The College Republicans scheduled Charlie Kirk on the same night as the first event of Black History Month (hopefully by coincidence). Although both events were drastically different in fundamental beliefs and mood, I attempted to attend both.
For the first event, Professor Michael Hill spoke about Black Wall Street in Tulsa, OK, which discussed how powerful entrepreneurship supported a growing wealthy black community post-slavery. But the inspiring story resulted in the eradication of the first affluent black town by whites. This particular case of ethnic cleansing was new to me. But the motifs of violence, injustice and invalidation of black Americans were not.
After the event, I hesitantly walked into Lee Chapel to listen to the man the College Republicans invited to our campus. Needless to say, I was shocked immediately by radical, right-wing beliefs and the outright demonization of the left. He claimed racism no longer exists in America, and if it does, non-white people are the racists against whites. He invalidated and denied the experiences of people of color who experience microaggressions, police brutality, underpayment, racial profiling, and so on.
He used the dehumanizing and popular “model minority” approach for Asian Americans to invalidate other people of color’s experience with discrimination. He claimed white privilege does not exist, but Asian privilege does. He misled claims based on economic opportunity and income statistics while ignoring and minimizing systemic barriers, American history, and extensive political research.
He horrifically and intentionally minimized, invalidated, and outright denied the issues nonwhite Americans are continuing to face. He also included how welfare cannot be used by single black mothers because more black children will grow without their fathers. Right after, he screamed that it is the fault of black and Latinx people that they are not more equal because Asians managed to become wealthier than white people. The audience cheered in support with his claim that it is a choice that non-white Americans are in poverty.
At the end of his talk, I was shaking with anger and fear. In this crowd, my friends’ and my experiences were considered fantasy because Kirk and his followers did not believe they were real. Then, he labeled us as the racists because we refuse to tolerate discriminatory behavior.
I wanted to speak. I needed to speak. I was terrified, and I fundamentally knew to argue against Charlie Kirk himself was pointless. However, when people within my community cheered and clapped for his outrageous and harmful claims, I felt a responsibility to challenge these ideals. When I argued with Charlie Kirk, my audience were truly the cheering students. Charlie Kirk is paid to create disparity. But this is my community, my home, and my life over which he is inciting problematic and potentially violent rhetoric. I could not be silent and complacent for myself and my friends.
A video of an exchange between Charlie Kirk and myself when he spoke on campus on February 4 was posted on his Instagram without my consent for release. During the talk, I initially intended to refute his claim that white privilege does not exist because Asian Americans have more wealth and privilege. Our exchange lasted more than several minutes and over a number of topics rather than the posted edited clip. I spoke because I felt there was a responsibility to myself and my community to refute Kirk’s justifications and denial of racism. I discouraged then and discourage now the practice of demonizing and belittling marginalized groups. To recite the message former Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on campus the day the video was released, we need to create an environment of listening and respect.
After Charlie Kirk used my personal and emotional disagreement to promote his radical, anti-left and racist sentiments, I felt as if my voice was used against the very people I desired to uplift and support. My initial response to the edited video and the comments was despair and disappointment. But the response of W&L students demanded a different reaction.
I received an incredible amount of support from students of all political beliefs, races, and socio-economic status. In response to comments of how I am “brainwashed,” “dumb,” “a perpetual victim,” and “a puppet,” young adults from Arkansas, California, and W&L commented against the shameful video editing, inflammatory strategies, and attacks on my character. Despite the fear and anger I felt at his talk and video release a month later, the support and love from my communities in Washington and Lee University and Arkansas encourage and validate me to be angry and heard about the issues that matter.
Thank you to all the people who support others despite differences in beliefs and tactics. Although toxic political polarization continues on our campus and national political atmosphere, the response from students continues to inspire and encourage an environment of growth and support.