Despite what accolades preceded me during my senior year of high school, I did not feel
legitimately motivated to apply to competitive undergraduate programs. My father, however, convinced me otherwise. Were it not for him, I would not have applied to---let alone heard of---Washington and Lee. After being invited to DIVE weekend, my father took off work and drove the full 11.5 hours to Lexington with me. Upon arriving, we met professors, other admitted students, and many more. Although the campus was beautiful and the classroom setting inviting, I was not prepared for our last stop: a shrine to Robert E. Lee, coveted in red brick and ivy, settled at the base of the colonnade. As concerned as I was, however, I applied, was admitted, and with a fair amount of hesitation, committed. I was aware of the
school’s namesakes and how it tends to invite personalities and ideologues that might pose a threat to my identity. My instinct to rescind myself from attending college kicked back in. But I remembered that my father, one of only two in his entire family of eleven brothers and sisters to attend college, had done it and survived. If a little Dominican kid from the South Bronx could do it, I could do it too. This was the best financial option for my family and would solidify the precedent of attending university for generations to come. So, I decided to enroll.
What I found when I got here was a world that I could have never imagined. Despite growing up in a neighborhood whose constituents were overwhelmingly from minority backgrounds, the high school that I was fed into was predominantly white. That’s the suburbs for you. I was used to being in white classrooms. How different could a predominantly white institution be? Being a Black student-athlete has spared me from most of the violence that minority students suffer from on this campus. However, I would be lying if I said I have not felt threatened by the words and sentiments mouthed by my white peers. From bigoted political ideologies to microaggressions rooted in every phobia known to man, I have heard it all.
Over the past three years, my friends and I have had to wrestle with harassment and discrimination from both citizens of Lexington and students at the school we were supposed to call our second home. But this is to be expected. After all, a school whose very namesake is a Confederate general is bound to host its fair share of violent personalities. So with the school doing little to account for the effect its name and traditions have on its minority students, the most I figured I could do was fight for myself. This year, I gained the confidence to educate my peers about their privilege and whiteness and the damage it inflicts on others when run unchecked. I couldn’t stand the idea that I would be the only non-tangential interaction they would have with a Black person for quite possibly the rest of their life.
And while I have enjoyed seeing my white peers grow and become more respectful of others, I cannot say that it did not come without cost. I am emotionally and mentally drained from the exercise of constructing what are essentially entire lesson plans for my peers. While I am invested in their education, I am exhausted of being a James Baldwin figure: acting as a proxy, between the entitled people at this school and the disenfranchised---and all the while, having my lived experiences gaslit by those who know no better. If you are in positions of privilege and power and truly want to support minority students at this school; if you really want to get to know them as more than entities you see on all of the brochures and
“Seen On Campus” galleries, then talk to us. We are in your classes. We are in the dining halls. We pass you on the way to and from class. But despite all of this, we are not here to educate you. Too much of our time is spent attempting to preserve the integrity of our identities while attending a predominantly white institution in the rural south. Yet there is only so much we as minority students can do to heal ourselves and---of those that can spare the energy to---teach our white peers about our struggles. In the end, the administration must take it upon itself to confront the demands made by minority students that will make our lives easier.
We have made our sentiments and demands clear. To deny their validity is to gaslight our own
experiences. To refuse either directly or indirectly the sentiments in our demands effectively reduces struggles to mere annoyances. To delegate our demands to the purgatory of a committee or email chain is to meet us with half measures. Understand that our demands ultimately do not harm anybody. They only alleviate our pain.
In closing, I beg that the University not only change the name, but also that it refrain from
delegating the labor of repairing damage that it enables to the students that need it the most. That being said, I direct my voice to my white peers: take your education outside of the classroom. Read literature or theory outside of the canon: from the voices that have been historically oppressed. Consume podcasts whose hosts come from historically underrepresented backgrounds. But most importantly, be active with what you believe. Join an organization and direct your support to minority groups. It is not enough to take that one POV class everyone raves about or to talk about how many books from Black authors or activists you’ve read. In order to truly stand in solidarity with the marginalized and to repair the damage done by
both the system and the majority white student body, you must act.