One week after campus descended into chaos in response to Allen West’s controversial speech, “America is not Racist — Why American Values are Exceptional,” UB’s Black Student Union held a “town hall” meeting Monday to discuss the aftermath of that day.
The meeting provided a forum for members to discuss their emotions regarding West’s speech and devise a plan for improving UB’s campus for marginalized communities. While there haven’t been any large protests since the event, members say their work is far from over. The meeting started off with what was originally supposed to be a 15-minute open floor discussion for members to provide their unfiltered feelings and opinions. BSU President Josephina Nimarko, Vice President Sanyia Julie, Treasurer Nakkia Smalls and Secretary Taylor Lewis all stood at the front of the room, moderating these tense conversations.
Lewis, a sophomore political science major, says the meeting was designed this way in an effort to provide a safe space for members to open up about their emotions without judgment.
Showing little hesitance, members quickly began raising their hands in classroom-like fashion, waiting for their turn to speak. After 45 minutes of heated debate and vulnerability, it became clear that emotions were running high and an hour would not be enough time for everyone to speak.
Lewis says trying to navigate her place on campus and figure out what to do with her complicated emotions regarding West’s speech and its aftermath have been difficult for her personally.
“I feel weird,” Lewis said. “I know that’s kind of a weird thing to say, but I’m in a space where I’m just trying to internalize it and understand everything that’s happened. I’m also trying to figure out where my place is — not only as a member of BSU but just as a human being here on this campus, so that I can eventually move forward.”
Lewis is not the only one feeling a rollercoaster of emotions. BSU members used the meeting to express that they were concerned for their safety following the demonstration and the Yik Yak threats, which referred to the protesters as “target practice.” Members also described feeling “exhausted,” “angry” and “overwhelmed” during the forum.
J Coley, a grad student studying sociology and president of the Graduate Student Association, is among the “exhausted” members. Coley says that after seven years of attending UB and being a devoted member of BSU, they have seen many different protests over the same issue — racism.
“This is not the first time someone like this has been invited to speak [on campus],” Coley told The Spectrum. “I’m just exhausted. I’m trying my best to use these feelings and turn them into something productive, but something that Black students need to remember is that it’s not our job to fix the issues here on campus. UB isn’t paying us to protest, or paying us for the labor we are doing to make UB a more inclusive place. At the end of the day, it is not our responsibility. The administration gets paid to do stuff like this. Remember, we pay their bills. They need to get up and do something. BSU does a lot for this campus and the university should recognize that.”
GSA released a statement on April 11 emphasizing that it stands “in solidarity with Black and POC students at UB” and “condemns the anti-Black hate speech promoted by Allen West’s presence on campus on April 7, 2022, as well as the attacks on Black and POC student protesters the same day.”
Students also expressed their opinions on West’s speech through short essays that they later posted on social media. Students described feeling “ignored” and demanded that the university take action.
“We must bring attention to the need for Black and minority students to be heard and respected,” Morgan Ross, a sophomore communication major who attended the BSU meeting, said in an Instagram post on her personal account. “While we are allowed to disagree on political views, we must acknowledge the harm in invalidating Black students and Black people across the U.S. We deserve better from our university.”
Smitty Smith, a senior history and administration major and BSU member, says there are ways UB can uphold the rights to assembly and speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, without disrespecting marginalized groups.
“I feel like everyone should have the right to freedom of speech, but the person you invite to speak and you give that platform to matters,” Smith told The Spectrum. “Representation is bigger than what types of food you put in front of us and the concerts you throw, or like extending financial aid — we need to actually be representing diversity in terms of teachers and protect minority students by not inviting people like Lt. Col. Allen West to come speak at the school.”
Smith emphasizes what he sees as UB’s hypocrisy and hesitance to stand up for Black students and other students of color.
“It’s all definitely concerning, going to a PWI [primarily white institution] that markets diversity,” Smith said. “The school puts students who look like me on the pamphlets and they got us on the posters, commercials and videos — saying, ‘Hey look, we’re diverse,’ and then they slap us in the face by inviting someone to speak who invalidates experiences about racism and discrimination. He [West] just came here saying that racism isn’t real. They’re not respecting students of color the way they should be.”
After over an hour of discussion and debate, BSU members were unable to construct a concrete solution to solve these complicated issues.
But there appears to be a desire for further action among rank-and-file BSU members.
“Racism does not end,” James Resnick, a senior history major and BSU member, told The Spectrum. “Like any idea, it just keeps taking a new form. That’s why we need to get politically active and have our own opinions.”
Allen Williams, the program coordinator for the Intercultural Diversity Center, told students that the IDC was there to support them and that it’s not students’ responsibility to change campus — they just have to get administrators to listen to them.
The e-board sent out an exit form to BSU members at the end of the meeting, to ensure that everyone got a chance to “give prescription” on what BSU should do moving forward.
“This is just the first step to many more steps to debunk all the microaggressions, racism, prejudice, everything on our campus,” Julie said.
The town hall was streamed on BSU’s Instagram account and can be watched here.
Kayla Estrada is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kayla Estrada is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum. She is an English major who enjoys rainy weather, “Bob’s Burgers” and asking people who they voted for. When she’s not writing, she can be found hunting for odd-looking knick-knacks at the nearest thrift store.