June 1, 2020
Dear Students, Staff, and Faculty of Westminster College:
As chief diversity officer, I am well aware that it is part of my job to know what to say and craft an appropriate statement on the college’s behalf for various reasons, such as responding to the rising national and international social and political unrest following the tragic, senseless murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis law enforcement officer, which we would have not known about (or believed?) were it not for the now-viral video recorded by a bystander. I confess that I am at a pause right now because I am wondering what I could write that would be different from the recycled, regurgitated, politically correct reminders to “treat everyone fairly,” “practice acceptance,” “xenophobia is wrong," "racism exists," “check your biases.”
With my extensive education and years of experience in organizational communication and cultural diversity, I could certainly come up with a flowery, feel-good statement to fulfill the expectations of my role to create favorable optics for the campus community. The statement would be posted on the college’s website and social media platforms. Some would even share the statement on personal social media pages to put a checkmark next to the “I did my part” on one’s keyboard social-justice-warrior to-do list. However, at this particular juncture of time and space, I believe generating such a statement would be an insult to your intelligence as well as my personal and professional integrity.
Along with the daily fatigue of being a Black woman in America, I have grown weary of writing statements about injustices against structurally marginalized groups—real human beings—in which the same platitudes are used with a cut and paste of updated names, locations, and timelines. In this case, it is changing the names of Black men and women who have been killed by white police officers or self-proclaimed vigilantes—as was the case of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in February 2020. Again, we probably would not have known about Arbery’s murder had it not been for the video footage made public nearly three months later. Just three days ago, according to news reports, Black transgender man Tony McDade was killed by a white police officer in Tallahassee, Florida. In March of this year, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was shot multiple times and killed by white police officers in her Kentucky apartment. It was later determined that the officers had forcibly entered the wrong apartment to serve a narcotics-related search warrant. This is eerily similar to the case of Botham Jean, a Black man who was shot and killed by a white female Dallas police officer in September 2018. The officer thought they were entering their own apartment.
According to the Mapping Police Violence website, African Americans are three times more likely to be killed by police than whites. Christian Cooper, a Black man, is alive today likely because he was able to self-video an exchange he had with a white woman when, after Cooper asked the woman to leash her dog while in Central Park, she called the police to say that an African American man had threatened her. The video shows a very different story. Further, it seemed that there was more outrage about the way the woman treated the dog in the video than the lie she told about the Black man. Seeing these recent incidents in the collective is a stark reminder of an enduring pattern of state-sanctioned violence against African Americans. Neither this behavior nor the consequences of this behavior can be erased or solved with a statement calling for respect and empathy.
Moreover, the many, ongoing atrocities against humankind—including but not limited to migrant children inhumanely held in detention centers at the US-Mexico border, anti-Asian racism and COVID-19 related xenophobia, gender-based violence, etc.—are happening during a global pandemic. With the US coronavirus death rate exceeding 100,000, structurally minoritized groups are dying at disproportionate rates. Per recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control, Blacks comprise approximately 23 percent of COVID-19 related deaths but make up only 12 percent of the US population. Clearly this is not meant to be an exhaustive list or to engage in a competition of comparative suffering. Hearing, seeing, experiencing, or even attempting to ignore the existence of these horrific acts, rooted in patriarchy, anti-Black racism, capitalism, and white supremacy, traumatizes us all.
So, after all of that, here I am as chief diversity officer—a role that has formally existed for less than four years at an institution that has been in existence for 145 years—still wondering what to say to the students, staff, and faculty who make up this campus community. Those who are also afraid, concerned, and wondering when we can get back to some sort of normalcy. Here is what I do know: a safe, welcoming, inclusive Westminster is a collective responsibility. I commit to bringing my best self, my human self, to this role, continuing the work of those who came before me to contribute to making Westminster the best I know it can be.
Further, I commit to the practice that if and when such statements are needed, they are accompanied with an action step for the campus community. Please expect and look for an invitation to attend a virtual community conversation “Social Unrest During a Global Pandemic” later this week. I look forward to “seeing” you there (via Microsoft Teams).
With thoughts of peace, comfort, and strength for us all,
Tamara N. Stevenson, Ed.D.
Interim Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion & Chief Diversity Officer
Associate Professor, Communication
"Learning from the past, listening in the present, living for a better future...."