White Supremacy at Jefferson's University

A year after the violent protests in Charlottesville, Zari Taylor considers how the University of Virginia has had to address the issue.

August 10, 2018
 
 

How should an academic community attempt to confront the violence of white supremacy? The University of Virginia, an institution built by slaves and an ideology of oppression that white supremacists hope to revive, had to tackle that question a year ago after their community became a gathering point of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Klansmen.

When I returned for my final year at the university last August, #Charlottesville was all anyone could talk about -- the Unite the Right rally of Aug. 11 and 12 that resulted in the untimely death of Heather Heyer was fresh in their minds. The media coverage and overall reaction was generally shock and dismay at the level of hatred and violence displayed at one of the nation’s top public universities. As an African American student living in Charlottesville for three years, I was dismayed but not shocked that such an event happened so close to home.

For some at the university, the violence of the Unite the Right rally was the culmination of a series of events that told them they did not belong. During my first year, black student Martese Johnson was brutally arrested by state Alcoholic Beverage Control officers; Access UVa, a financial aid program that assisted low-income students, was stripped away; and an article published in Rolling Stone forced the university to have a serious conversation about sexual violence. During protests of Johnson’s arrest, students anonymously posted racially motivated comments on the social media app Yik Yak. I remember walking through grounds that night, watching as the hateful comments loaded, looking around and wondering which of my fellow classmates were responsible -- similar to how some students felt during and after the rally, not knowing exactly whom to trust around them.

In 2016, residents in a first-year dorm discovered that someone had written the N-word in permanent marker on the doors of students’ rooms, walls and whiteboards. That same semester, anti-Semitic graffiti was found outside an apartment complex near the university’s grounds, and an anti-Muslim remark was written on another dorm wall near the rooms of two Muslim students. The series of hate speech-related incidents prompted a coalition of student organizations to organize the Eliminate the Hate campaign to show support for those who had experienced hate speech and to prevent further incidents from occurring.

Those events, extreme manifestations of whiteness and its assumed supremacy over all, shaped my time at the university. Though the Unite the Right rally was appalling and terrifying, I was not surprised. My time at UVA had shown me that both Charlottesville and the university not only had histories of discrimination but also continued to exude toxic levels of whiteness.

As I watched the news of white supremacists rampaging across the campus, I imagined that, like me, other students, as well as faculty members and administrators, were angry. What we couldn’t imagine was the experience of those who found themselves back in town early and sitting in their rooms while a torch-wielding mob marched by, or who ventured downtown to face the rally head-on the following day. Little could be done from our respective homes, but we could try to figure out a way to come to terms with what happened together as we began the academic year.

When classes began, I was glad that most of my professors tackled the issue directly. In courses where race, gender and oppression were common themes, the rally was the focal point of our discussions. Those courses were based in black studies and had a number of students of color, some who had actually been on the front lines and with the battle scars to show for it. They told stories of defying their parents’ advice to not agitate the unwelcome visitors and wandering through the chaos in fear, unsure who was with them or against them. In those classes, we called out the hatred that occurred on the grounds we walked every day and in the larger community in which we lived.

In classes with fewer students of color, however, that was not always the case. I normally felt the burden of my race, most especially in the classroom where I was usually a minority -- not surprising for a nominally integrated institution with segregated classes. Being the only person of color in a class at times, I would feel responsible to represent my race when anything race related was brought up. In classes I had taken over the years, I was sometimes reluctant to bring up the racial history or context that was obvious to me for fear of “playing the race card” or making my classmates and professor uncomfortable. In a class where I was one of three minority students present, the rally never came up.

Beyond the classroom, the administration decided that a free concert was the best way to offer support. When that approach was critiqued, it then chose to enforce new speech regulations of “unaffiliated” people to ensure that a white supremacist rally would not occur on grounds again. My friends claimed their classes quickly returned to normal and our professors had moved on. By the end of the year, the violent white supremacist rally that had captured the attention of the nation was reduced to a familiar silence.

Relative silence surrounding white supremacy is the norm on Thomas Jefferson’s campus. The university has tiptoed around the actions of our founder -- accepting the good over the bad -- for centuries. Though Jefferson’s vision for the university excluded women and people of color, and he sexually abused his slaves, we sing “The Good Old Song” and glorify his achievements and highlight his more desirable traits as a thinker and author. Just this week, a presidential commission at the University of Virginia released a report stating that slavery was central to the institution and that Thomas Jefferson had planned on slavery continuing its legacy. The report was the result of five years of research, but its findings have been obvious to some at the university.

The difference between whiteness as an individual racial identity and whiteness as a structure, and the ways in which the latter pervades academe, has been previously discussed. It was the pervasiveness of whiteness that prevented my institution from fully addressing the presence of violent supremacists and that can potentially hinder the response of other institutions that may, but hopefully will never, experience the same misfortune. Although reports on how much the administration was aware of the rally are conflicting, campus law enforcement knew about it days before and failed to respond. Campus police did not communicate the potential threat to first responders or the university community and didn’t coordinate with local law enforcement. This oversight reflected their inability to acknowledge the imminent threat, even though for some people, whiteness remains a constant threat. The assemblage of white supremacists on any college campus, though an extreme display of a violent and thuggish whiteness, are a part of a larger force that is normalized in the everyday lives of those who teach and learn in academic spaces as well as all racial minority groups in this country.

While it is important for institutions to have rules and regulations that prevent hate groups from accessing their community, it is also as vital that they strive to function within a culture of inclusion and diversity. The new speech regulations of “unaffiliated” people are supposed to limit hate speech but could, in reality, allow the university to restrict certain types of speech, especially those that work against its agenda. The regulations include location restrictions, but community members have inhabited the same space as the white supremacists to call out the legacy of white supremacy at the university. Those regulations can and will be equally as harmful to them.

The academy can’t deal with the most egregious kind of violence perpetuated by whiteness until it deals with the subtler kinds of violence that it imposes on the students that feel out of place, or staff that are conditionally accepted. Any response will fall short if the students and faculty do not feel a part of the intellectual community before an act of violence like what happened last summer in Charlottesville occurs.

Bio

Photo of Zari Taylor​Zari Taylor is an aspiring writer and scholar who recently graduated from the University of Virginia. She writes from the perspective of a black, feminist, first-generation student with immigrant parents. She wants to continue being a scholar of black studies and English with a Ph.D. program and then go on to teach as a professor. Her research interests include digital sociology, black pop culture and the intersection of oppressions in the United States. She has a personal blog and hopes to freelance for different publications while applying to graduate school. Feel free to follow her on Twitter at @zarialyssa.

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