Universities create safe spaces to alleviate on-campus racial tension

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Last semester, someone at Mississippi State University used chalk to write “black lives matter is racist” on a sidewalk.

Last week, the Society of African American Studies at the university began to occupy that same sidewalk each Wednesday, claiming it as a “safe space” where students express themselves vocally about racism in America and on campus or by submitting their personal concerns into an anonymous box. Those thoughts are used to fuel campus-wide conversations at the university held by the society.

Unknown student writes "Black Lives Matter Is Racist," in the sidewalk near the student union at Mississippi State University in April of last semester.

Mississippi Today, Ashley F.G. Norwood

Written on the sidewalk near the student union at Mississippi State University in April.

The Society of African American Studies hosted the university’s first campus-wide conversation addressing the “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” movements on Wednesday night.

“A lot of people think Mississippi State is a progressive school, which it is in its own way. But there are a lot of things that still needs to be discussed for us to move forward,” says Morgan Alexander, a senior wildlife fishery major from Jackson and a member of the society.

Similarly, student organizations at predominantly white universities across the nation are creating safe spaces for conversations. Diverse groups of students, faculty and staff can acknowledge international discrimination and how it manifests in local communities and on campuses. This is also a time to create solutions that are fair to all members of that collegiate community.

On Sept. 17, 2015, the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement partnered with other student organizations at the University of Mississippi to begin a conversation about black lives matter/all lives matter that would continue on campus and spread to other campuses across the state.

Assistant professor of sociology James Thomas, the moderator, provided the context of the birth and evolution of the black lives matter movement. The students also watched a video of a student at the university standing in front of the Confederate statue on the downtown Oxford square holding a sign that read “#Blacklivesmatter” and the response of white males driving by yelling, “White lives matter too! Get another sign.”

 

At Mississippi State, Dr. Courtney Carter, a professor of sociology and African American studies, says the university doesn’t provide enough opportunities for students to express themselves about racial matters. She also provided the diverse crowd of at least 100 hundred students Wednesday night with a video of an interview with the three women who founded the black lives matter movement: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, describing its meaning and purpose before the conversation began.

The mood among the audience members ranged from pride to frustration. Many of the frustrations were from the lack of support many black students feel coming from the state Legislature and the university’s president, Dr. Mark Keenum.

Michael Poole, a white male student, says that he never felt that a “strong loud social movement was the most effective way to bring about social change,” but he is now realizing that it is and it has at the university. He refers to last semester when students at the university protested for removal of the state flag on campus, and it came down.

Morgan Alexander was one of the many students who loudly gave a speech on the steps of the president’s office during the protest to remove the flag:

“I saw a bumper sticker one day. It said if you don’t like America you can leave. Love it or get out. Somebody asked me why I don’t love America. I ain’t got a problem with America, I’m trying to figure out why America don’t love me,” she belted.

“Besides being told no, what frustrates me is being told to wait,” says Queen Brown, a student at the university and the vice president of the state’s youth and college division of the NAACP. She says that Keenum has personally urged her and other students to wait and trust the process of legislation.

Student leaders from the historically black college Tougaloo and Jackson State University travel to Mississippi State to engage in the solution process of making minority students feel more comfortable at the university. L-R: Natalie Nicholson, J. Frank, Marquise Hunt, Steven Lusk and Andrew Word.

Mississippi Today, Ashley F. G. Norwood

Student leaders from Tougaloo College and Jackson State University traveled to Mississippi State to engage in the conversation about making minority students feel more comfortable at the university. L-R: Natalie Nicholson, C. Frank, Marquise S. Hunt, Steven Lusk and Andrew Word.

Marquise S.  Hunt, president of the NAACP chapter at Tougaloo College, traveled to the university to join the discussion along with two other male colleagues. Also joining them was the president of the state’s youth and college division of the NAACP, Natalie Nicholson, a student at Jackson State University.

They are involved in these sorts of conversations at Tougaloo and Jackson State, but they were interested in understanding the effects racism is having on students attending predominantly white institutions in Mississippi.

White and black students discussed ways to challenge everyday stereotypes, disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, become active co-conspirators, practice healthy and safe ways to cope with racism and to hold the university and state leaders accountable for making life more palatable for minority students at our universities.

“We are the future. We can change this. It starts with petitions and it starts with us and it starts in this classroom,” says Steven Lusk, a white male student at the university.

The Society of African American Studies will occupy the sidewalk near the student union every Wednesday for safe space and encourage ideas for their continued series of on-campus conversations.