It was spring 2016, the second semester of my freshman year. I had chopped off all of my chemically processed hair, and I was doing the damn thing. I mean, my fro was out in all of its glory. The sun made my melanin shine bright. I needed a new parking sticker, and I was headed into the Public Safety office. And that’s when it happened. A car full of white men rolled the window down and yelled “Nigger!” and sped away before I could even process what had just happened. I walk into the office visually shaken when I ask for my pass. The female officer asks if I’m okay. I tell her what happened, and she says, “Oh.” And then she hands me my pass, and I’m on my way.
It’s this narrative that defined the rest of my Chapman experience. An outcry for help but university representatives take no responsibility to fix it. I came to Chapman to learn. But instead, I was forced to teach. And the other 122 Black students are forced to teach too.
We teach every day, as the only Black person in the classroom. In my activism and social justice movements course (taken as a freshman foundations course), no one pays attention as the Freedom Fighters’ bus is lit on fire, meant to burn them all alive. And at the end, the professor looked to me for comment, like I’m not traumatized from the documentary we just watched. The room is silent, as everyone’s waiting for me to open my mouth. I don’t remember what I said, but I know I pulled myself together. I started to expect this treatment in any of my classes.
There’s this FREE SPEECH! rhetoric constantly pushed by the administration, but I believe it’s a mechanism to protect the university from any issues that are too messy or that the administration is just not equipped to deal with.
Welcome to Chapman University, where a KKK rally was held five minutes from student housing in Anaheim. Dorm rooms have had swastikas burned into the walls. In Santa Ana, there’s a major sex trafficking issue. And in the center of it all is a university that could care less about protecting its minority students. They love to cite the Cross-Cultural Center as their gem. But students had to ask for the center for 15 years before it was built. President Emeritus Jim Doti seemed to think it would “ghettoize campus.” And as someone who worked with the Cross-Cultural Center staff, I can tell you that too much time and energy is put into programming that is centered around educating the predominantly-white student population. And it’s the only space where students are actually getting PAID to do this kind of work. If you’re looking for something that directly meets your needs, let’s say, as a Black student, you better find BSU. It’s the only place that makes space for us, space to simply exist without the constant pressure and frankly the unsafe campus climate. It also runs on the free labor of students. I served on the Black Student Union Executive Board for two years. I have one word for the experience — exhausting. It’s countless hours of work for meetings and events, all to provide resources for students that Chapman does not fund. Every year, the board experiences burnout. The turnover rate to stay on the board has been low in my experience. Every year, a new ground floor has to be built before there can be any growth.
How can you expect me not to become the loud, angry Black girl on campus? Nothing is sacred. It was Black History Month 2017, and the Black Student Union got approval to have a Black Lives Matter sign hang proudly above the library. On day 9 of Black History Month, some white kid came to the library in the night with a ladder and taped his All Lives Matter poster alongside. The university cited its poster-making policy as the reason for its removal. “All posters must be approved…” and it’s, for lack of a better word, bullshit. It’s another chance to hide behind this morphed concept of free speech. I remember getting a Snapchat of the photo that morning. I’m trying to decide, am I capable of stepping on campus today? I made it, and I’m grateful I’m not objected to teaching that day, but another Black student did. Once again, a student is expected to step in.
You read that right. Twelve. Years.
And the president of the university, Daniele Struppa, has a column published in the school newspaper that this school prides itself on — you guessed it! Free speech. Protests break out and there is a massive outcry. Black students explain the toll of existing at a rate of less than 2%, at a school with a lackadaisical attitude towards keeping them safe. A poster with such historical implications has no place in the hallways of one of the best film schools in the country. A topic with such weight as the Ku Klux Klan must be moderated in the classroom or one of the university’s museums. Not in a classroom hallway. But even after all this, the film school faculty get to VOTE whether the poster should be taken down. If the answer had been no, what then? Black faculty in the film school are few and far between; We couldn’t expect them to carry the weight of this decision. There should have been no question after hundreds of students marched to sit in Former Dean of Film and Media Arts, Bob Basset’s office, and wait for answers. But of course, there is because of free speech!
The university offers Town Halls and Community Forums with the Dean of Students, Jerry Price, whenever something like these issues occurs. And yet the answer always goes back to — well, what are YOU ALL going to do about changing the climate on this campus?
That’s not our job.
And even from afar, I watch white supremacist stickers and flyers make their way onto campus. They are taped right over the La Frontera event created around Mexican border issues. What does the school do about it? Nothing — just another useless forum that gives no answers.
You’re not able to say “fire!” in a movie theatre, but at Chapman, you can call someone a nigger, and no one even blinks. Talk about the fear and imposter syndrome that runs rampant among students of color. Sometimes I’m in awe that I stayed long enough to make it out of there. The retention rate among Black students is unacceptable, considering the already low population. A little under 20 students were invited to participate in Black graduation. It’s a bit depressing that that number is deemed to be large compared to previous years. But how do you expect Black students to stay when you’ve put no precautionary measures in place to make students feel safe? Why do professors get to call out the one person of color in the room for issues on race? Why don’t we get proper resources dedicated to tending to such an outlying part of the Chapman community? I have said this again, and again, and again.
Originally published at https://www.oliviahardenportfolio.com on October 7, 2019.