George Floyd — an unarmed Black man — was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minn. In the wake of this betrayal of police authority and duty to their community, Americans across the nation — as well as citizens around the world in countries spanning from Japan to England — have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality and systemic racism and to gather support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Much of the news coverage and social media content features viral commentaries and public voices — including those of celebrities, politicians, professional athletes and social media influencers. Despite the value of these wide-reaching statements, it is crucial to listen to the voices of Black community members and peers to understand the ways that systemic racism and police brutality affect our communities, especially at the University. Now more than ever, the Black voices in our communities and at the University demand and deserve to be heard and acknowledged.
Rising fourth-year College student April Riddick is one of these community members who deserves to have their voice amplified. Riddick is a Black student and felt her identity as a minority at the University and within the University’s non-diverse student body prior to George Floyd’s murder and the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement. Riddick’s observations are supported by the fact that African American students composed 6.61 percent of the University’s undergraduate population in 2019 but make up 19.9 percent of Virginia’s total population.
“It is disheartening being at such a high-ranked public university and walking around Grounds and not seeing people that look like you as much,” Riddick said. “It is disheartening because you know that they would flourish here.”
Cues such as a lack of people of color at the University may cast doubt regarding the University’s standpoint on issues of Black representation and allyship with the Black community. Additionally, University President Jim Ryan’s initial statement on the murder of George Floyd did not provide comfort to Riddick’s doubts and concerns.
In the message, President Ryan said that Floyd’s death “disturbs, offends and saddens” him deeply and that “what happened to him deserves to be condemned.” He continued on to say that he had “no words of real wisdom or comfort” to offer yet had faith that people wanted to be better, eventually ending the post without directly showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Riddick and other students took note of President Ryan’s words — specifically what his words failed to indicate to the Black student body and Black community.
“He does name George Floyd, which was good, but at the same time he does not emphasize that Floyd’s killing was a murder of a Black man at the hands of a white police officer for unjustified reasons,” Riddick said. “Overall, I believe he just tries to move past the point that he was a Black man.”
Moreover, rising third-year College student Deric Childress interpreted President Ryan’s response as disingenuous and concerning.
“I felt disrespected,” Childress said. “I was insulted, and as a part of the Black community, you just feel very discouraged, especially when trying to seek growth and seek love at the University of Virginia.”
Nma Okafor — rising fourth-year College student, Black President’s Council member and Organization of African Students at U.Va. president — contributed to several written statements that condemned President Ryan for his failure to address the real issues at hand in connection with George Floyd’s murder and other murders of Black individuals, such as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. One of the written statements that Okafor contributed to is from the Black President’s Council, which compiles statements for Black contracted independent organizations on Grounds.
Beyond calling on President Ryan to do better in regards to his personal statement, Okafor desires for the University to strive toward more diverse student bodies via Black representation and for the University to truly address the racism that persists in its culture today.
“It seems like U.Va. is trying its hardest to acknowledge that there has been a history of racism at U.Va.” Okafor said. “But there still is a sense of racism at the University, so how do you plan on doing something about that? How do you plan on helping us get over it? How do you plan on helping your students and faculty and employees to overcome this huge barrier that's kind of setting us behind?”
Riddick’s comments further support Okafor’s questions directed at the University as she emphasizes the responsibility in the hands of the administration — namely President Ryan — in establishing a safe, well-represented Grounds for Black students.
“At the end of the day, it's up to the administration to put actions behind the words because every day, they talk about the need to diversify U.Va. and the need to diversify their faculty, but words are just words,” Riddick said. “If you don't put actions behind it, it doesn't mean anything, so I hope they're moving toward hiring more Black faculty and having the incoming classes represent this movement of diversifying Grounds.”
President Ryan has previously committed to “increasing student and faculty diversity” as part of his 10-year strategic plan, yet a large demographic gap still exists among University students, faculty and staff.
Although many students recognize the immense responsibility that the University holds in responding to issues of a lack of representation regarding Black students and staff and addressing the University’s foundations in slavery, Childress, Riddick and Okafor also had suggestions and hopes for how their peers can pursue allyship now and in the future.
Okafor suggests that allyship can benefit from accountability in relationships and friendships between peers, specifically in regards to confronting friends for inappropriate uses of words or biases. Childress shared similar sentiments about holding peers accountable for staying informed and knowledgeable about current issues and the prevalence of systemic racism in the United States.
“[Non-Black students and peers] need to become more educated on racism in America, become more educated on white privilege, and then spread what they know to their peers — these knowledgeable facts on racism and white privilege — so it can create a widespread domino effect across Grounds,” Childress said.
Highlighting the resources that the University offers as a higher-education institution, both Riddick and Okafor urge their peers to take advantage of courses currently offered that introduce diverse cultures, new perspectives and insight into systems that perpetuate the oppression of Black individuals and other people of color.
Specifically, Okafor recalls one of the demands from the Black Student Alliance’s June 1 statement, which called for the University to do more than “solely acknowledge the systemic inequality and racism facing and killing Black Americans.”
“Every incoming student [should] take some sort of class that deals with racism, white privilege and white fragility at the University,” Okafor said. “It's so easy for you to ignore these things if you’re not experiencing it, and that's not really fair because if you ignore it because you're not experiencing it, you're technically playing into the hands of the oppressor.”
Similarly, Childress desires for the administration to make changes to the mandatory implicit bias training that incoming students must complete prior to their first semester at the University. Childress states that all students — specifically non-Black students — could benefit from an additional general education requirement in the form of an in-person course. This course would replace the online modules on implicit bias — which he believes students are able to mindlessly complete without genuinely engaging in an attempt to avoid discomfort associated with difficult topics such as racism.
“It's okay to make people uncomfortable because you're not going to learn if there's no uncomfortability,” Childress said. “People of color — Black people — have been uncomfortable since 1619 when we were enslaved. So, just 50 minutes of uncomfortability, two times a week is not bad, because I've been uncomfortable living in America for the last 20 years of my life.”
In addition to suggesting ways for people to become true allies to the Black community, both Okafor and Riddick emphasize that the responsibility for being educated about racism in America and the hardships and oppression faced by the Black community should not fall into the hands of Black people themselves.
“It's really tiring, as a Black person — this goes for other people of color, too — always having to be the spokesperson of your own race,” Riddick said.
Okafor takes this sentiment one step further to encourage allies to pursue other means of education and information in order to stay informed about Black Lives Matter, instances of systemic racism and more.
“It can be a lot to always expect somebody of color — a Black person — to always educate you on matters,” Okafor said. “There are ways for you to educate yourself without putting all your questions and burdens on Black individuals. There are books that you can read, websites you could go to; it's all out there, it's just the fact that you have to truly grab it.”
Riddick challenges her peers that desire to be allies to the Black community and those that are striving to be actively anti-racist at the University with a series of questions.
“It's on you, and you are the only one that knows if you're a true ally,” Riddick said. “Were you out protesting if you can, were you donating, signing petitions? Are you taking classes that broaden your perspective, educating yourself? Are you reading books, articles or listening to podcasts, to understand racial inequalities, systematic racism and policies involved in defunding the police?”
Although these three Black students’ perspectives do not encompass the entire Black experience at the University, there is immense value in listening to their voices. As they have stated, the University administration has the power and authority to make a difference regarding diversity and support for Black students. However, it is also the responsibility of non-Black students and allies to pursue and act upon information to make change at the University, with President Ryan and beyond. These Black voices have spoken. It is up to you to listen and respond.