On April 19, Freddie Carlos Gray, Jr., died from severe trauma to his spine while in police custody. Baltimore has been the site of peaceful protests and violent unrest since Gray’s murder, with thousands continuing to rally and protest after May 1, when state attorney Marilyn J. Mosby charged six officers with crimes ranging from manslaughter to murder.
It is after curfew in Baltimore as I write this, and as I listen to muffled music drifting from the direction of the Row, I know protesters on Baltimore streets continue to be pepper-sprayed and arrested by lines of riot gear-clad police officers.
As we go about our daily lives on campus, nearly 3000 miles away, it is easy for many of us to feel disconnected from the resistance, from black rage and black power, from police brutality. It is easy to condemn protesters as “thugs” or immediately criticize violent resistance. For those who are willing to learn about the historical, economic and political forces driving the actions in Baltimore, resources exist; I will not beat a dead horse.
These responses to the protests in Baltimore, however, seem symptomatic of a campus that is still echoing with anti-activist sentiments directed against the chalking that was quickly erased during Admit Weekend, the Students of Color Coalition, the Stanford 68 and others. Over this past year, sentiments made in classrooms, news articles and on Yik Yak have consistently demonstrated an ugly truth about our communities that we would rather not acknowledge.
Stanford, we are racist.
The instinctive reaction to that claim is often, “no, we’re not.” Racism is that taboo that is never discussed, an uncomfortable concept that many of us would like to claim is entirely contrary to our personal values. Racism, for many of us, looks like the n-word and swinging nooses, plantations and slavery, chains and whips. Our perception of racism is predicated on our understanding of a historical system of subjugation, a system that has evolved substantially since the 1800s when it was forced by law to change its name. Racism today manifests as police brutality, colonialism, poverty, border enforcement, mass incarceration, the War on Drugs – each of which is a construct born from the same history of racial oppression. Though racism has changed, we have not: While we are quick to denounce fraternity chants and police departments’ emails for using racial slurs; we fail to recognize that racism is more than the n-word. In fact, by avoiding a handful of words and phrases, we convince ourselves to absolve that label, “racist.”
Perhaps this is why we have such a visceral reaction to being called racist. Since we assume that the label of “racist” only applies to those who use racial slurs, or are foolish enough to publish prejudiced statements, we take offense at the accusation. We believe that since racism is not in our intent, racism never results from our actions. But the systems of subjugation have changed. Society has normalized a new racial discourse using coded words like “thugs,” “inner city” and “welfare queens” and created new systems of subjugation through law enforcement, mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. Intent or not, by virtue of living inside the system, we are all complicit in its injustices. Racism is in the air we breathe, and gas masks aren’t cheap.
At Stanford, this reality is slowly sinking in. More and more students are refusing to turn a blind eye to the patterns of murder and subjugation rampant across our country and the world and the continuing injustices perpetuated by the state. More and more Stanford students are challenging and questioning their own racist attitudes and beliefs. In response to global injustice, we must continue to critically examine not only our own biases, but how our actions support or subvert larger systems; we must recognize global resistance and activism for what it is: self defense.
Several Stanford students have cited divisiveness as a negative side effect of activism. To that allegation, I say this: At Stanford, our role as students is to learn. If divisiveness or a tense campus climate is the result of this learning, then this only means that divisiveness and tension is the reality of our society. It is our responsibility as Stanford students to educate ourselves about the society we live in and ask ourselves whether our actions or inactions support or challenge the existing racial paradigm.
Marginalized communities are tired of debating whether or not black lives matter or whether racism exists. Stanford students are tired of hypocritical condemnations of violence, of people insistently holding onto their security blankets of “not all white people” and “not all cops.” In order to move from these basic realities into more nuanced discussions on activism, resistance, survival and healing, we must move past our fear of acknowledging racism. Only by confronting our own beliefs can we grow as individuals, as communities and as a campus.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.