Karishma Mehrotra is a first-generation Indian-American and the former executive editor of The Emory Wheel. This opinion about the Trump chalkings does not reflect the opinion of the Wheel.
Almost two weeks after we woke up to “TRUMP 2016” plastered across our campus, we are still missing the point.
The national media extracted a story from Emory that they know little about, subsuming our student activists into the trope of the “hypersensitive college student” that has captivated those across the political spectrum for the past couple of years.
As we fall into the trap of justifying that narrative, we allow ourselves to ignore the very questions of race and difference these campus activists, who are predominately Black and Brown students, are raising.
To those of you who are reluctant to believe that structural and colorblind racism exists on Emory’s campus, my commentary is not for you. I will not be able to prove the pervasiveness of racism on this campus through one article. To those of you who support Donald Trump, this commentary is also not for you.
For the rest of us, we need to do the work of uncovering the story of race at Emory. We cannot allow a conversation that should be about racism be hijacked by a conversation about freedom of speech. We cannot blindly follow a shallow narrative fed to us by disappointing media coverage that misleads us to believe that all Emory activists are calling for the censorship of Trump endorsements. When we argue about the minutia of the recent events on campus and when we micromanage student activist methods and when we trivialize the moments that trigger campus unrest, we distract ourselves from the broader message struggling to rise to the surface. How can we begin to unfold how race functions on this campus?
Since the first Black student joined this community, campus activists have been calling for Emory to pay attention to the same conversation. Protests about symbols and language seem like overreactions when distanced and isolated from previous moments of racial controversy: our president’s column, the Dooley Show’s remarks, the Clifton Road protest and the buried moments outside of our institutional memory. Those moments are only the bubbles that sporadically rise to the surface.
But contemporary racial inequality is a daily fact. It’s seen in everything from a faculty that does not demographically reflect the student body to a Eurocentric curriculum; from the racial differences between Emory’s service staff and those who are being served to the weight of studying for exams while your Facebook feed endlessly fills with tragedies involving people who look like you in Chicago, Nigeria, Ferguson, Pakistan, Waller County, Charleston, Central America and even here in Atlanta. I cannot fully explain racism on this campus in this commentary, but as a person of color on this campus, I can say that I have felt like the “other,” I have been marginalized and I have come to understand that an integrated Emory is by no means a welcoming Emory. I can say that there is a story about race on this campus that we need to address.
Waking up to the name “TRUMP” scattered across campus was a symbol of this broader narrative. For many students, Trump is a real symbol of a country that calls for the deportation of their families, that bans people of your religion and that exhibits violence at political rallies. I suspect that this is only the beginning of the name being used as a symbol of hate.
We know that these students are not upset about just seeing the name of a presidential candidate. We know that they are not “afraid of chalk.” We know that Trump is not just another presidential candidate (or we will realize this when it is too late). Once we see that there is a visible connection between his name and the larger picture of racism, will we distract ourselves once again?
When we ask protestors why they are upset about what happened, we miss the fact that they are asking us to pay attention to something much bigger than any isolated incident. Racism is not always easy to point out, but that should not allow us to ignore those who are pointing to it.
Still, I often hear the argument that Emory’s student activists are unclear about their goals, that they place themselves in the position to be misconstrued, that their language is overly dramatic or that they should not run to the University president to combat racism. Let’s widen our historical lens: we now know that the Americans in the 1950s and 1960s who did nothing more but criticize the methods and goals of the civil rights era activists were on the wrong side of history.
If we wait for our students to find something less controversial to protest, if we micromanage their methods, if we complain about their actions, we permit ourselves to ignore them and we relieve ourselves of the moral anguish that comes along with understanding race. We sit back, and we wait for the solution to be served to us in a 10-point plan on a silver platter. We decide that we cannot ourselves do the work of understanding racism and white supremacy, and we ask for the messengers to do a better job.
Should we accept the unfortunate reality that the same people who need to hear the story of race on this campus have the choice not to care?
Campus activism never has and never will be easy, straightforward and widely agreed upon. That is not its purpose.
Activism is a student who struggles between caring for herself, studying for her test tomorrow and then taking on the burden to translate her racial experience into words and action for the broader community. Activism is searching for the purpose of your presence at a University that was not initially built to serve people who are like you. Activism is about the life-long, messy journey of figuring out your role in your institution in a struggle much bigger than any one of us or any one institution. Activism is about pushing the University to ask itself new questions about inclusivity, belonging and safety.
Campus activism will be messy, unclear and confusing. That often makes it easier to never completely ask or completely answer these questions. It is much easier to quash cries for justice than to imagine their roots and reasons.
The point is not the Trump chalkings. The point is not freedom of speech. The main core, the main point, the entire reason we are talking about this at Emory is racism.
Just because the message about racism may not always be clear or easy to understand doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the work of understanding it. And distracting ourselves from that conversation allows us to pretend for just a little longer that racism doesn’t exist on this campus.
Karishma Mehrotra is a College senior from Cupertino, California.