February is right around the corner, which means instructors will start asking their classes to open their textbooks and turn to the section on civil rights, the Civil War and slavery. As soon as the topic is announced, backs straighten, heads turn and eyes glance toward the one black student in class. They are seeking eyes, curious how the person will react. But they don’t. They keep their composure, look straight ahead, or stare down at their notebook, hoping no one asks them to speak.
February is Black History Month, a time to discuss events that shaped the past. But for some black students and staff at clark, it’s a time to talk about the daily discomfort and struggles inside the classroom.
Racism’s long history of segregation is still felt today, Associate Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Loretta Capeheart said. To fight this, Capeheart said, it’s important for communities to interact and engage with each other.
To help with that interaction, Khalid el-Hakim, founder of the Black History Mobile 101 Museum, visited Clark on Jan. 17. El-Hakim said black American history tends to “spark conversation, difficult conversation.” He educates people on racism’s current forms, and how it’s expressed through microaggressions and biases.
Rashida Willard, Clark’s Director of Operations & Risk Management said there are usually only one or two black students in Clark classes, and when black history topics arise many students immediately look to their black classmate for reaction.
“It makes you feel hot,” Willard said. “Everyone is looking at you.”Willard said her daughter was recently asked by her high school teacher to instruct a black history lesson because she is black.
“I don’t think the teacher is being malicious or mean, but they don’t see that singling out a child and asking them to speak on behalf of all black culture is a problem,” Willard said. “That’s a role, unfortunately, that we’ve been given.”
Willard said a lack of diversity among educators is part of the problem. “If you have a black teacher in class she’s not gonna single out a white person and ask them to tell about European history in America,” Willard said.Clark US history instructor Samuel Triebes said black people face slights and unconscious bias, and not always by overt racism, but because people are not familiar with different races. Triebes said only one generation has passed since the civil rights era, and it’s a “long, slow process of changing people’s minds, biases and preconceptions.”
Amaya Causey, a Running Start student, said black people are also questioned and compared to racial stereotypes. A white friend of Causey’s told her she didn’t act like a black person. Causey said she wonders if her friend has talked with many black people.
“I don’t think there is a problem with stereotyping people,” Causey said. “I think there is a problem with believing in, and sticking to that stereotype, and not finding out information on your own.”
Willard said another issue is that she’s often asked about the “black experience,” such as if she “always eats fried chicken,” or if her braided hair is real. “In my heart I should probably tell that person to go read a book, but in reality, what happens is I answer questions,” Willard said.
Then, Willard said, strangers in grocery stores and people on Clark campus touch her braids without her consent. She said this occurs on a weekly basis, and that non-consensual hair touching is a recurring discussion in her community.
“I would never ask if that is your real hair, or come up and put my hands on your hair,” Willard said.
Causey said she doesn’t allow people to touch her hair because she has seen black people pet as if they’re animals. “It’s degrading,” Causey said.
Kenon McCollins, a Clark communications major, said a student walked up to him, pulled on his beard and said, “Black lives matter, right?”
McCollins acknowledged that people joke to ease tension, but said he doesn’t believe people should joke about race if they don’t know each other well.
“You can’t just come up and make a racist joke,” McCollins said. “That’s racism right there.”
In class, McCollins also feels pressured when discussing black history.
“I feel like all eyes and energy is directed my way,” McCollins said. “I feel embarrassed that my people were slaves and that slavery was legal.”
Clark photography major Alicia Carthon said she often sees non-black people become nervous when saying “black” or “African-American,” and she encourages them to ask if they’re unsure how to refer to someone.
Carthon said conversations about being black can be “touchy,” but people shouldn’t walk on eggshells around her. “Just cause I got a wicked tan doesn’t mean we don’t know or like the same things,” Carthon said. “We’re people.”