Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Black Student Union -- Standing in Solidarity

by Justine Wang

It is May 19th, 12:00 pm—just a sunny Wednesday. It seems like another typical Wednesday—except it wasn’t. Gathered at the Student Terrace near the student center are fellow black students of UCI. Some of them come and go from 11-2 every Wednesday—Black Wednesdays—to represent the people of their ethnicity and show the rest of the school that there is a black presence on campus—just by sitting together in the student center. As I sit with four other black students at a table and watch one of the girls in a pink shirt hand out cupcakes to the other members, talking and laughing together, I am struck with admiration by the resolute way in which this group of people—the Black Student Union—has stuck together and stood strong in their identity to show the world who they are, the way they are. These students continue to still stand together as they face discrimination and injustice and they let those hurts fuel them rather than discourage them towards fighting for social justice.

The Black Student Union (made up of about 200 people with at least 50 active members) gather every Monday at 5:00 pm in the Cross-Cultural Center. The people come from different places—be it different homes, origins, or different emotional states—and they all have different personalities but they all have one thing in common to unite them all: their race. BSU has long been an uplifting support system for black students on campus and a place for them to discuss issues and events—past or present—that influence (or have influenced) the community. It officially started in 1971 due to the amount of racism experienced by black students, who ended up growing more passionate about getting their respect as they continued to face discrimination. BSU has brought awareness to black history and the hurts they have or are still going through and has also been a welcoming environment that some have come to call "home."

Throughout this school year, BSU has held many discussions about ongoing issues, such as what the prison industrial complex is or how changes to the Welfare Reform Act have affected the black community. The prison industrial complex involves the companies that donate to and fund UCI that are actually private companies that get contracts from the government to build more prisons—they are against the fact that some of our tuition fees goes towards supporting the prison industrial complex. The Welfare Reform Act had been modified in the 1990’s so that many welfare programs in the United States were cut down so that there were more requirements in order for people to be covered by welfare. Also, the black students on campus have been advocating a list of demands (http://democratizeeducation.wordpress.com/) for which they have been fighting for. The list entails the changes they believe are important to see on campus—all of them working towards bringing an end to racist, sexist, and other prejudiced practices.

Attending the meetings, I've found how different the environment is when I'm with these people. There are many deeper ways in which they have been hurt by people of different ethnicities and background—stereotypes and prejudging leaves a lasting impression and is difficult to forget. Being a black student on campus is “not really hostile...but there'll be instances where people will make a couple comments or remarks about something that they don't really think through” explains Charlene Kaloki, a freshman who currently lives in Mesa and was originally born in Kenya. “I've had someone in my hall ask me what a certain phrase meant and I said ‘I don’t know, why do you think I would know?’ and he said ‘Oh, because you're ghetto.’ And I was just like...you don't even know where I come from or know anything about me but you've already prejudged me and already put me in a certain category.”

As I walk into one of their Monday meetings on May 3, one of the members Jon Stephens, decked out in red basketball shorts, a white t-shirt, and a baseball cap worn backwards, sits down next to me and greets me, “Hey, it’s you again! The reporter girl.” I smile back at him and watch people trickle in.

There are six tables set up in a big rectangle and we all sat down, facing each other. Dr. James Cones from the UCI Counseling Center sat down, facing the rest of us. He conducts the “What’s Going On” for BSU, a space for the students to talk about what is going on in the community and to discuss any issues that may be around. These get-togethers happened twice a quarter this 2009-2010 school year. This time, they came to discuss racial issues regarding the conference of African Black Coalition that Yudof, president of the UCs, held in UC Riverside this year. The conference consisted of 600 students from all UCs, all with the goal of advocating success of black students on UC campuses, questioning Yudof about racial and diversity issues.

Once we all sat down, we got up again to recite “Standing in the River” – an African poem that focuses on the themes of community and wisdom. During the actual discussion, many students voiced their negative views on Yudof. “Moo” Malone feels that “he's running the UCs like a business, like, he's privatizing it – like it's not about being able to afford an education. Basically the master plan was to be able to have people be able to afford education and that's not the case anymore – it's just getting really expensive and I just don't feel like he cares about education. So...a lot of people just criticize him because he could probably be doing better and it doesn't seem like he really values the education of access for all.”

Also, it is remarkable the ways in which the black students who have a passion for the cause stand in solidarity with each other and continue to stand strong as they represent the black community to the rest of the population of UCI—especially seen on Black Wednesdays. Charlene also said that “being a black student here makes you wanna work even harder so you can increase the population of black students at UCI so people will be more exposed and more open to accepting people of a different race and not necessarily judge you by certain stereotypes.”

On February 17, during Black History Month, some fraternity students at UCSD threw a party off-campus to mock Black History Month. This event is known as the “Compton Cookout.” The students wore cheap clothes and chains and would “make up big words to say,” ‘Moo’ Malone explains. “They told the guys to make sure to sag their pants...It was super offensive.” They also mocked black women and wore gold on their teeth and some even donned a KKK mask. Many black students were aroused by this mocking and stood together resolutely.

Furthermore, the black students show their steadfast unity through all the protests and rallies during this 2009-2010 school year. ‘Moo’ Malone, a 3rd year black student (International Studies major) says the BSU played a huge role in gathering as many people to rally so that there could be a solid black presence. On Wednesday, February 24th, 17 students were arrested for gathering outside of the Chancellor’s office on the 5th floor of Aldrich Hall and chanting despite warnings from the police that they were engaging in an illegal activity. Their hearings are currently being held from May 26 - June 2 and to support one another, many students—black or not—gathered with the arrested in the waiting room of the 3rd floor Student of Dean’s office to show support and stand in solidarity with all of them. One of them thanked me as I sat down at 10 am for being there—“when we come out, it’d be nice to see a bunch of people who are supporting us and waiting for us outside here,” she said.

On top of the arrests and protests, the black students also set up a Town Hall meeting (March 1, at the HIB 100) to address the increasing racial tensions. They had Chancellor Drake and a few police there as well. Malone explains “We ended up talking just about how the police were treating the protestors at the UCLA rallies and how no one said anything about it, because I had friends who were getting tazed and beaten up just because they were on the front lines. We just wanted to ask what the administration is going to do for us because there's a lot of people who are hurting.” Two days after the meeting, about 50 students taped duct tape over their mouths with the words “Do UC U’s?” written on it and stood in front of the Student Center, linking arms, standing in a line and remained silent from 11:30 – 12:30 pm. The Compton Cookout was a huge reason for this protest and at 12:30 pm, they laid on the ground to play dead as an act of their protest, since it is symbolic of the sufferings they have gone through. BSU was present for the most part and spread awareness.

Going through and observing BSU meetings and events, the theme of standing in solidarity and showing the rest of the world that there is a black presence on campus was always present. What else can anyone do in the tough fight for social justice?

Reporting Log
- Attending all Monday meetings and observing
- Stopping by on Black Wednesday to hang out and chat with people
- Interview with Charlene Kaloki (freshmen) and Hiu-Ling (‘Moo’) Malone (3rd year)
- Attending hearings to show support and observing more of their standing in solidarity together
- Researching Compton Cookout, etc.

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