmons responded to the town hall meeting on diversity and inclusion at the University of Kansas. Click here to read Dion’s take on the meeting. This week, Charlesia McKinney speaks on being both a student and teacher at KU. 

There is something infectious about courage; when we see others embody it, we want it too and recent events, beginning at the University of Missouri, have helped many campuses step out in courage. I don’t have to be at Mizzou to understand their frustration and desire for a safe space because I know what it means to be a black woman on a predominantly white college campus. I’ve been in predominantly white schools since the third grade and racism isn’t just this “thing” happening “over there” – it’s here at the University of Kansas, and also at my alma mater, Kansas State University.  In fact, it’s rather difficult to think of spaces where racism has not found me.

In the previous HBW post, Dion Simmons perfectly recaptured the atmosphere of the town hall meeting. It was overwhelming and disheartening to hear of the unceasing racist incidents that have occurred and continue to occur at our university. The town hall meeting pushed me to reflect on the demands at the intersection of being a woman of color and graduate teaching assistant.

As a teacher and student, I am constantly trying to find balance between both identities. I am familiar with racist encounters as a student, but prior to this semester I didn’t extensively consider how racism would affect me as a teacher. Although it’s my priority to create a safe, anti-racist classroom, when that environment is violated I’ve discovered, in addition to focusing on my own discomfort, I must also focus on the discomfort of my students of color. Recently, there was an uncomfortable, racist scenario in my classroom. Immediately after class, a student of color came to me to share her anger and frustration concerning the incident. Of course there are more details in regards to this situation but I want to focus on the student who courageously shared her discomfort with me because that moment helped me grow as a student and a teacher.  I realized how important it is to share, as a student, the hurt, frustration, and discomfort we feel because, in this situation, I could not have addressed the issue, as a teacher, if she had not brought it to my attention.

Although the town hall meeting was exhausting, it was also revitalizing to witness the courage required to voice the many stories shared that night. It reminded me that sharing our truth is endlessly powerful and worthy of expressing. As students, we have to be willing to confront uncomfortable racist situations – to say the hard things. And something about that seems unfair because, as a student, I often want my teachers and peers to infer what I feel, but that’s very unrealistic. Also, I don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to speak for me if I can speak for myself. I understand that this does not come easy, but somehow I must find the courage and willingness to speak against injustices, no matter how big or small. Fellow students, I urge you to consider this with me.

I recognize this is a two-way street. As a teacher, I want and need my students to be willing to share their discomfort with me. I acknowledge that every teacher does not feel this way, which results in students feeling discouraged because they can’t/don’t trust their teacher to support them. However, the town hall meeting and following letters of support have provided an opportunity for several teachers to identify themselves as figures of support. Students, if your teacher has done this take them seriously; give your teachers the opportunity to support you. As teachers, we must be ready to listen and take action because our opportunity will come quickly as injustice consistently infiltrates our classrooms. As a teacher, I often ask myself, “what do I want my students to remember me by?” Along with my ability to teach them well (among other things), I hope my students remember me as a teacher who was willing to listen and support them, not only academically but particularly providing support in regards to social justice. Teachers, I urge you to consider these things with me.

I once was too nervous to discuss current events in the classroom, especially regarding race, because I feared my students would think, “she’s only doing this because she’s a black woman.” Of course my identities will never be separated from the work I do but I find it important to remind students to become engaged with current issues, at the university because they often don’t consider themselves important members of the university’s community. I used to view current events as separate from the traditional academic learning process but now I see that it’s right in the middle of it.

Last year, I never discussed Ferguson or the prominent issue of sexual assault at KU in the classroom, because I couldn’t figure out how; I was far too scared one year ago. But following KU’s town hall meeting, I decided to take a risk and discuss current events regarding racial injustice with my students. I didn’t have high expectations and figured we’d talk for 10 minutes, but surprisingly both classes talked for the entire class period. We talked about the town hall meeting, Mizzou, and issues at KU (particularly, concealed carry in 2017 and sexual assault). We discussed various perspectives and most of the class was open to the conversation and opposing opinions. Following class, one student said: “I’m glad you gave us space to talk about these issues today because I think students want to talk about it but never have the opportunity to. We should talk about these events more often.” I’m still surprised by their curiosity and openness but it makes sense in light of my student’s comment. I remember when I didn’t know the power of my voice, especially as a freshman. I didn’t think I had a voice or maybe I didn’t think anyone would listen.  Too often, our students are invalidated and silenced but they want to talk and be heard. I will never tire of watching people find their voice; it will always be worthy of witnessing.

In closing, I can’t overlook how Black and Brown folks are often too silent about the effects of racism within their friendships/relationships. In addition to blatant racism, I’m thinking of the constant, covert racism, which is just as damaging. For years, I have held on to extremely toxic friendships with covert racists simply because they’re nice. Maybe you already have someone in mind, and know what I’m talking about.  It took far too long for me to realize, but there is no amount of nice to cover the harm of racism. This, too, requires courage because it means restricting or removing people from our life, but after the town hall meeting, more than ever before, I’m aware that it may just be key to our survival.

I have yet to regret stepping out in courage. You see, there’s something infectious about courage because once we embody it, we are likely to want to embody it again.

[By Charlesia McKinney]

Charlesia McKinney is a graduate student in the English department at the University of Kansas.