By Fatou Sow
Growing up in a black city and having attended majority black schools from elementary to undergraduate has afforded me a privilege: I know who I am as a person (not just a Black person). When I say that I grew up learning about black history, I’m not talking about the beginning of the slave trade. I’ve seen King Tutankhamen’s gold encasing at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. I read books by Toni Morrison, Buchi Emecheta, James Baldwin, Nnedi Okorafor, and so many more. I watch black television, listen to black music, indulge in black art, eat black cuisine, and can experience black culture from South Compton to Saint Louis, Senegal.
I know who I am because I know who my people are and what we have accomplished despite generations of dehumanization and chattel-like treatment.
Yet, I’m often reminded of my Blackness, regardless of the space being physical or virtual at SAIS. Is this an institutional phenomenon? Absolutely.
My alma mater – Howard University – is filled with diverse black bodies, tones, faces, and regional backgrounds. If anything, my Blackness there was only affirmed, not a constant reminder of who I was. At a predominantly white institution such as SAIS, being reminded of my Blackness can take on three forms within my learning environment:
1. I find myself in a class with like-minded people who can (and sometimes cannot) relate to a shared existence and we create engaging dialogue that goes beyond our skin tone.
2. I find myself in a class with a mixed group of individuals from various backgrounds (race, sex, age, profession, etc.) and still engage in good dialogue with problematic statements being made from time-to-time; not too frequently though.
3. I find myself in a class with few Black students or as the only Black student hearing constant remarks that dehumanize me as a person. The person making said comment not only rejects the ill intent but also tries to act as the “victim”.
Now, as an international school known for its academic rigor and overall excellence, one might ask why does the third form exists in 2021? My answer is the following: the academic arena does not eliminate prejudice or racism simply because we are receiving a higher level of education. What it does, though, is show the true fashion of how and what people are thinking (intentionally or not) after they are exposed to material that debunks problematic preconceptions.
My mom would always tell my sisters and me, “don’t argue with a fool because, from the outside, people won’t know who the fool is.” However, when I find myself on Zoom hearing and seeing problematic comments, I don’t know whether to respond or remain silent. Usually, I disengage from the entire learning process and wait until the professor dismisses us. After my most recent experience in a class, I chose to stay silent up until the final moment of class, clearly engaging in imprudent dialogue.
As I weigh my options and decide whether or not to engage in discourse, I notice organizations, like SAIS, do the same, but for a much different strategy–performative complacency. I’m starting to see a shift in organizations from total disengagement to performative activism. Rather than create policies that can help give equity to Black communities, they create hashtags and slogans like “Justice for (inserts name of one of the many Blacks who’ve died at the hands of police)”. Corporations send statements such as “We stand against racial injustice and show support for the Black community” when the career trajectories of their Black employees show slower upward mobility than their counterparts.
Black History Month is a time where we can remember, reflect and create true change. SAIS can be at the forefront of this beyond Black History Month. My Black skin is already a reminder of the resilience of my people, it should not be a reminder of one’s insecurities. As we round up Black History Month, I charge everyone, regardless of racial background, to be mindful of internal biases towards specific groups of people and celebrate how vast our global diaspora truly is. We have a lot of work to do in dismantling systems of oppression; there is no room – especially in academia – for continued intentional or unintentional prejudice.