Q&A with black students
Tamara Havis is a computer engineering senior.
Chizuruoke Ukachi-Nwata is a junior majoring in speech-language pathology and audiology.
Axum Taylor is a junior majoring in interdisciplinary studies, with a concentration in public health. Taylor said she was responsible for creating a petition to UTD to stand in solidarity with black students, and that the petition had 421 signatures at the time President Benson released his statement on May 31st.
Now, to begin, there’s been quite a bit going on in the last week nationwide in regards to Black Lives Matter, the death of George Floyd — all that’s making headlines. In the midst of all that, what was a beautiful moment that stood out to you in all that — maybe something you saw on social media, something you experienced in your own life?
Tamara Havis: One thing that I saw that was beautiful was I definitely think this time around there’s more support. I’m not quite too sure why the reason that that is; but in my personal life, I’m just happy that people are now speaking out against the tragedies that have happened. I am also happy that UTD has made a statement. It’s very important to me personally that UTD has done this, and I just think it is really benefiting in a way that they may not think it has, but it means a lot to me personally. And just to preface the rest of this conversation, I do want to say that my views only represent myself, and they do not represent that of the black community at UTD, nor do they represent the black community in general, just to make that clear. I don’t want to represent any one organization or anything like that.
Chizuruoke Ukachi-Nwata: I think to me, it’s really just getting to see who your friends are in these moments. And the community that we have with each other as my people; we have that camaraderie, and just the way we check up on each other. I loved how we were all just able to just kind of come together, because that’s how all of any of this really even happened — I was just talking to my friends about this and saying ‘what is going on? Why are they doing this to us?’ And one thing led to another, we were asking ‘why hasn’t UTD said anything?’ And also seeing my non-black friends just really take that responsibility in doing their part. It’s been really heartwarming to see. So I think out of all this, if anything that’s positive, it’s really been seeing that, okay, some people are paying attention and people do want to help.
Axum Taylor: I was protesting in Plano on Tuesday, and I remember walking past a van where it was very obvious a black woman was with her daughter. And she was videoing the protest happening, across the street, marching through the intersection. And I remember her watching with her daughter and crying, and I was just putting myself in her shoes. Because the first time I went to a protest, I was with my dad. And so just watching this woman seeing us as we marched in front of her, in front of her younger daughter, I just felt a lot of pain understanding we’ve been marching and we’ve been asking for equality for years and generations now. But it was just beautiful to see that even us doing this, our generation, it gives a lot of hope for younger generations too. It’s good to feel too like I did something as well to make a change. Seeing that generationally we’re still fighting. Even though it was brought on with a lot of sadness, I really just looked at it and I thought it was just nice to just know that the inspiration that I saw from my father that made me want to be an advocate. It made me feel like I could make a difference. Now I can do that for another, a younger generation as well.
There’s been a lot of media coverage surrounding the recent nationwide protests. Speaking from your experience and opinion, do you think this coverage did the Black Lives Matter or support of people of color movements justice? In other words, were there aspects you feel were sensationalized? Aspects that were underrepresented? If so, how?
Havis: I definitely do feel like there’s a lot more media coverage this time. And I’m not sure that goes along with my first answer — that there’s more people now speaking out — but I definitely do feel like it’s doing it justice, because we’re holding more people accountable. There are a lot of entities that go on in everyday society — such as fashion and makeup and sporting and things like that — that actively on every other day say that they stand behind all races and all creeds. And I’m glad that during this time that they’re now standing behind that statement, and they’re making public statements one way or the other. I think that’s important that we hold people accountable, not just in nice situations, but in not-so-well situations as well. I definitely do think more media coverage is now holding more people accountable to the things that they say when situations aren’t so nice. It’s definitely good for the cause and the community.
Ukachi-Nwata: For sure. The lootings were just — as soon as that started happening, that took over everything. No one wanted to talk about why these protests were happening anymore, the genuine point, or even highlight the peaceful protests. That just stopped as soon as the looting came around: that became the whole focal point. People were asking, they said, ‘I get that that’s bad, but you shouldn’t do this,’ or like, ‘how is this helping?’ That just was a big distraction. And to know that there were actually people doing charity work and just trying to get the message out there — because I know if I hadn’t been on Twitter, which I actually recently deleted, but I got back on just to keep in touch — but if I hadn’t been on Twitter, I wouldn’t have seen that. In Minneapolis, there was a food drive, right after the lootings and the protest happened. That was the community giving back and they were trying to repair itself. But no, that’s not what was talked about. Looting has definitely been sensationalized, for sure.
Taylor: Definitely. When it comes to media coverage, one thing that was really troubling to me is just seeing the disparity between what’s happening online, on social media, like on Twitter and on Facebook Lives and on Instagram Lives, versus what we’re seeing on more widespread national news coverage, like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News. I think the huge delineage between what we’re seeing is a lot of what we see on social media. I know for me personally on Twitter, where I’m getting much more rapid information about what’s happening. When it comes to getting protest gear, or when it comes to knowing that protesters are being still brutalized by police officers and tear gas being thrown — I don’t really think we saw that coverage on the news until hours after it was happening. And then more importantly, I don’t think we saw news coverage of the actual peaceful protests that were happening during the day. I was at a protest on Saturday and I went at around 2:00 PM or really just closer to noon, and it was extremely peaceful. There was a ton of people that were there in front of city hall in Dallas and who were speaking. There were moments of silence. But almost immediately, once we saw the involvement of more police officers and state troopers coming, they were initiating all of the attacks on peaceful protesters, and were reacting very offensively. And it was just unfortunate that whenever it got to mainstream, nationwide coverage — through CNN, MSNBC — all we saw were just claims that it was the protesters that were initiating rioting, that were initiating violence, when on social media and even in my own experience that wasn’t true at all.
Have you ever experienced racial discrimination personally? And if so, if you’re comfortable, would you mind sharing?
Havis: So, I definitely have experienced racial discrimination throughout my 22 years of life. Just to speak more relevant to the campus that we go to, I’ve experienced racial discrimination in a sense where I had to walk away questioning whether or not the situation was racially biased. And the fact that I had to question that just really didn’t sit well with me. Just to add more clarity to it, I was walking around late at night. It was after the death of one of my fellow people in my community, around two years ago, and the officer stopped me. It was around maybe 10, 11 o’clock at night. He had his lights on his Segway, and he said, ‘just to ask, do you feel safe on campus?’ That’s what he stopped me for. And it was a very pleasant conversation and the man was very nice. However, I felt like during the social climate, and considering the fact that I am an African-American female walking around very late at night and the man did happen to be twice my size, I felt like the interaction was not very well thought out. And I did not feel like I was unsafe walking away. However, I did feel like the officer himself should have thought more about that situation before he stopped me to begin with. And if there wasn’t an immediate emergency, then I shouldn’t have to be stopped late at night when no one else is around, and the situation could have very much gone differently.
Ukachi-Nwata: Yeah. Only a couple come to mind. I think one of them is particularly my first time that I ever experienced something like that. I was on a plane, right, and this was actually my first time, because I’m an immigrant with my family: we all immigrated from Nigeria. It was my first time — I was a kid — and I was in the airplane and this German air hostess, or flight attendant? Yeah. I raised my hand and I was asking for more juice, and she totally ignored me, glossed by over me. And I didn’t know what to do to get her attention. So when she walked by, I just tapped her shoulder and she turned around, flipped around and said ‘don’t ever touch me!’ Yeah, it was very scary. I mean, I was eight years old at the time; I was really young. So I was shocked. I think there’s a point where you know that, ‘Hey, this isn’t just someone scolding me to scold me’ or anything like that. This is something else. So whenever I think of when was the first time I ever experienced racism, or one of the moments I experienced racism, that was for sure one of them. Also, I think another form that really doesn’t get talked about is kind of a, ‘Oh, you’re good. You’re good. You’re not like the other kinds.’ I get that one a lot, especially with older people, or at my high school. It’s like, ‘well, you’re good, you’re not like …’ It’s this weird compliment, like ‘I like you, you behave well, you’re not like these other ones —’ they’re highlighting my black peers. You really don’t know how to respond to that.
Taylor: Yes. So, I definitely experienced a racial discrimination, but I think to really emphasize, for other people to understand too: racial discrimination and racial profiling, it’s not always going to appear being blatant. So, what that means is like, it’s not always going to be somebody explicitly saying that they don’t like me or don’t think I’m qualified because I’m African American. A lot of times when it comes to you know, people’s personal experiences, it’s a racial — how do you put it? It’s more implicit bias, it’s more systematic reasoning of being discriminated against. I think probably the biggest type of discrimination that I faced would just be academic racial disparity. And what I mean by that is having teachers, professors not encouraging you or giving you words of affirmation for doing well in school, versus your non-black peers — having a teacher — in my personal experience, with a high school teacher in math — saying that I shouldn’t try to seek honors classes or AP classes or dual enrollment courses. And a lot of people think that just because you’re not encouraged, ‘whatever, some students aren’t encouraged.’ But I think all students can notice patterns, anybody could notice that if your peers are getting special type of treatments just by being called on more or being encouraged more, you start to feel that. And I think a lot of people too, both black, white, non-black — I would really just say that it’s just a constant reminder that you have to work harder. And sometimes if you want to strive for your goals and for your dreams, there’s going to be people in your way and just systems in your way that are going to keep you from getting there. But yeah, just really enforcing that it’s not always blatant, it’s systematic — and people can always sense when something’s not right.
What does racial equality mean to you? In other words, if somebody comes up to you and asks, ‘hey, what’s the end goal of Black Lives Matter, what are these protestors advocating or trying to achieve,’ what would you tell them?
Havis: So, racial equality to me means that, not that you’re not looking at color, but the fact that you understand color takes a large factor in everyday life. I do not think racism is going to go away overnight because for the past 400 years it hasn’t gone away. It just changed (into) different forms. So I definitely do feel like the first step and the first end goal that we need to realize is that there are things that do take a racial factor — such as getting into higher education, such as healthcare, such as profession — that racism is systematic. And I definitely do feel like people recognizing that fact and doing things to end that. I’m not sure what that legally would look like. However, I do feel like there are a lot of people out there today that still claim things like ‘racism to a certain extent doesn’t exist in certain communities.’ And I think just getting that education out there, that it does exist and it is systematic, would definitely be the first step, and — not the end goal of Black Lives Matter, I’m not sure if it’ll ever end, but it definitely would be a very large step in getting our goals achieved.
Ukachi-Nwata: I think we just want fairness for once, and justice, and acknowledgement—acknowledgement. That’s such a big thing because it’s still not — the president of the United States is still not saying this is a problem we have in our country. And I don’t think I know a president that has really ever said that. Also, after acknowledgment, there’s just so much work left to be done. We need — I don’t know if reform is the right word, but I definitely do think the police force needs to just be restarted, removed or reallocated, whatever. There just needs to be just a deep probe into why these things keep happening in every state, year after year, month after month. This is not an isolated incident. This is a problem. There needs to be that acknowledgment. So, I would say we’re fighting for acknowledgment; we’re fighting for peace. We just want to live in peace and have equal opportunity. And the blatant killing of black lives is just a slap in the face, you know? When we’re also daily told this and given these microaggressions as well, ‘go pick yourself up by the boots’, when we don’t have even foundations or even starting points. So yeah, people are tired. We really want answers. We want acknowledgment, and we want solutions and steps.
Taylor: Well, I really just think there needs to be emphasis that black people, minorities in general, are fighting for equality — just that we’re not fighting to take the place of people privileged, but to just get rid of systems in general that are designed for a hierarchal process. And so, to speak to Black Lives Matter, we’re not just wanting to find justice for these individual cases, for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. It’s not just about those individual cases. It’s about a larger picture of police reform. I think what makes this time unique is we’re really starting to see that police reform means that the institution of being an officer, the legal system, our justice system — it’s not that it’s broken, it’s working exactly the way that it was meant to work, which was to keep minority groups oppressed. And we don’t need to fix a broken system. We need to rethink completely how we approach deescalating situations, how we approach equity when it comes to working with different communities. And what does safety look like in equal environments? What does that mean? What does protecting people from violence look like without over-policing certain communities?
Beyond donating to support funds, what’s something that you think individuals can do to better promote racial equality in their daily lives? What’s something that your non-BIPOC peers can do daily that would make you feel supported and welcomed?
Havis: I think one thing that people, for example, UTD — you mentioned our peers — could do is feel more comfortable coming to events that are on campus. I am a leader of multiple black organizations on campus, and we always advocate for all people of all races to come to our events, every single one of them, and that they should not — just because we are a black-focused organization as far as our agendas go, does not mean that they’re not open to all races. We would happily like to see other races attend our meetings. That’s one thing I could see change. I would also like people to talk about voting more on campus, and not just around presidential elections or elections having to deal with the governor. I would like local elections to be more prominent. And I would also like there to be more advocacy for African-American studies and more other culturally-based studies on campus, as far as the humanities and the political science aspects go. That’s some of the first steps that we could take in that direction.
Ukachi-Nwata: Whenever I see my black or my non-black friends trying to help and stuff, I really appreciate the sentiment, but it’s more than just having to donate or going to a protest. There’s a lot of work to be done in their own backyard. I say that because racism and anti-blackness is just — it’s a phenomenon. Every other minority group even has their own version of anti-blackness towards black people. You find out that we’re really just on the bottom totem pole of everyone; even the minorities are the minority of the minority. So, I always tell them it starts with your own backyard. Telling your parents — you know, sometimes parents say a lot of out-of-pocket stuff. I remember my mom the other day said something really sexist. And my sister called her out on it. So, things like that. When you’re with your friends or non-black friends and they say the N-word, it starts right there, when you say, ‘don’t say that,’ ‘why shouldn’t I say that?’ ‘this is why.’ Then it spreads. So, there’s really a lot of work to be done on their front. I really feel like if we do that, and then donate, and then continue to help, yeah.
Taylor: First, just to touch on the donating part, I think donating isn’t the only thing you can do right now. Even for me personally, it’s been such an enlightening experience to see that there are so many different types of activism. If you have the ability to donate money, that’s great to. But people can donate time. You can attend protests. If you don’t want to put yourself at risk and attend a protest, or if you worried for other things, you can still be able to donate time as far as — what is it? I don’t even know the term for it, but you can watch YouTube videos right now that are collecting ad revenue that’s being donated to certain protests, or to bail funds, and to protesters, and to families, fixing lawyer fees. What else? I’m just now learning about hacktivism too, which is really cool. You’re seeing people in IT, in the tech sphere, being able to—what are they doing? They’re—what is it? It’s like K-pop stans also. I’m not really sure how to articulate it, but they’re over-flooding websites and police stations and politicians with information and with content that is just driving home what our purpose and what our mission is. So, that is extremely encouraging for everybody right now, because everybody can do something. So, to go back to your question, what can people be doing? People need to start having conversations. More importantly, people of privileged groups need to start having these conversations amongst other people with the same types of privilege. I think it needs to be hard conversations, you know? I don’t think anyone’s asking to walk away from their families if they disagree with them. I don’t think that’s what anyone’s saying at all. But to just push boundaries, and to just push people mentally, to challenge their thought. Just as important as challenging your thought is, I also think knowing when to listen is just as important. So for privileged communities to be able to listen to those who are just expressing themselves, saying that they’ve been oppressed and saying that they want to fight for what’s right. I think it’s just as important to know when to speak out as it is when to listen as well.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell whoever is reading this article? Any closing thoughts or comments?
Havis: Just so it’s out there: I know the (UTD) president has released a statement, and he was asking for suggestions if anything could change. And I know I’m just one voice, and it may be hard for me to get my one voice to the president, given he’s over a lot of people. But one thing I would like to see change is cultural sensitivity on campus. I definitely do think it’s everyone’s job, not just one department’s job, to make sure that that cultural sensitivity is met. I definitely do think faculty and staff need to go through a renewal service when it comes to their cultural sensitivity. I’m not quite too sure what kind of training they go through, but I have been in an instance where I felt like this wouldn’t have happened, had there been more cultural sensitivity. I’ll just give an example of this so I’m not talking flamboyantly. For example, I had a professor just this past spring who was discussing COVID-19 in February. I had a TA who came back from Chinese New Year, and he made several jokes that I felt was inappropriate, as far as the TA spreading COVID-19 to us during our lab session. It was consequential that four weeks later, we were all locked down and we were no longer allowed to attend our classes in person. And our professor then realized how serious COVID-19 was, and just how serious it was to those people in China during Chinese New Year, and that his jokes were very much insensitive. And it just showed to me that just because he wasn’t relating to that issue, didn’t make it any less serious. And he realized how serious it was when he was now put in the same situation. So, he did apologize for those remarks; however, I did feel like that wouldn’t have happened to begin with had UTD had more cultural sensitivity training to all of the staff and faculty on campus.
Ukachi-Nwata: I’d say to listen. I think it’s really easy for people to dismiss black people, and whether intentionally or not, there’s this thing where — and it’s so funny, because I feel like every black person knows that how other people could be viewing us and what their excuse — like, it feels like it’s a cop-out, it’s an excuse, or ‘racism is over, get over it’ kind of thing. But these are real issues. And when we speak about these things, or we just go out there — people are being affected here. People just need to listen more. Value black voices. Don’t assume anything — just listen first. And then question. Because like I said, the looting, even if looting were to happen — let’s say at a protest where people are angry — why are you saying that is not the way they should do this, meanwhile you haven’t told anything to the system they’re fighting against, you know? So just listen to black people. Listen and do your part, also. Do your part. You have a responsibility. Everyone has a responsibility.
Taylor: If I had to give a quote of encouragement to anyone else right now, it would just be (that) whenever you feel something is wrong, whenever you get that instinctual feeling that there needs to be change, to stop looking for a leader and to just be that leader. Remember that any platform, regardless of who your audience is, or how many followers you have, everyone has a platform — every single person — and part of our responsibility as citizens is to uphold democracy, to do your civic duty and to be engaged. But I think a lot of people just forget that because we all have a platform, it would be irresponsible to not use it. And to not use that opportunity, or every opportunity that you have, to create impact and change. The last thing I guess I would say is — this was just something I read the other day: after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, over 110 cities began to riot which caused the millions of dollars in damage, but on the sixth day of the riot, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed. And I really just thought that was important because even though all of this is happening, we’re seeing riots, we’re seeing a lot of violence and we’re seeing a lot of property damage as well: it’s not for no reason. We’ve already seen we’re trying to convict all four officers, where the FBI is getting involved in Breonna Taylor’s case. This is just news that has happened within the span of a week — or in the span of a few days, really. All of this strain, all of this social tension right now is not for no reason.