No degree is worth one’s dignity, yet it seems black students are continuously asked to sacrifice theirs.
By now, we all know the story well. Last Saturday. Badger football. White men lynching our black president. It is deemed free speech.
Given that the university has publicly committed to taking steps to improve its policy regarding free speech, I questioned whether or not a statement from me, as Wisconsin Union President, was necessary. I am deciding to speak now because of what the Union is: the place on campus that welcomes everyone as if in their own living room. What we provide is space, service and activity for all students, so I would be remiss to ignore events that have such a negative impact and demonstrate a tolerance for a less welcoming environment for one portion of the student body.
Do better, University of Wisconsin. It is as simple and as complex as that. This campus is not fulfilling its ideals so long as black bodies can be noosed without consequence. This campus is not fulfilling its ideals when scores of black students focus on surviving, on getting the degree and leaving because of the tremendous pressures they face above and beyond succeeding in the classroom.
This school and its students are citizens of a larger world, yes, but we must not be complacent in allowing the evils to roam freely. This year, the student leaders that comprise the Wisconsin Union Directorate make it one of the most diverse student leadership teams in the Union’s near century long history, and we are all committed to making our spaces and events open, safe and welcoming for all students from all backgrounds. We cannot fulfill our mission if we are silent when issues like this crop up, and so we will not be.
We also want to use this time to remind students of our power. This university is ours. That is a message to everyone – to those like myself on scholarship, to those struggling to find their place, to those from small towns, and those from large cities, to athletes, to gamers, to international students and beyond. This is ours, all of it. Be firm in laying claim. I have wielded my power over the years to make change at this university, to push, and I have been thrilled to see many other students do the same. I have been thrilled to watch student leaders in the Union undertaking that work, having the difficult conversations and being willing to learn and grow through it all. Let us continue in those fights when and where necessary.
I will end by saying that I know Chancellor Blank. We have had correspondence, meetings and even dinners together. We have always had positive interactions. I have not had the opportunity to meet Athletic Director Alvarez, but I still expect and would give the same modicum of respect to him nonetheless.
As a black man in these United States, I know how close the noose is to my neck. Some nights I can feel it tightening, those nights when bodies become hashtags and everything starts to close in, when I’m expected to prioritize research papers over the injustice I see happening in Milwaukee, the city I rep and love deeply. We carry that weight. The outpouring of sadness, anger and disgust at the university’s response to the incident was justified. We walk with history at our backs, and there is no way for us to ignore it. Thank you to everyone in the community and around the country who has stood in solidarity with students on this issue. Thank you for raising your voices to elevate the message. Do better UW, for you can only misstep so many times before it feels intentional.
Deshawn McKinney ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in creative writing. He is the president of the Wisconsin Union.