Dear President Burwell
BY: OFONIME IDIONG
What is the future of the Black community at American University? From the posters of confederate flags to the banana incidents that rocked campus last year, where do we stand? As Black students, where do we go from here?
My senior year of high school, I had already made up my mind about college. I knew that I did not want to attend an HBCU. Not because I did not want to be with other black people, but because I sought a more diverse environment. AU caught my attention not only because it is an academically strong school, but because I was promised a diverse and inclusive community.
Yet, what I have encountered at American University is not what I was promised. After the confederate flags were hung, I sought closure by attending the town hall hosted the day after the incident. But, I left feeling more disappointed than ever. I heard a lot of, “This is not us, this is not what we stand for.” But President Burwell — this is AU — and this is what you stand for.
I also heard a lot of silencing at that town hall. Administrators and staff continually argued, “Well we’re doing our best” after students spoke. You cannot tell your students how to feel because we are the ones who exist on this campus every day. We are the ones who face the rude looks from our white peers. We are the ones who get bumped into on our way to class, as if we don’t exist. We are the ones who stand at the receiving end of microaggressions and jokes about Affirmative Action.
Our peer schools, George Washington University and Georgetown University, both have Black Houses. Why don’t we? A house for Black students creates a space where we can feel comfortable. My freshman year, I lived on a floor with 70 students. Only three of them were Black. Give us a Black House. We need a space where we can be comfortable and free, and can feel as though we are not being judged or looked at as “the other.”
I walk on this campus every day feeling like an outsider who does not belong. You cannot claim that AU is a diverse and inclusive campus when the majority of the cleaning and food staff are Latino and African American. In contrast, the vast majority of professors on campus are white.
AU is at an interesting point because of you, Ms. Burwell. You can make it so that students of color thrive on this campus. Drop the PR, and admit that maybe, just maybe, AU is not what it claims to be. Only then we can begin to fix this issue. You need to start listening to students of color, and not try to push your own narrative because your narrative is not the one we all live in.
On this campus, I am invisible and yet visible at the same time. Invisible because my needs are not seen, yet visible because my skin makes me stand out. When white students hold events or fundraisers on the Quad, they never stop me to see if I'm interested. They look past me and stop the non-Black girl behind me. This is my third semester at AU and I have only been stopped once by a white Greek organization to participate. Once. It hurts my heart every time it happens. I always ask myself, "Why not me?"
Last year, when I came and saw Devontae Torriente become AU's first Black Student Government president, I was proud. But, listening to how he was treated during his presidency and what he went through broke my heart. Next, we elected Taylor Dumpson. On her first day of office, bananas hung from nooses were strewn about campus. Enough is enough.
There is a bright future for students of color on this campus, and that starts with actually listening to us because we pay to go here just like everyone else. It starts with creating spaces for us and making this our home, as well. When I leave AU, I want to leave with good memories. I want to leave knowing I was part of this community and that AU is my home.
Ms. Burwell, you are AU’s fresh start, and it is up to you to decide what the future holds and where we go from here.
Feature photo by Awais Ahmad