Verbal Violence and Anti-Blackness at UCLA

Image of the Black Power Logo via Wikimedia Commons

On April 30, a photograph of Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC) President Danny Siegel was released and circulated online. In the photo, Siegel was throwing up a gang sign belonging to the Bloods, a primarily African-American street gang. Many students, particularly the Black Bruin community, voiced their outrage and demanded that Siegel apologize for trivializing and mocking gang violence, and resign from his position as USAC President.

USAC’s weekly council meeting on May 2 was flooded with students who wanted to voice their concerns and speak to Siegel directly during the public comment section of meeting. Chants of “Black Bruins Matter!” resounded throughout the council room, while all Bruins United council members remained silent.

Siegel posted an apology on his Facebook, citing his own immaturity and privilege as an excuse. He also mentioned the fact that the photo was taken over a year ago, but this does not excuse his actions. Had Siegel’s intentions been motivated by true remorse, he would have apologized when the photo was taken, not when it surfaced a year later. As a student leader and face of USAC, UCLA, and the student body, Siegel must understand the weight of his actions and how they are ultimately violent towards communities of color.

Siegel’s appalling lack of sensitivity toward and awareness about communities of color on campus has become increasingly apparent in the past two weeks. Siegel‘s platforms, which tackled housing security and alumni connections, did not address issues that directly pertained to marginalized and underrepresented communities on campus. Any promises to represent these communities ultimately fell short.

There is already a severe lack of representation in USAC, and incidents like this perpetuate an environment that does not do enough to welcome and collaborate with underrepresented communities. Siegel, Bruins United, and USAC as a whole must do better. That being said, it is equally important to hold the entirety of the UCLA community to a higher standard with regards to anti-blackness on our campus. Non-black students must check their privileges and reassess their behavior, which often includes: frequently and casually making use of the n-word, approaching black students to intrusively touch their hair, assuming that all black students are athletes, and supporting or attending parties encouraging cultural appropriation and blackface. At an emergency Afrikan Student Union (ASU) meeting on Monday, May 1, dozens of Black Bruins gathered to vocalize their collective outrage and propose various plans of action to address anti-blackness at UCLA. For many, this particular incident is indicative of a far greater phenomenon of anti-blackness at UCLA and at other institutions with a similar lack of representation throughout the country.

As a second-year student, I (Graciela Barada) have experienced numerous instances of both subtle and blatant anti-blackness from my peers; four weeks ago, however, I had my first experience of this kind with UCLA faculty. In my Gender Studies class, students were invited to propose different “ground rules” for the class, which I figured was our professor’s attempt to create a safe environment for all of us. In fact, she was the last to propose a rule, writing “language” on the chalkboard. Moments later, she dropped the n-word (yes, with the hard r) apparently as an example of language we would be exposed to. I couldn’t understand why it was necessary for her to do this–it made no sense. Yet again, a non-black person using the most racially violent word in the American vernacular. Ultimately, this so-called language rule was not a call for inclusivity, rather it was a justification for verbal violence. My confusion turned to anger, as I realized that just like everybody else in the classroom, I am a student and it is not be my responsibility to wrestle with this sort of violence in my pursuit of higher education. I deserve to be at this institution as much as anybody else. Therein lies the nuanced reality of the Black Bruin.

This particular incident demonstrates that black students exist at the periphery of the archetypical UCLA experience. The impression I was left with is that my professor seemed to not have considered the ways in which her words were violent to a particular demographic. The psychological trauma that can surface in black students when the n-word is said differs greatly from the responses of non-black students. Thus I am concerned about the sort of anti-black hostile environment that instructors and faculty create in academic settings at predominantly white institutions (PWI’s) across the country because an incident of this kind is more common than most people would like to believe.

That weekend I reached out to black friends and peers who expressed outrage at my experience, offered their emotional support, and even shared similar stories with me. Each day, the pro-black love and support that radiates amongst my black peers makes me increasingly grateful to UCLA’s black community. Currently, UCLA’s undergraduate student body boasts a mere 1,485 black students. Not only is that a devastatingly low figure, it is also symptomatic of far greater societal issues and the systematic oppression of black people both in the United States and abroad.

When I spoke with other black students about similar anti-black experiences they have had with faculty and peers at UCLA, their stories did not surprise me. For instance one student (who wishes to remain anonymous) shared that an Asian male Teaching Assistant in an Anthropology course she was taking reportedly referred to slavery as “historical complications.” Given that she was the only black student in the class, she felt uncomfortable speaking out to challenge this viewpoint. Fourth-year Sociology student Lauren DeVaughn had a similar experience with a white professor, who wrote the n-word on a board at the front of a 300-person lecture hall in which only a handful of black students were present. When DeVaughn looked around the classroom to see whether her shock was mirrored by her peers, she felt alone in her discomfort. After the lecture, wishing to express her concern, DeVaughn approached her professor who disappointingly dismissed the incident as a tactic to “challenge” students. Afterwards DeVaughn felt neither safe nor welcome in this classroom and even felt discouraged to attend office hours privately with her professor.

As a student at a world renowned institution, I trust and expect faculty to be considerate and respectful of all students. When the white male student body president throws up a gang sign and it’s brushed off as a simple mistake, the overwhelmingly cavalier response is indicative of just how prevalent anti-blackness is on our campus. Thus students and faculty alike must take into account the likely damaging or traumatic impacts of their word choices and actions; this kind of anti-blackness is exactly the problematic and harmful behavior that taints the Black Bruin experience. And it needs to end now.

 

By Graciela Barada and Julia Chen

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