During my senior year of high school, a kid who sat behind me in class scrawled “Jailyn is black. Colored people suck. Niggers love Kool-Aid” into the wood-grain of his desk. On the day I found the writing, my phone had died and I was sitting in AP Biology trying to entertain myself with anything other than chromosomes, mitochondria, and the nasally voice of the teacher. When the plum-purple of the writing caught my eye, I turned to my best friend and motioned for him to check if what I thought I was seeing was actually there. I stared at the words, silently trying to understand the author’s motive until I felt my friend nudge my side and whisper, “Jai.” I slowly turned to him as he nodded towards the front of the classroom. I followed his gaze and saw the entirety of the class staring back at us.
The teacher pulled the tip of her pen from between her thin lips just long enough to ask, “Is there something the two of you would like to share?”
I looked from her, to my friend, and back down to the purple writing. When my eyes finally made their way back up to hers, I realized that I’d never noticed how dry her graying-blonde hair seemed to look. I wondered if she dyed it to hide the gray and thought about asking her. Instead, I said, “Someone wrote on the desk.”
She turned back to the board, intending to continue the day’s lesson. “While I wish we had the time to dissect the deeper meaning of every piece of graff—”
“It says Jailyn is Black. Colored people suck…” I trailed off, my last few words barely above a murmur, “…Niggers love Kool-Aid.”
I stared at my desk. The wood was only a few shades darker than the warm tones of my arm. I wished that I could inconspicuously wedge myself between each groove until I disappeared entirely. When I finally looked back up, it was only to find the teacher softly giggling as she restarted her lesson. A few students followed her lead and chuckled while turning back to face the front of the classroom like nothing had happened. When all 17 faces turned away, my friend and I, who were the only two black students in our grade, exchanged silent glances of shame and disappointment.
Days later, after I had discovered the author of the venomous missive, I was prepared to tell everyone what he had done, if only to provide him with just a dose of the same humiliation that I had suffered. But before the day was over, I was called into the principal’s office. When I arrived, there he sat, next to the principal, in his khaki shorts and deep sea fishing tee. I paused in the doorway as all of the emotion of his hateful act came flooding back. I refused to sit down. “Jailyn, we know you think that he was the one that wrote this, but he has said that he didn’t and there’s no way we can prove that he did,” the principal began. “Now we’ve heard that you were planning to make a Facebook status about this, but that would really just make our job harder and we would prefer if you didn’t.”
I was first made aware of the controversy surrounding Dr. Saida Grundy by way of the Boston University Class of 2018 Facebook page. Nick Pappas, a student from University of Massachusetts, posing as a young white woman named Melanie, posted a link to his website that criticized many of her personal tweets as racists. Here is sample of the tweets he cited:
He went on to claim that Boston University should be ashamed to hire what he believed to be such a racist professor and that parents should wary of sending their children to an institution that could employ a “bigot”.
When right-wing media picked up on the story, they had a field day. Most notably, FOX News published a story that included an interview from someone who said they were “not surprised that Boston University is hiring a racist to teach African American studies. Anti-white racism is rampant in Black Studies programs.”
Yet despite this, our administration initially defended Dr. Grundy’s right to free speech. In the same FOX News article, a university spokesman said: “Professor Grundy is exercising her right to free speech and we respect her right to do so.” However, when the story finally made its way to the general public, the university quickly back tracked, following a wave of alumni and parents supposedly threatening to withdraw their financial support from the school. In an email sent to the entire BU community a few days after the controversy broke, President Robert Brown acknowledged Grundy’s right to free speech while simultaneously implying that her tweets fell under the umbrella of “racism or bigotry” and were “hurtful” to members of the community.
In my first year at Boston University, I was overwhelmed by the number of black people I saw in my classes and walking down the street. Though black students only comprised about three percent of the student population, I was now around more black people than I had ever been around in my life. Thirteen years at a small, private prep-school in Savannah, Georgia made BU’s black population look huge in comparison. I was excited to join the black student union and declare an African American Studies minor with hopes that I could soon begin to examine and lay to rest some of the insecurities that had resulted from the frequent and very racialized instances of trauma I had experienced in my K-12 education.
This idea of white supremacy as more than a rhetorical device or abstract sociological concept, but rather as physical and psychological trauma, is one that I have been toying around with a lot lately. In her essay “Healing Our Wounds: Liberatory Mental Health Care,” bell hooks argues that we must engage with and embrace
“an analysis of the impact of white supremacy on our lives that [includes] a recognition of both psychic trauma and the need for psychological recovery…. Much of the contemporary nonfiction writing by black scholars, particularly males, downplays the significance of trauma in order to emphasize triumph over adversity”
It is easy to treat the research of social scientists as somehow less than the research of other so-called “hard sciences,” because it has become socially acceptable to do so. It is easy to dismiss their findings as superfluous and influenced by bias because these individuals are often challenging deeply rooted social narratives and norms. Mainstream American culture signals to us that it is acceptable to argue with a black professional in the field of sociology about the definition of racism and that it is acceptable to then accuse her of participating in a structure indelibly rooted in a form of systemic power that she fundamentally cannot access as a result of both her race and gender.
This is the environment in which the president of my university can confidently insinuate that a black woman’s words are oppressive to a group of young (and mostly wealthy) white men despite the fact that none will be killed, none will lose jobs, and none will be silenced. These are only a few of the very real consequences of actually oppressive action and speech. These are the very real consequences that Dr. Grundy could face with just the flick of a wealthy white man’s finger.
Is it not violent to publicly pillory a black woman for the conclusions that her valid and valuable research has led her too?
Is this not a form of trauma?
For days now, conversations regarding Dr. Grundy’s tweets have occurred behind the safety of computer and phone screens in nearly every BU affiliated group of which I am a part. The comments made by students, alumni, and parents have often utilized coded language to obscure startlingly toxic sentiments. At every turn, black students and other students of color have resisted and challenged these narratives in both public and private forums; they have met ignorance with knowledge, tactlessness with poise, and angry accusations with well-formulated arguments.
Many have boldly confronted the thinly veiled racism of some of Grundy’s detractors.
And yet for black students, this decision is not without its costs.
My conversations and interactions with my black peers tell a story of fatigue and often despair. Even those students who have opted out of public discussions on the issue have confessed to me that they are both physically and mentally tired of having to justify the right to tell their stories. They are tired of having to do the hard work of overcoming racialized oppression with no one to depend on but themselves. They are frustrated with endless discussions, disillusioned with ineffective demonstrations, and disappointed with the deafening silence and crippling nature of an administration that would seem to be more concerned with lining its pockets than protecting and supporting its most vulnerable students.
Perhaps most disturbing is that our administration can fathom the “hurt” that young white males might feel in response to a few 140-character tweets about the culpability of white/male privilege, but cannot even begin to acknowledge or address the trauma that accompanies facing the full-brunt of white supremacy with little to no support.
Neither my high school nor my university has reached the point where they can speak of oppressive language and action directed towards folks of color as a form of trauma. Instead, those on the receiving end are often met with either apathetic silence or unfettered vitriol. In both cases, we are the ones who suffer. With both reactions, folks of color and others who lie at the intersection of potentially oppressed identities are further discouraged and prevented from speaking openly and passionately about their own truths. On some days, I can still hear the soft giggle of the teacher who flippantly dismissed the violent and racialized language scrawled into my desk. And when I think of that principal who prioritized the discomfort of the privileged administration and students over the trauma I had so recently experienced, those feelings of shame, inadequacy, and anger all come flooding back. With just a few small words steeped in the institutional apathy thrown down from my principal’s pedestal of white/male privilege, I had been denied a chance at healing.
I have photos of the words I found on that table saved on every single electronic device that I own. At this point I have every curve and color of those words in the photo memorized. If asked, I am sure I could replicate them with pen and paper, down to the very shadows in the wood. And still, every once in a while, I load them up. Three years later, and I am still reliving the moment in which I felt most silenced, most dehumanized, and most humiliated.
I can’t help but wonder if three years from now, Dr. Grundy will Google her name, scroll down to the comments section of some outdated article, and torture herself with the memory of such a directed and personalized attack. Her trauma, which she was forced to watch play out in the unsympathetic sphere of mainstream media, awakened in the entirety of our community memories of our own versions of racialized trauma. If when she revists these attacks, we are lucky enough to still have Dr. Grundy sharing her wisdom and knowledge in classrooms across our campus, I am confident that a community of black students and faculty will be standing beside her ready to offer the support of collective healing denied them by the Boston University Administration and white supremacist power structure to which all American institutions belong.
As a community, we must value the addition of an individual who not only personally understands the intricacies of this brand of trauma and its effects on both the collective and individual psyche, but one who also intellectually understands it. We must warmly welcome the opportunity to contextualize the suffering of our most vulnerable communities in a body of research that Dr. Grundy has dedicated her life to. If we can only accept the joint power of both the personal and the intellectual as viable forms of truth, I have high hopes that we can all begin to understand and to heal from the traumas that plague us.
Jailyn Gladney is a rising senior at Boston University where she is currently pursuing a degree in Sociology with a minor in African American Studies. She is also the founder of The Cornerstone, a daily e-newsletter focused on the top political and cultural news impacting US communities of color. You can find her tweeting at @jaiglad.
[Image by Tara Jacoby; Photo via the author]