We have a long way to go.
The University of Kentucky is not living in a post-racial society. Convincing ourselves that we’re past racism is a lie — a big, blatant lie. As UK celebrates the 70th anniversary of Lyman T. Johnson’s enrollment into the university, we need to realize that UK has a racist legacy we haven’t fully addressed.
What racist legacy? Where’s the racism? How is there still discrimination? We’re all Americans. We’re all the same. Why’s everything always about race? Blacks, Latino, Arabs, Asians and many other minorities get an education at UK just like their white counterparts.
If you’re white, these questions and thoughts might be swirling in your head. If they are, then congratulations. You have unintentionally admitted that you have white privilege. Pat yourself on the back and brace yourself. You’re about to get an ugly, painful history lesson.
I’m a Palestinian-Muslim, a student of color, who is graduating from UK in about three months. I want you to know that my fellow classmates of color and I do not have the same experience as white students on campus.
I’m not convinced that UK has fully “integrated.” Yes, students of color go here. But we aren’t fully acknowledged, recognized or accepted by all whites on campus. UK wasn’t built with us in mind. Black students still didn’t receive the same benefits as their white classmates immediately after Johnson’s admittance. They were dehumanized. Full “integration” didn’t really happen until 1967 when UK football player Nate Northington integrated the SEC.
Let me give you an example of such dehumanization: I was in the Kernel office recently and saw a 1954 edition of The Kentuckian — the now defunct UK student yearbook — sitting on a chair. Immediately curious, I skimmed through the book. Amazingly, I found an image of several boys wearing blackface during what appeared to be a fraternity and sorority event.
That wasn’t the worst part though. The worst part came when I tipped off my fellow Kernelites and advisers about my painful discovery. They decided to search through more yearbooks. The result? They found more racist pictures, including KKK-esque costumes and outfits.
“Why is it such a big deal?” some might ask. “Why can’t you just let it go?” If that’s how you feel, this is my response: Stop, sit down and listen. You don’t just get over something like that. That’s not something you forget about. White people won’t understand the weight of that disgusting imagery. That right there is privilege.
You know what else is privilege? Having many students that look like you everywhere you go on campus, and because of this not feeling isolated or questioning whether you belong. Having faculty and administrators that look like you and believe in you. Having whiteness as the norm and not being expected to act any differently. Having people listen to your problems and struggles without feeling invalidated. Not having a constant worry of facing microaggressions.
Those are some of the many privileges white students at UK have. The reason I reference these privileges in reference to blackface is because those pictures are true symbols of this university’s legacy towards students of color. For some reason, people only want to talk about Northington, Johnson and many other successful blacks who came through UK under the guise that all UK students are now seen and treated equally.
But they’re not.
The same people that talk about these esteemed figures don’t want to address the fact that blackface, while it still unfortunately exists, has now mostly manifested into microaggressions and covert white supremacy. That’s how racism works. It’s a virus. One minute it’s Jim Crow, the next minute it’s microaggressions. Once a host is infected with this virus, the effects are damaging and hard to cure.
These racial tensions recently boiled over during the Black Student Advisory Council and Basic Needs campaign’s occupation of the Main Building back in April. Those students voiced the same frustrations that I’m voicing now. If that wasn’t enough to show white students and faculty what we go through, then this article should wake them up. I also encourage my fellow brothers and sisters of color to boldly write about what kind of hell we’ve been catching.
White people, when we tell you we’re frustrated, listen. When we’re sad, comfort us. When we fall, help us up. Stop acting defensive, fragile and annoyed with us. The more you belittle our problems, the more you’ll continue to benefit from white privilege. If you’re tired of hearing about white privilege, then imagine how tired we are of being institutionally oppressed.
Stop celebrating Johnson and Northington as symbols that UK is fully integrated. Stop using Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an excuse to be colorblind. Stop whitewashing black history. Stop ignoring people of color. Stop expecting us to carry this weight on our own. Stop silencing us.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate these giants. We absolutely should. But we also need to recognize the barriers and evils that are holding us back from making even more progress.
Step up to the plate and do your part, white people. You can do better — so, do better.