When Ashley Powell, a graduate student in Art at the State University of New York at Buffalo placed “white only” and “black only” signs around campus without explanation as a way to expose white privilege, reactions ranged from support to anger and indignation to even reactions among nonwhites of “fearing for their lives.” As Powell explained to the campus newspaper:
I am in pain. My art practice is a remnant of my suffering, but also an antidote that brings about healing. The afflictions I suffer from are self-hate, trauma, pain and an unbearable and deafening indignation. White privilege and compliance only exacerbate my symptoms.
Powell further reflects on the graveness of reality arising from social structures of racism that require, in her words, “constant endurance, resilience, and burden.” Nonetheless, due to the pressure exerted on her campus, it appears that Ashley Powell felt she needed to apologize for the trauma the signs caused, but not for what she did.
The comments on the news story regarding Powell’s art project are equally surprising, ranging from concerns expressed about fighting already-won battles of the past, to accusing Powell herself of “racism” and noting her use of misused commas in her letter to the campus newspaper.
At a time in our nation’s history when racial divides appear to be deeper than ever and when the rhetoric about “otherness” and keeping people out of America and its institutions has escalated, messages of reassurance and challenge such as delivered by Pope Francis at the United Nations create a powerful counterpoint. Speaking in what could be seen as radical and even revolutionary terms, the Pope stated:
To give to each his own, to cite the classic definition of justice, means that no human individual or group can consider itself absolute, permitted to bypass the dignity and the rights of other individuals or their groupings.
He added, ‘Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offence against human rights and the environment” and called for the right of men and women “to be dignified agents of their own destiny.”
In speaking out against injustice, Ashley Powell’s message is a powerful voice. Students in our universities have long been the standard bearers of social change, such as during the Civil Rights movement. As Pope Francis warned, we cannot wait to postpone “certain agendas” for the future. Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to attend to the “fierce urgency of now” has been adopted as the title of Julian Zelizer’s new book, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. The book recalls the stunning achievements of 1963-1966 including the passage of Civil Rights legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, and the War on Poverty. Attending to our deeply rooted racial schisms does require our collective willingness to take concerted action on long-overdue agendas and to engage in collaborative and committed work to attain the promise of a greater union.
Edna Chun is Chief Learning Officer for HigherEd Talent, a national diversity and human resources consulting firm, and has more than two decades of experience as Chief Human Resources Officer in higher education. A list of her publications can be found on her website at ednachun.com