Black Student Alliance special meeting reveals racism at CU

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Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that dogs were involved in police use of force at a student’s party. This statement has been retracted by the source.

“If you don’t do something now, what happened at Mizzou will happen here,” said Paris Ferribee to an overflowing conference room at the University of Colorado’s Center for Community Tuesday night.

That was the message Ferribee, co-president of CU’s Black Student Alliance, gave to CU administrators last Friday in a meeting to determine what the university can do to better address racial issues on campus.

On Tuesday, BSA held a special meeting to discuss the initiatives Ferribee presented to administrators and to collect input about the group’s next steps. BSA is currently hammering out plans to show solidarity with students at the University of Missouri, whose anti-racism demonstrations influenced the resignation of its president and chancellor last week, and to hold CU administration accountable for the racial climate here.

In a meeting that drew upwards of 50, students sat on the floor and in chairs, squeezed onto tables, stood along walls and poked their heads through the doorway to listen to BSA’s six-woman officer team lead a conversation about racism at CU-Boulder and how students plan to address it.

Students from various campus groups, including UMAS Y MEChA en CU-Boulder, a Latino student alliance group; the Oyate Native American Student Organization; African Student Association; Caribbean Student Alliance; and Fossil Free CU, as well as students from Colorado College and the University of Northern Colorado, attended. Asian Unity, an Asian-American student alliance group, could not attend but sent BSA its support.

BSA officers opened by discussing the rally to show solidarity with Mizzou that was planned for last Friday by students in a class called Whiteness Studies, which discusses racial inequality. The class and BSA drew media coverage after the group contacted the professor and the class canceled the rally last Thursday, citing BSA’s concerns that voices of black students were being ignored in the planning process.

“It was a miscommunication between [the class] and BSA,” Ferribee said. “We spoke to them and they said it was an oversight not to contact BSA, and that their intent is to be allies.”

“There’s no ill will toward the group,” said Samantha Williams, co-president of BSA.

Williams visited the class Tuesday morning to make sure the class and BSA understand each other. Some students from the class, which comprises students of various ethnicities, attended the meeting.

“We wanna stand with Mizzou, but in a different way,” Ferribee said. “We wanna make sure those [racial incidents] don’t happen at CU. We have people questioning whether that’s even taken place.”

The bulk of the meeting was devoted to input from students in the crowd, who shared ideas of how to bridge understanding between the white majority of students at CU and students of color.

One student suggested teaching a class on what microaggressions are — subtle instances of offensive behavior or speech — saying that white students often don’t know when they are offending students of color.

Another student discussed the university’s bystander intervention sessions, which all freshmen students are required to attend early in fall semester, and suggested that the program should discuss what to do when a student is being harassed because of their race.

“‘Nigger’ has been spray-painted at Kittredge,” Ferribee said, referring to a February 2014 incident in which the word was written in graffiti on the second and third floors of Kittredge West Hall. A delay in distributing a message to students about a hall-wide meeting discussing that issue further stoked student discontent.

“One student saw a swastika carved into a paper towel dispenser; another student moved out of their dorm because [of racial issues],” said Ferribee, who has also been called “nigger” on the campus. “In Boulder, I’ve been pulled over three times in the last year to be asked if my car is my car. I’ve had eggs thrown at me.

“I got maced and [students were] arrested at a party by police; there were [excess numbers of] cops. What kind of threat am I? And my students got maced. What kind of threat are we?”

Students and staff of color shared examples of feeling unwelcome in Boulder, and at the university specifically, throughout and after the meeting.

Selam Abbady was walking on the Hill with a group of friends and heard someone yell “black bitches” out of a passing car her first week of school this year.

“I almost dropped out,” said student Brandon K. Thomas. “The first time I got called a nigger, I sat in my room for 45 minutes, like, ‘Who do I talk to about this?’”

7 News in Denver reported in April that there were 67 reports of “bias-motivated incidents”  from August 2014 to April 2015.

Expressing concerns for white student involvement after last week’s rally cancellation, one student asked, “Is it okay for white students to be involved, and if so, how?”

“Yes!” said BSA Vice President Morgan Barber matter-of-factly, to positive laughs from the crowd. “In no way, shape or form should we [be making people feel like we don’t want them].”

“Don’t let what happened on Thursday give you the impression that we [don’t want to collaborate with white students],” Ferribee said. “When you start thinking, ‘Oh they don’t like me’…it’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about the history. We’re trying to break some things down. We can all work together to make change.”

Several attendees expressed a sense of urgency to put pressure on administration.

“Institutions are constantly dishonest about what they can do,” said a professor of ethnic studies at CU in the crowd. “They say oh no, we don’t have the money. And then six months later, somehow, ‘Oh, we built a buff-shaped pool!’”

Ferribee discussed four main initiatives with the crowd: “A safe space — [BSA] lost [its] office last year; a mandatory undergraduate class on diversity, because students say they don’t feel accepted in their own dorm rooms… transparency from the university; and more [financial aid for students of color].”

“Some students are under the impression that black students get paid to be here, like ‘Oh you’re here because you’re black,’ when most of us are struggling to be here,” Ferribee said.

Students also expressed the need for a class that could educate white students about how to treat students of color.

“I’ve been uncomfortable with the racial dynamic in Smith [residence hall],” Thomas said after the meeting. “I would say it’s attitude, it’s awareness.”

“People of color learn [about racism] from experience; white people learn from the books,” said a student during the meeting. “So we need more classes.”

Ferribee said she thinks the university could be more honest about the racial climate at CU and issues current and future students may face — that is the heart of her transparency initiative. She said that providing a map of resources for students of color could help the situation.

Ferribee talked to Chancellor Phillip DiStefano about the four initiatives at their meeting last Friday. That meeting included a black graduate student, a black professor and Provost Russell Moore.

“I was contacted by the professor to come to the meeting,” Ferribee said. “The administration reached out and initiated — it was very last minute.”

Since May, CU’s administration has been working on a “comprehensive strategic plan” to promote diversity and inclusion. Opening remarks at CU’s 21st Annual Diversity and Inclusion Summit in the UMC on Nov. 6 saw Chancellor DiStefano citing the recent events at Mizzou as evidence that dialogue about diversity is an essential and basic part of a university community.

Going forward, CU’s BSA plans to coordinate with student groups from the University of Denver, Colorado College, the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, Colorado State University, Colorado State University-Pueblo and Metropolitan State University of Denver to discuss ways to address racial issues at campuses statewide.

“Looking at what’s going on in other campuses, I think we’re liable to keep that movement going on and not be silent,” said Robert De Mata, co-chair of UMAS Y MEChA de CU-Boulder, after the meeting, among pockets of conversation and laughter from students in the room and hallway.

“You’re not the only one in the struggle,” De Mata said when asked of his message to younger students. “It’s been going on for years. Know your resources, and [don’t] be afraid to share your story or take on this new environment.”

Ferribee plans to take feedback from Tuesday’s meeting to BSA’s next discussion with CU administration.

“The goal is to let them know what students are expecting and hold them accountable,” Ferribee said. “We’re working to change things at CU and across the state.”

Ellis Arnold

Ellis Arnold is the CUI's editor-in-chief and a journalism and political science student. He writes about diversity issues, politics, student government, music and (sometimes) life advice. Is he qualified to do that? You'll never know. He's a senior from Aurora, Colorado, who's been with the CUI for eight semesters.

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