BLK PWR Coalition Leads UW Campus Protests Over Racist Speech: Enough Is Enough

Black Pwr Group2

Members of the BLK PWR Group: Jeremy (l-r), Steph, Noah, Grace, Elaine, Heaven, Mason, Lisa, and Dorian

By Jonathan Gramling

It can be a challenge being a member of an underrepresented group on the UW-Madison campus, especially for Black students. While Black people represent almost seven percent of Wisconsin’s population, for years, the African American student representation on campus has stood around two percent. Take away the African American student athletes, and the numbers feel even smaller.

In a society that is race conscious and uses race to define so many aspects of life, Black students feel scrutinized and judged and are impacted by the socio-psychological pressures of being a minority on campus. Add in the micro-aggressions and verbal racial slurs they may experience as a course of everyday academic life, it leads many to feel like they don’t belong even though their tax-paying ancestors helped build UW-Madison just like anyone else. It can cause Black students to experience “imposter syndrome,” where they feel they aren’t qualified to be on campus even though they academically competed for the right to be on campus.

And then sometimes an incident happens, which is almost like throwing gasoline on an already smoldering fire.

“This all came about after there was a video that was posted of a white UW student saying some very racist and hostile things to the Black community,” said Elaine, a member of the BLK PWR Coalition whose members elected to only use their first names. “And she received no repercussions for said video. So we as the Black community banded together to really state our case for justice and for her to face individual repercussions. We met with the chancellor and everything. But the chancellor gave us a very general statement back and said that she would not be taking action against the student. So we are continuing our fight in order to push for our demands that are


listed on our Instagram page, which includes things like more funding for our programs with the Black Culture Center, academic accommodations for us during this time and a revision of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Programs that the university has.”

The students felt that a stronger response was needed to discourage future similar incidents.

“The lack of action and education perpetuates the idea that the behavior that’s been exemplified lately is acceptable,” Jeremy emphasized. “White students go around campus thinking it’s okay because they won’t be reprimanded for it. They use the excuse, ‘Oh it wasn’t taught or I didn’t grow up around them.’ It just makes it easier to get away with things. And that is not okay.”

While there are safe spaces for Black students on campus, most Black students go about their academic days in isolation, often the “only one” in their classes, experiencing the micro-aggressions in isolation. And then an incident like the video galvanizes the Black students. During the marches the week of May 1st, it appeared that a large majority of Black students came out and marched.

“I think what made this different was the time in which the video came out and the fact that it was on camera,” Grace explained. “We experience things like this often. But the fact that this one was recorded, that tangible evidence, makes it different. And it is also around finals season, so we are juggling this and finals and being forced to put certain things aside to just focus on this. But we stand on the shoulders of the 1969 Black Student Strike that gave us the Black Cultural Center, which is where we are sitting right now and #therealUW in 2016 through which marginalized students talked about how they didn’t feel safe on campus and why they didn’t feel safe on campus. So this isn’t something new. This is another response to systemic inaction.”

“I think everyone is a product of their environment,” Mason added. “The video may be a product of what she grew up around and she is speaking on how she feels towards a community based on her interactions. I feel that isn’t fair. We deal with instances like that every single day. What makes this instance so much different is it promoted violence. And it promoted the people who have the same ideas to act on them in a more irrational way that causes harm to a community at this university. When you are attending a university like this one or even if you are at a job or part of a sports team, where you go and what you say and what you do is an extension of that university. You are now just not representing yourself and your family, you are representing UW as a whole. It shouldn’t be right that this is what UW stands for as a whole.”

On some levels, this incident was an Arab Spring on campus fueled by a common sense of outrage because the reaction to the video was swift.

“We would say that social media was definitely a great way for us to get in contact with each other and spread information,” Elaine said. “One of the places where we would have a lot of our information, including our demands, is our Instagram page, the Blk Pwr Coalition. The social media page was definitely a way for us to get into quick contact with each other across a broad campus because not all of us Black students live in the same dorms or the same areas.”

And the marches themselves were an empowering moment for a lot of the students.

“Being such a small community at such a predominantly white institution, it’s beautiful to see that a lot of people are feeling you and you are not alone,” Heaven said. “The fact that we were able to connect and be able to do these demonstrations and protests and see that we are heard within ourselves and in our community was another great thing. And we were able to come together in community and that is a beautiful thing, being unified during a time when we need each other. That is another thing that we need to point out. We do come together in numbers when needed.”

At the heart of this issue is when does free speech become hate speech. When does an opinion become a call for action against a group because of their common, superficial characteristic?

“Hate speech promotes violence,” Mason emphasized. “Violence towards another person is not legal. That’s where I draw that line. I feel that regardless of whether I agree or disagree, everyone is entitled to their own opinions and their own feelings. That’s fair to say. But when your opinions and feelings are voiced in a matter that promotes violence or harm towards a community or person, that’s when it takes a turn in my personal opinion. I feel that everyone in this room can speak on that just based on the sense we’ve received not only as a community in the past week or so, but also on the individual level just by being out there and present and pushing back against her statements.”

And violence is more than just physical.

“It just doesn’t mean physical violence,” Elaine said. “This also means mental violence because it is a mental struggle too. And you cross that line from free speech to hate speech when you are saying words that can cause physical or mental trauma to a person.”

“I do heavily believe that just because you have the freedom of speech, it doesn’t mean you have a freedom from consequence,” Heaven added. “Just because you are saying the things that you believe, it doesn’t mean that consequences don’t come with those actions, especially being at such a prestigious university. Whether it’s hate speech or free speech, there still needs to be a code of conduct on what students should say. If we don’t have a code of conduct in place, they need to be in place because this doesn’t need to be continuously happening.”

And some members of the BLK PWR Coalition feel that their voices just aren’t heard due to their numbers on campus.

“Quite honestly, I think what affects us doesn’t affect the majority at this university,” Mason said. “So for them to make a change that would, at large, affect the majority to only change what two percent maybe of their student population is affected is a business issue. It doesn’t seem to make sense. What we are trying to do is separate business from just humanity and speak up for what we feel we deserve and need as marginalized students on campus.”