Alexis Jones on UVA graduation day
Charlottesville, Virginia is and always will be my college town. And, like most everyone else across America, I spent this weekend following coverage of the race riots that took place there.
As a newly minted University of Virginia graduate and a woman of color now getting my master’s in upstate New York (nearly 500 miles away from my home for the past four years), I want nothing more than to wrap my arms around my friends who are still in Charlottesville. Before the White supremacists marched on Friday, I had booked a ticket to go visit my friends at my alma mater this coming weekend. Now I’m scared, and I want to tell all of my friends and anyone who is hurting what my grandmother always tells me: That this too shall pass.
Yet it’s a hard notion to reconcile. On Saturday, I got a call from my UVA friend who saw hundreds of White nationalists waving confederate flags through her rearview mirror as she was pulling into the parking lot of the school gym. That image burns in my mind, very much in contrast with my pleasant and celebratory memories of walking down The Lawn in my cap and gown less than three months ago. It’s hard to digest. We are in 2017, but watching the live coverage on CNN, part of me can’t help but feel as if the screen should be in black and white.
Yet I also feel we need to remind ourselves how we got here. This hateful narrative is not new to many, including students of color who, like myself, are already well aware of our college town’s repugnant and discriminatory recent history. I have not forgotten that in October 2015, Martese Johnson was disregarded as a human being when agents of the Virginia Department Alcoholic Beverage Control bludgeoned him after he tried to enter a 21-and-older restaurant and bar underage. Or how, in November 2016, the n-word was written on the doors of UVA’s Kent-Dabney dorm. While what happened over the weekend was as alarming as it was horrific, it’s not as though Charlottesville has been free from this racism and vitriol until now, which is all the more reason for us to come together to stand up and extinguish this latest flame of hate.
To everyone who is against discriminatory, racist, and oppressive behavior – and especially to my fellow Cavaliers still in Charlottesville: I encourage you to speak out in the best way you know how. I know it’s easier said than done and that I’m guilty of witnessing someone disrespect or demean a person or group and shrugging off those comments in the moment, only to vent about them later among friends who were “woke.” But we truly can’t afford to do that. In order to hold myself accountable going forward, here’s what I would have said in those moments, and what I will say in the future.
I remember sitting in my news reporting class the day after Trump was elected. My professor encouraged my classmates and me to talk about our frustrations and confusions. Most of the students who voted for Trump stayed silent that day. But I did overhear one girl say to another classmate, "I don't want people to think I'm racist because I voted for Trump. I feel like people hate me." To this day, I wish that I had gone beyond addressing the room and turned around to engage with her directly. I would have told her that Trump being elected was not about her. For me, it’s about "the Blacks," as Trump so eloquently referred to us, feeling like they no longer had a president who would speak on their behalf. It’s about the international students who may not be able to spend holidays with their families out of fear that they may not be allowed to return to the U.S. to finish their education. It’s about the Hispanic community and those who have been forced to endure being referred to as "bad hombres" by their leader. It’s about the Muslim students who no longer feel safe wearing their hijabs in public.
In that same journalism course, a guest lecturer came to talk to our class. I still remember the tension that filled the room when a Chinese student raised her hand and stated her name — let’s call her Lilly — before asking her question. Apparently “Lilly” wasn’t Chinese enough for the guest lecturer because, rather than answering her question about how to become a better journalist, he looked at her and said “No, what’s your real name?” The uncomfortable looks on my classmates’ faces at this man’s blatant show of disrespect led to conversations outside the classroom about how awkward of a moment that was. What I wish we had done was approached the lecturer after class and told him how uncomfortable that made Lilly, because despite his elevated position in the journalism world, she deserved his respect.
This specific display of racism may be over, the people dispersed. But the hate still lingers in the air. Wake up. This is part of America, and if you believe otherwise, you’re not paying attention. A man took a woman’s life this weekend. The bodies beaten by rods are still bruised, and then there are the invisible scars. No words of comfort can change that. Which is why I’m suggesting that we all make it a point to be more thoughtful and deliberate about the conversations we're having with people on a daily basis. We have the right and the duty to declare this unacceptable. I plan to speak, write, and show that I won’t tolerate the deadly discrimination that erupted in my college town over the weekend, or anywhere for that matter. For the sake of our country’s future, I hope you’ll join me.
Images courtesy of Alexis Jones