When I hit "publish" on the essay I wrote detailing my experience with racism while I was a student at Transylvania University, I didn't know exactly what to expect. I figured the article would resonate with other students of color who had or are having similar experiences; it would be spread around by the handful of us who have been through it all before; people would nod their heads and say, "Yep, this is what it's like," or, "Wow, I didn't know that's what it's like."
But the essay exploded online and is currently closing in on 200,000 views, a first for any essay I have ever written for BuzzFeed. I was invited to appear on All In With Chris Hayes and The Melissa Harris Perry Show. It also blew up on Transy's small campus in Lexington, Kentucky, so much so that some were cautioned not to discuss the article on social media. There was an outpouring of emails from people who could identify with my situation, emails that I can't imagine ever having the time to respond to with the thoughtfulness they deserve. Many of those emails came from current Transy students who said they felt silenced by the same institution I felt had silenced me.
When you are young and full of fire and you feel you've had your voice stolen from you, you don't feel whole until you're able to say everything you couldn't say then. I definitely feel heard, at last, but there is no sense of resolution, of tied ends, of repair. I always knew that I wanted to write about my experience once I left Transylvania — but not to make the school look bad. Healing is never about the people who hurt us; it is about us and our wellness. I just wanted to be able to breathe again, to shake loose the boulder of everything I couldn't say from my chest and breathe freely. I did not want them to hurt. I wanted them to hear me.
After all, you can't be hurt by something you don't care about. If I didn't care about what happens to Transy, I wouldn't have put the energy into sharing my story. And now I feel a sense of responsibility to help fix things at a place that I actually care for.
My time at Transy was tumultuous, yes, but there was good in my four years there. It's a very well-respected institution, and with its small class sizes and demanding curriculum, students willing to put forth the effort are guaranteed a good education. Whenever my friends and I met someone in Lexington and told them where we were enrolled, the response was usually, "Oh, so y'all are smart, huh?" I had a treasured collection of some of the kindest people I'd ever met, both white and of color, people who always had a smile for me on my toughest days. I followed the example of some amazingly brave and open-minded professors who truly did work for change, even if their efforts didn't go as far as they would have liked. There were reasons that I stayed at Transy beyond being stubborn, headstrong, and prideful, and those reasons lived in the smiling faces of people who cared for me. Lots of schools are like this. Students of color often find themselves confused by feelings of affinity for an institution where they also struggled so much.
I also didn't make a space in my first essay for the advancements that the campus or the KAs may have made in the 11 years since I graduated. There is now a Black Student Alliance at Transy, something that did not exist while I was there, and I understand that they were finally given the cultural center that my class was promised while we were on campus. Transylvania released a statement earlier today outlining the advancements that have been made since my time there: the minority population at Transy is now 18%, up from 3% in 2001. And they confirmed that once Davis Hall, the dormitory named after Jefferson Davis, is torn down and rebuilt, it will be renamed as well. Many of the students who I have been in communication with said that my story sounded very familiar to them, but I never figured or assumed that things are the same there today as they were 15 years ago.
So what happens next? Something has to happen next or all of this — the airing of dirty laundry, reliving traumatizing events, students threatened with disciplinary action for sharing my essay — will have been for nothing. Amends are being made; I received an apology from the national executive director of Kappa Alpha, which I accepted. But this isn't just my story, and it isn't specific to Transylvania or this fraternity or Kentucky or the South, as the SAE video has shown us. This is what it is like for scores of students of color at primarily white colleges and universities across the country. We work overtime to claw out a place for ourselves on campuses that do not reflect our images and still make time to study; we fight to prove our worth and right to exist in these spheres even though our applications and our money have already been accepted. And once we graduate, we have a healing process to go through. I don't know exactly what that looks like because I feel like mine, with the publication of that first essay, has just started.
When it comes to difficult things like race and change, something that people love to champion is "starting conversations." When something deplorable happens and people demand change, the thing to do is say, "Well at least people are talking about it now! At least we've started a conversation!" But we've been having these conversations for centuries.
And this particular one has been happening for at least 15 years. If nothing is actually done in its wake, then it'll be a conversation we're having for 15 more. What do we do? How do we fix this? I'm just a writer, not a school administrator. I don't have the answers, but I have some ideas: Don't wait until videos like the one from the University of Oklahoma and stories like mine to become public to care about making your institutions more inclusive. Don't dismiss the offensive pranks and practices often carried out by fraternities as "foolishness" they they are "entitled" to. Capitalize on the influence that Greek organizations have over their members by encouraging open-mindedness when it comes to things like race, gender, and sexuality. Make an honest, genuine effort to diversify your student bodies — don't just gather the handful of brown students you have for marketing photographs. Actively seek to recruit students and professors of color. Encourage them to speak up about their hardships and concerns and listen to them when they do. Don't be afraid to implement changes and stop offensive traditional practices because you're worried about losing money from alumni. Make your campuses welcoming and safe for the people who will call them home for at least four years. All of them.
You can't kill a tree by plucking at its leaves; you have to reach beneath the surface and kill it at the root. I'm very interested in seeing what Transylvania President Seamus Carey and administrators at schools across the country will do now that the stories of those who were once voiceless are being heard.
Transylvania can be a success story. Melissa Harris Perry suggested that Carey and his colleagues say, "We have been challenged on this point, let's talk about it and that is how we indicate how open we are, how willing we are to engage in dialogue and discourse, and how unafraid we are to be challenged." Transy can be an example of how white institutions can help their students of color be proud of their alma maters. There is still time for us. There is still time for me to not just be happy about the stellar classroom education at Transy or the friends I made, but to become a full-fledged, proud Transy Pioneer.
Thirty-something from Louisville, KY. Made of bourbon and awesome.
Contact Tracy Clayton at email@example.com.
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