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Digital Protest

News & Features | April 28, 2014

While a Jacksonville jury spent 30 hours deliberating the case of Michael Dunn earlier this year, Georgetown University senior Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson sat fuming in her room . Dunn, a white man, fired his weapon into a car  of black teenagers after they refused to quiet their loud music, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Dunn was convicted of four of five charges, but the jury failed to come to a decision over the most serious charge: first-degree murder.

“I couldn’t believe this man was killed in his car for listening to music,” said Corbin-Johnson. Scrolling through her Facebook newsfeed, Corbin-Johnson read numerous posts expressing anger and frustration regarding the verdict, but saw very little action.  “I didn’t want to sit idle,” she explained. “I just wanted to do something that shows that I am not okay with it. And being of the technological generation, I knew it had to be social media. That’s all we do.”

A few days later, Corbin-Johnson got the idea for Dangerous Black Kids Of Georgetown University (#DBKGU). Inspired by a Huffington Post article that displayed satirical tweets of adorable black toddlers  accompanied by #DangerousBlackKids, #DBKGU challenges racial assumptions  by posting pictures of black students next to a list of their impressive achievements.

The photo campaign is present on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram, and captures students wearing both formal and casual attire .  A message accompanying the campaign explains,  “Whether we are in casual clothes or dressed well and regardless of all we have achieved, it is our skin, our blackness, that causes society to perceive us as dangerous, but there is always more than what meets the eye.” The message asks viewers  to consider, “Are these ‘Dangerous Black Kids’ or ‘Black Kids In Danger’?” #DBKGU is one of many student-created racial justice social media campaigns that have gained popularity this year.

Conceived  in response to different issues, these projects have similarities that expose the pervasiveness of racism on college campuses . Across the country, students are experiencing affirmative action-fueled hostility, racial profiling in the criminal justice system, and a lack of belonging.  The viral nature of these campaigns also points to a growing trend of students’ refusal to accept misconceptions about race, and their readiness to speak out.

This November, students at the University of Michigan launched the #BBUM Twitter account, an acronym for “Being Black at the University of Michigan.”  The movement is aimed at giving voice to an increasingly diminishing population. Black enrollment at Michigan has dropped from 7 to 4.65 percent in the last seven years, according to the Michigan Daily. This decline has been met with increasing intolerance. The Twitter was initially created after the Theta Xi fraternity at Michigan hosted a “Hood Ratchet Thursday” party, which invited “rappers, twerkers, gangsters” and others “back to da hood again.”

Most recently, black Harvard students have gained mainstream media attention with their “I, Too, Am Harvard” photo campaign on Tumblr, inspired by a play of the same name. The play was written and directed by sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, and is based on interviews with over 40 Harvard students who identify as black.

For the Tumblr campaign, sophomore Carol Powell photographed students with white boards displaying commonly made racist remarks and would-be responses to them. Wearing a colorfully printed shirt and a fierce expression, Matsuda-Lawrence holds a blackboard at arms length, with the words “Can You Read?” printed a rudely across the center. In another photo, a traditionally clad African student points at the camera, his whiteboard reading “This too is swag.”

The campaign protests the general sense of alienation and lack of belonging felt by students of color at Harvard. Though 11.9 percent  of Harvard’s admitted class of 2018 identifies as black, this growing minority continues to feel silenced. The Tumblr page states, “Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned. This project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.”

Though these institutions differ widely, each of these campaigns expressed similar grievances. Racial profiling was discussed in each of the movements. An “I, Too, Am Harvard” photo shows a female student dressed professionally in a black and white checkered dress, her eyebrows raised at the quote, “You’re dressed like you might shoot me right now—such a thug.” One Michigan student tweeted, “#BBUM is praying my black male friends don’t get arrested/questioned for fitting VAGUE crime alert descriptions.” Corbin-Johnson admits that she feels racially profiled by the campus police, saying, “Black parties always get shut down.” She recounts having her bag checked “for safety measures,” and being told by campus police that they “don’t believe I am a Georgetown student.”

Another widespread theme is the role of affirmative action debates in creating an unwelcoming atmosphere for students of color. Matsuda-Lawrence told Buzzfeed that almost every student she interviewed mentioned a Harvard Crimson article titled “Affirmative Dissatisfaction” as a major source of unease. The writer, Sarah R. Siskind, compared affirmative action to “helping the visually impaired become pilots.”

Several of the photographs from “I, Too, Am Harvard” deal with issues of questioned academic success. One student stands with a tight-lipped smile, her whiteboard displaying the offensive words of an old classmate, “You’re lucky to be black…so easy to get into college!” In the next photo, a male student stares unsmilingly at the camera, his whiteboard reading “Surprise! My application to Harvard wasn’t just a picture of my face.”

The debate over affirmative action is not limited to Harvard. One #BBUM user tweeted “Being ‘smart for a black person’ instead of just being ‘smart.’” Many students expressed increased pressure to prove their intelligence to fellow students when completing group projects. Corbin-Johnson recounts being questioned about whether or not she understood a discussion about Pakistani militaries , a topic on which she considers herself an expert. Knowingly, Corbin-Johnson asked the student why she doubted Corbin-Johnson’s understanding. Hesitating, the student quietly responded, “Because of affirmative action and stuff I don’t really know how smart people are.” Corbin-Johnson was speechless.

This controversy makes it difficult for students of color to feel welcome at their respective universities. One Michigan student bemoaned, “Being a third generation Wolverine and still hearing, ‘Are you a first generation college student?’” Michigan Black Student Union Board Member Capri’Nara Kendall told the Huffington Post, “I can’t begin to express the number of times I’ve been asked if I’m here on an athletic scholarship when I’m really here on an academic scholarship. It makes me feel like I’m not welcome here unless I’m some type of athlete.”

It is evident that these brief and commonplace racial insults, coming to be known as “microaggressions,” are negatively affecting student success. In the promotional video for “I, Too, Am Harvard,” one student said, “I feel the burden of being black in the classroom.” According to the US Department of Education, the college graduation rate of black students is 22.3 percent lower than that of white students. “When students feel repeatedly hurt and diminished, it is hard to expect them to be academically effective at the same time,” says Karen Gould, a former Tufts University Associate Dean and lecturer on race and class in higher education. “It negatively impacts their grades, their psyche, and their well-being.”

These social media campaigns are notable in their denial of the popular notion of a “post-racial society.” In a recent Gallup poll, 72 percent of white people rated current race relations as “very good” or “somewhat good.” Corbin-Johnson explains, “When they’re confronted about it they say ‘Oh I don’t see it,’ or ‘oh it’s not a problem.’” In discussing whether or not white students are aware of racism on college campuses, Gould said, “I think some know. I imagine others don’t want to know.” By spreading their message through such a viral medium, these students are powerfully interrupting this dominant narrative.

Inspired by the work of these campaigns, many students are creating branches at their own universities, showing that these race issues are not isolated incidents, but rather that they contribute to a global phenomenon of white privilege. More hopefully, the movement to fight back will prove itself to be global as well. The Being Black hashtag has spread to numerous universities including Michigan State, Cornell, and Georgetown. Corbin-Johnson reports that several other universities have reached out to her to adopt #DBKGU, and she is working to unite with other universities in DC in the hopes of eventually changing the title to #DBKDC. Perhaps most moving is the spread of the “I, Too, Am” movement to McGill, Oxford, and Cambridge. “Our movements are connecting brothers and sisters across a whole ocean,” Corbin-Johnson says excitedly. “Everyone’s experiencing the same thing.” Gould is optimistic about the continuation of conversations about race in higher education. “Universities like to contain and control every aspect of their image,” she says. “That’s not how the world works anymore. Colleges need to work for as many students as possible, something that is easy to advertise but much harder to do. The sun is finally shining on how students really feel. Students are finally speaking up, and they have found a vehicle through which to do so.”