Beyond Words

28 September 2020

Members of Carleton’s Black Student Alliance talk with philosophy fellow Eddie O’Byrn about racism and a vision for justice.

Photographs by John Noltner

A dark-skinned man with a red cloth wrapped around his dreadlocked hair and a blue bandana covering his face
“I just want to be treated equal. With employment. With education. With finances. I want justice.”

In a matter of weeks, the unrest unleashed by the Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd not only prompted widespread recognition that racism remains the ugliest of existential threats, it forced policymakers to transcend typical, predictable rhetoric and get down to the business of tangible change. At Carleton, a dialogue opened up between senior leadership, faculty members, and students that has already yielded a series of reforms, including mandatory anti-racism training for everyone on campus, additional international scholarship funds to attract more students from Caribbean and African countries, and the establishment of a $200,000 endowed scholarship in Floyd’s name.

These initial steps in the right direction were accompanied by a commitment to regularly provide platforms for uncensored expression and discourse involving the causes and effects of white supremacy. In hopes of providing one such platform, the Voice reached out to the Black Student Alliance (BSA) in early July to offer a safe space for a discussion about some of its members’ hopes, dreams, and fears in the midst of the country’s current turmoil. Kenya Cooper ’21, current president of the BSA, agreed that a panel discussion between a Black faculty member and a group of her peers would provide the best forum for such an exchange. She then went about recruiting individuals who had participated in protests around the country this past summer: Raba Tefera ’21, a biology major from Rochester, Minnesota; Diana Augustin ’21, an Africana studies major from Minneapolis; and Houstonian Darius “Dee” Hines ’24.

Cooper also rightly suggested that philosophy fellow Eddie O’Byrn, renowned for leading energetic class discussions, would be an excellent conversational guide, and he enthusiastically agreed to moderate. The interchange that follows is excerpted from the group’s 90-minute meeting.

Eddie O’Byrn: What was your initial response to hearing news about the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd?

Diana Augustin: It made me see in real time how anti-Blackness never stops, how it’s something that is always happening every single second.

a Black man with a beard wearing a red baseball cap and a red bandana around his neck
“This is the look of a hurt father. All love and respect.”

Darius Hines: I agree. It just never stops. And the main thing that I kept thinking was that nobody should have to go through what George Floyd went through. And nobody should have to see it. You feel me? Nobody. But I’m not going to lie. In my community, people are used to this sort of thing. So a lot of times, the impact of this sort of violence will last for about a week or two, and then it’s back to regular programming. This time the reaction has been longer. It’s still going on. I guess I’m just not sure it will last. It’s ridiculous, but people get immune.

Raba Tefera: In America, we see police brutality against Black people all the time. It’s never ending—like a social pandemic. I think [Floyd’s murder] hit really close for me because I am from Rochester [Minnesota] and Carleton students regularly go to Minneapolis. So it’s especially frustrating.

O’Byrn: As the pandemic has unfolded, Black people have been disproportionately impacted. And yet we’re still willing to go out and risk our lives protesting for justice. Can you talk about the tension between these two realities?

A Black woman wearing eyeglasses with a colorful scarf covering her hair
“I don’t want to be filled with fear every time me or my brothers go outside.”

Augustin: I’m immunocompromised, so I felt a lot of anxiety. I did go to a protest for George Floyd, and then I went to one for Vanessa Guillen. I made sure to wear a mask and be as safe as possible, but in the back of my mind I definitely felt myself wondering if people around me had corona, or if I would catch corona. It was difficult. But I felt like I had to be present in those spaces to be in solidarity with other people who want to stand up against police brutality. I also have a lot of family that are in the prison system, and I was thinking about them and the way they’ve been treated. So, yeah, I wanted to be safe, but I also had to think about what all of this could mean for the future. It could mean change. So the risk seemed worth it.

Hines: I didn’t even think about the corona. I had a mask on at first, and I was like, “Hey, I can’t breathe in this mask, so I’m taking it off.” I mean, it just didn’t feel right. It made me feel like an animal or something. And I guess I felt like what was happening was bigger than me. I wanted to help. I wanted to do something. Because what happened to George Floyd could have happened to someone in my own family. It could’ve happened to me.

A Black man raises his fist. He wears a facemask with an illustration of a raised fist, and a T-shirt that reads: Yes, I am mixed with Black, unapologetically Black, proud Black, and Black, again
“We’re not asking for justice and equality any more. We’re demanding it.”

O’Byrn: Black Lives Matter is an international movement, not simply a U.S. movement. Have recent events changed your consciousness about anti-Blackness happening in other countries?

Augustin: The majority of my family lives in Haiti. Right now, Haitians make up 44 percent of the families that are being held in ICE detainment camps. I think of that a lot when I think of Black Lives Matter. You have predominantly Black countries that are systematically underfunded, robbed, and exploited, which the American media doesn’t really talk about. It’s not a coincidence that the people in the world who are suffering the most are Black people or darker-skinned people. Because I’m a first-generation American, I’ve always felt connected to people that are outside of the United States. I feel like I’m able to see how people in both the United States and other countries suffer in the same ways: from violence, from poverty, from lack of health care, and from a lack of education.

A Black man with face and neck tattoos wears a backwards baseball cap
“Why is being black in America a death sentence?”

Tefera: I’m from Ethiopia, and the United States funds the Ethiopian government in order to fight terrorism in the Red Sea. The thing that’s often overlooked is that this funding goes directly to the politicians, not to the people who are in poverty. The same thing happens in the EU. Money is funneled to Eritrea to keep immigrants out of the EU, which to me is amazing to think about. They really give money to governments who oppress their citizens just to keep them out of their country.

O’Byrn: Do you feel like your friends and neighbors have sustained the anti-racist energy that cropped up earlier this summer, or do you feel like there’s been a dip?

Tefera: A lot of my friends didn’t post on their social media, and I called them out as much as I could. Their excuse was “Oh, I don’t really talk about political things.” But I’m like, “This isn’t political. This is a matter of human rights.” Another trend that I saw: a majority of people got over the situation once the media coverage changed. CNN stopped broadcasting from the protests and started talking more about COVID-19 again. People are also starting to shift more toward the political campaigns of Joe Biden and Donald Trump. I think that’s all taken away from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Hines: I never really pay attention to see who is posting or not. I understand that, at the end of the day, the real help is not going to come from people I never see or barely know. It’s going to come from the people that look like me, that understand me, that go through the same struggles as me. That’s how I was raised. I’ve got to do whatever I’ve got to do to make sure that, as a community, we are together and that we are moving as one. Unity is very important. If we are divided, we will never get anything solved.

O’Byrn: What do you think is a just response to situations like George Floyd’s murder? Is justice even possible?

A Black woman wears a pale blue scarf over her head
“I’m mourning. There’s pain. I just want justice … for the whole human race.”

Augustin: I think that justice will come when the people from the bottom are able to make their own decisions about how they want their lives to run. We shouldn’t have to beg for our lives. We shouldn’t have to depend on other people to force the police to stop killing us. Everyone should have the power to make sure their basic needs are being met. There needs to be a complete shift of power and resources.

Hines: The main thing is really understanding that this country was never built for us. It was built on our backs, definitely, but it was never built for us to succeed. The oppressor will never give us justice; never give us what we really want, which is just basic needs and control of our life. They have control of everything. The jobs. The schools. Every single thing. So, when I think about whether there will ever be justice for us as Black people in America, the answer is no. Because, when you look at it, we’re still in the same places that we’ve been stuck at for decades. You feel me? Decades. It’s really sad and sickening, but the people in power don’t care. I don’t even like talking about the problem a lot of times.

Tefera: It is hard not to be pessimistic, but I think we all need to look at the long term and focus on where the problem really originates. To me, it’s important to be focused on the school system and the environment that kids are raised around, because I’m a firm believer that your environment makes you who you are. If we were to focus on giving every kid an equal chance at achieving anything they want, and not hold kids back just because of the color of their skin, that’s when we’re going start seeing real justice. And we’ll also have more people in power that can actually make real decisions
for the future of our race.

O’Byrn: This is good, because I wanted to ask you all about your educational environment. Do you feel that there are safe spaces for Black students to express themselves at Carleton? Do there need to be more of these spaces? And, if so, what would that look like?

A bald and bearded Black man stands on a street corner
“To tell Black people to protest peacefully is against the principles this country was built on.”

Hines: I noticed after being on campus for one year that it is really important that we create our own spaces. It shouldn’t be forced or organized. It needs to happen naturally. Even if I have to go in my room and be like, “Hey, you all, come over and let’s have a movie session or whatever and just have a good time.” That’s what’s really most important: enjoying life. I think with everything that’s going on we forget that we only have one life to live, and you should spend as much of it as you can with people that you love.

Augustin: I agree with Darius that it’s important for Black students to be able to make their own organic spaces where they can experience comfort and relax, and just have fun. I also do think that in terms of official spaces, Carleton is lacking. There needs to be an institutional space created to address issues and tensions that Black students face while they’re on campus. A Black student center would be really cool. It would help Black students develop themselves while they’re on campus, and develop their professional selves.

O’Byrn: Do you think Carleton students should be required to take more Africana studies and Black history classes? Could that contribute to changing attitudes and systems?

A Black man in a pink tracksuit and pink Nike cap raises his fist
“If we don’t change the law, we don’t change the conditions.”

Augustin: I’m always thinking about what speaking about my experience, and then translating that experience to a class full of white people, accomplishes, exactly. Would that really help me in the long run? Or would it just give them a way of knowing my language, which they can then co-opt to make the systems that are oppressing me even more perfect? That’s something that happens a lot—co-optation—and it’s something that makes me worry about even pursuing higher education after Carleton. But, if I put that aside, I think a program like Africana studies is important because some people just genuinely don’t know or don’t really interrogate their whiteness that much.

Tefera: I think it’ll be hard for us to push mandatory Africana courses at a predominantly white institution. We don’t have that big of a voice on campus. One way we could go about it is trying to incorporate elements of Africana studies in other majors, especially in places where you might not expect it, like physics or math. It would also be helpful to have more Black professors, because there are students in departments that don’t have someone that looks like them teaching, and I think that’s very important.

O’Byrn: What kinds of changes and long-term support would you like to see at Carleton if you come back as alumni 10 years after you graduate?

Augustin: I would like to see the institution really be able to name the way that it’s been complicit with white supremacy and whiteness. I think that in order for us to really have anti-racism, we’re going to need to see a lot more Black students. And not just Black students that are just here for the sake of diversity and inclusion. We’re going to actually have to feel supported here, and we’re going to actually have to feel like we belong. Carleton’s Black students should be happy students. They should feel like their needs are being addressed and that they’re able to grow as scholars and as professionals, unbarred and unmitigated by racism or microaggressions.

Tefera: All of us are working with the college to get our demands across. All of us come to campus 10 steps behind every other person because Carleton is made up of people whose parents are very successful, and have a lot of money, and have a lot of resources, a lot of networking and all of these things. If you take more of the financial burden off of us to begin with, it would make it a lot easier for us to succeed at Carleton and beyond.

Hines: Diana and Raba, you took the words right out of my mouth. I definitely want to see what you want to see. That would be amazing.

A Black woman with an elaborate magenta corn-row hairstyle
“You can breathe now. Rest EZ Baby.” #GEORGEFLOYD

Radical Love and Justice: A Photo Essay

A Black person with braided hair and a black headband looks into the camera
“Stop pinning the acts of one person on an entire race.”

Twin Cities photographer and frequent Voice contributor John Noltner went to the Minneapolis intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in the days following George Floyd’s murder and asked community members a simple question: What do you want to say? We present here some of the images and comments Noltner gathered from the memorial site.

Noltner is offering the full collection of his images as a free resource to help encourage conversation about race in the United States.

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