When I first came to the University in 2019, never did I imagine that I would start writing for a student newspaper. English was always my favorite subject in school, but as I settled into being an Architecture student, that love took a backseat. It was not until I failed calculus my first fall and had an ENWR class in the spring that I realized I might be meant for something more. Writing became my refuge — and English became my minor. During the summer of 2020, when people across the nation were protesting in support of the Black Lives Matter movement at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, writing became my form of protest. The second half of 2020 was a time of immense anger and confusion that not only signified the next phase in my life, but also served as the catalyst for what would become a three-year dedication to making more space for Black students at the University.
Everything shifted for me when I joined the Cavalier Daily staff in 2020. I was not particularly raised to protest and fight back against racism and inequality. I was, however, taught to always speak up for myself and do what is right. Joining the newspaper was one of many avenues I took to bring awareness to the adversities marginalized people face. This dedication also manifested itself as taking up more space in the communities in which I was already involved. I became a more active member of the School of Architecture Student Council, on which I was the only Black member until this past academic year, and my academic design projects have all focused on social justice and investing in diverse communities. I lived in Hereford Residential College for three years and led the Student Senate’s Social Awareness Committee, not only organizing events that raise awareness of the adversities of others but also completing two research projects — one of which is an overview of race and racism at the University.
The three years I have spent as an Opinion Columnist for the Cavalier Daily have been a rollercoaster, to say the least. The first year was the most tumultuous and resulted in my columns about the Black Lives Matter protests, the 2020 presidential election and the following insurrection at the Capitol. At the beginning of my journey as a writer, I received many words of encouragement from friends and family but simultaneously found many hate comments under my columns and in The Cavalier Daily’s social media comment sections. What the people leaving those comments did not know was that they made me want to write even more. Those comments let me know I was reaching my target audience — people who feel extreme discomfort when Black people talk about their struggles.
It’s important to highlight that, even though I was partially writing for people who could relate to me and my opinion, I was mainly writing to reach people who don’t go out of their way to hear the voices of marginalized people. Though I have received much criticism for my work, I know that I opened up space for more Black students to find comfort in their presence at the University and disrupt the comfort of everyone else. Unfortunately, most people do not care about issues that do not affect them. And so, when Black Lives Matter was no longer trending on social media and on the news, I continued to write not only to keep bringing attention to the issues that harm Black students at the University, but also to encourage other marginalized students to do so as well.
I know that if I were to go back in time to the summer of 2020 and see the advertisement for The Cavalier Daily applications, I would do it all the same again. I would not change a single thing that I have done or said. My only regret is not having said more. I am proud that the Cavalier Daily now has a much more diverse staff than when I first joined. I am proud to have been the first Black student to write about my experiences with such raw vigor and vulnerability. I am proud to have spent this past semester as the longest-running staff member. And I am so proud to see the freedom with which other students of color now wield their opinions, and I can feel good knowing that they may continue when I am gone.
And so, a message to Black students — you know that moment when you are walking down the street and a group of people coming in the opposite direction looks like they are unwilling to move over and make space for you? I would like to offer you a sentence of encouragement that a Black graduating student offered to a group chat of students of color during graduation weekend a few years ago. Do not move off the sidewalk. Do not waver. Do not step into the street to get out of their way. Stay on the sidewalk and take up the space you deserve. I urge all students of color not to allow the pressures of the University community to keep them from being themselves and expressing their truth. I’m rooting for you.
Aliyah White was an Opinion columnist for the 131st, 132nd and 133rd terms of The Cavalier Daily.