State of the University discusses racial inclusion in America and at Carnegie Mellon

Katy Dyer Oct 2, 2016

When we think of standing up for what we believe in, it may seem counterintuitive to do so by instead taking a knee. However, that’s exactly what Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers quarterback, began doing on Sept. 1 when he kneeled during the national anthem to protest recent police brutality cases against unarmed black citizens. This bold move only added fuel to the ongoing cultural debate surrounding race relations, law enforcement, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

In this context, Carnegie Mellon students gathered on Sept. 27 for the inaugural event of the monthly campus discussion series, “State of the University,” to hold a conversation about “Colin Kaepernick, #BLM and how it all affects our campus.” Sarah Duncan, event organizer and Carnegie Mellon community adviser, explained that her goal with the series “is to have it really be an exchange of perspectives between undergraduates, grad students, staff, faculty and whoever else would want to be involved.” The event revolved around five chairs at the front of the lecture hall, which attendees joined and left at will. This provided a constantly rotating cast of perspectives on the night’s topic, “why take a knee?”

At first, debate ensued over the titular subject: Kaepernick’s protest, its meaning, and why it was immediately met with such visceral backlash. Students, faculty, and staff in attendance agreed on Kaepernick’s right to peaceful dissent, but individuals’ reasons for supporting this right varied widely.

Some empathized with the idea that challenging the injustices minorities face on a daily basis doesn’t make one less of an American. Others saw taking a knee during the national anthem as an assertion of citizens’ rights to freedom of speech. One student asserted that, “[Kaepernick] doesn’t have to show respect for his country if his country’s not respecting him,” a statement that resonated strongly with the audience.

Furthermore, many who spoke felt that criticizing the appropriateness of the protest’s timing unfairly ignored the gravity of Kaepernick’s message. This shifted the group’s focus to the difficulties of spreading awareness about Black Lives Matter at Carnegie Mellon specifically, including instances such as students reacting negatively to posts on the Facebook group “Overheard at Carnegie Mellon” or painting the Fence. Duncan noted that this was, “such an important shift” in the conversation that “really gave people an opportunity to speak about things that had been on their mind for a long time.”

Eventually, this discussion began to focus on the black and African American communities’ lack of representation on campus. Indeed, the majority of the hands in the room were raised when one member of the University community asked frankly, “How many [people] are wondering why we have such low numbers of black and African American professors?” This query was quickly raised in relation to the Carnegie Mellon student body as well, and many speakers expressed that efforts to expand the black community would help foster much-needed discourse about these issues campus-wide.

However, speakers suggested that students’ unawareness of social justice issues ultimately stemmed from an intense focus on career-oriented goals instead of a desire to be active in a broader community. As Duncan said, “It’s so easy for us as an institution to focus on academics, but sometimes it’s important to take some time to reflect and talk about something else important.”

Several steps to combat these problems were suggested, including offering a Black Lives Matter class or designating a forum specifically to talk about related issues campus-wide. To promote some of this much-needed discourse about social justice, Duncan hopes that the “State of the University” series “will grow a bit more and include even more diversity, so we can all learn something new at each discussion.” The night’s consensus was that Carnegie Mellon students, faculty, and staff may not be able to take a knee, but they can definitely take a seat and start engaging in this conversation.