The weekend before last, two men walked onto the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus,
waved Confederate flags around a memorial to the school’s Black founders, and spewed racist slurs at the Black students who had gathered around them.

For rising junior Jarrah Faye, the sight was horrifying. 

“Seeing white supremacists come to our campus and spew such hatred was disturbing and sickening,” Faye, who is president-elect of the school’s NAACP branch, which will be reactivated this fall, told the INDY. “(I) felt extremely nauseous and overall just physically ill watching that.”

This isn’t the first time white supremacists have visited campus. In the past five years, UNC-Chapel Hill has been plagued by a string of racist scandals, most notably the controversy over Silent Sam, an eight-foot-tall statue of a Confederate soldier. In 2018 and 2019, protests by students and anti-protests by pro-Confederate activists turned the campus into a battleground. At one point, the Unsung Founders Memorial was vandalized with racist graffiti. 

Earlier this year, the Campus Y, a building that has long been the center of social justice work at the university, was also vandalized with racist messages. And most recently, the denial of tenure to acclaimed Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has reanimated a larger fight by Black students for a “racial reckoning” at UNC-Chapel Hill. Last week, Black students released a list of demands to make the school safer and more equitable for students of color. 

“We want to be safe,” Faye says. “We want to go to this university and know that somewhere, in some department, we have a safe space.”

The university may promote diversity, but the reality is far from what is pictured on recruitment flyers, says Taliajah “Teddy” Vann, president of the Black Student Movement. For years, Black students have been profiled by police, assumed to be up to no good, and generally made to feel unwelcome, Vann says. 

“I don’t feel valued, I don’t feel loved, I don’t feel like people on this campus want me to be here,” she says. “Oftentimes, it (racism) is a reality our university enables.” 

For Vann, even something as simple as walking to class can feel like crossing enemy territory. 

“(It’s a microaggression) for you to use the physical space you’re taking up to force me to move around you,” Vann says, “when I’m already having to move around you every single freaking day that I’m at this campus, because the campus was designed and built for you by my enslaved ancestors.” 

Faye agrees, saying she has wanted to attend UNC-Chapel Hill since third grade, but entering the school as a freshman was disillusioning.

“Naively, I was like, ‘They’re gonna love me, they’re gonna accept me,’ because every pamphlet, they are always putting Black and brown faces on them,” Faye says. “To get here and find out that I’m only one part of eight percent of Black students that attend this school was very disheartening.”

Faye, Vann, and many other Black students want the university to finally live up to the promises it has made year after year to people of color. For Faye, that means dismantling the entire UNC governing body and rebuilding it in “true democratic form,” she says. 

“It’s time for UNC to face the music. It’s been too many, ‘I hear yous’ and ‘working on it’ and ‘we’re gonna get to it,’” Faye says. “No, it’s time.” 

Racism in Higher Education

Vann says she hopes this will be a critical moment of change for the university. At the same time, however, the campus culture is driving dozens of students and staff to question whether they should stay at the school. Some are choosing to go elsewhere, including to historically Black colleges and universities. 

At many predominantly white institutions, Black academics are undervalued at the same time they’re called upon to be representatives of diversity. Such is the case for UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and staff member Jaci Field, who also serves on the college’s Diversity & Inclusion Awards Committee. 

“It is emotionally draining to be the only one in the room, to be the only one at the table, to be the only voice in meetings over and over and over,” says Field. “I so rarely see myself represented in a room. It’s taxing.”

One of the benefits of attending or working at a historically Black college—such as N.C. Central University in Durham—is the strong sense of having a Black community, says Ralph Barrett, chair of the Faculty Senate at NCCU. 

“Naively, I was like, ‘They’re gonna love me, they’re gonna accept me,’ because every pamphlet, they are always putting Black and Brown faces on them.”

As an African American student at a predominantly white school, the University of Pennsylvania, “you always felt as if you were seen differently, you were treated a little bit differently,” Barrett says. “That’s something that you’re not gonna have at Central or any other HBCU. You’re not gonna get that sense of discrimination. You’re not gonna get the tyranny of low expectations.” 

Some attribute UNC-Chapel Hill’s lack of progress to its leadership. The most influential decision-makers—the current UNC System Board of Governors and the University Board of Trustees—are appointed by the Republican-led state legislature. Their conservative track records don’t create much hope for students or staff that there will soon be a culture shift at the college. 

In Hannah-Jones’s case, the decisions made by the board ultimately led her to take a position at Howard University, a historically Black research university in Washington, D.C. Vann says she was elated that Hannah-Jones chose a college that is “proudly established for Black people.” Hannah-Jones’s decision is a reminder to Black students and staff that they don’t have to take the path that white-dominated systems outline for them, Vann says. 

“Oftentimes the powers that be will say ‘Pick a lane, lane A or lane B,’” she says. “But ultimately, we all have the power to step out of those lanes and say, ‘I’m gonna create a third option.’ (UNC-Chapel Hill) doesn’t get to decide her (Hannah-Jones’) worth and value. She ultimately gets to decide it for herself.”

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