When news first broke about racist graffiti being posted in one of the residence halls on Syracuse University’s campus, I wasn’t in New York. A new faculty member in the political science department, I had been traveling to back-to-back conferences around the country all semester.
Shortly after word spread, the usual tenor and frequency of notification emails from the Department of Public Safety sharply increased. Then, emails from deans and the chancellor became a daily, almost hourly, norm. The graffiti was just the beginning. Racist language and actions targeting Asian, Indigenous, Jewish and Black people were being discovered all across campus. A Jewish-Mexican faculty member even received a threatening email telling her to “get in the oven.” That same week, a white supremacist manifesto was sent via Airdrop (a means of sharing files between Apple devices) to students on campus. And, over the course of two weeks, a protest movement called #NotAgainSU had materialized in response.
All of this happened during my first three months as a tenure-track professor.
My initial reaction to the increase of racist acts on campus was to protect my students. I reached out to my teaching assistants and class to ensure that students were allowed any personal time or mental health days they needed to cope with the stress of campus life. I dedicated an entire class to talking about racism on campus, how we can each get involved and what it means to have a stake in these events even when those stakes aren’t totally clear. I canceled classes. I posted announcements. I extended office hours. I tweeted about my firsthand experiences with student concerns and the shift in energy on campus. I mobilized my network of colleagues and friends to provide food and support to student protesters. I joined students at the sit-in. I hugged them. I reassured them that we, as a university, would get through this together.
Then, I woke up on a frigid Tuesday morning, just a week or so before Thanksgiving, and I could barely get out of bed. Not only was I exhausted, burned out from the travel, teaching, organizing efforts and additional labor I had been performing, I was afraid. I was afraid to go to campus. As a Black, queer woman, one who is vocal about her radical political ideals on social media and in the classroom, I was afraid that I might be targeted for an attack. I was afraid for my partner and children. I was just afraid. And tired.
I couldn’t bring myself to go back to campus that day. So, I laid in my bed, sobbing.
That forced me to take a step back and recognize that, in rushing to care for my students, I was ignoring how deeply affected I had been by the events on campus. I centered my students so much that I lost sight of myself.
As faculty members during campus crises, we often take this stance. We go into survival mode, focusing on student needs ahead of our own. We neglect our research, our families, and, sometimes, our bodies to ensure students are cared for.
We do this because we, along with campus administrators, are responsible for our students’ safety; we are among the first responders. As campuses continue to slack on providing adequate therapy and counseling support or focused resources for students at multiple margins of identity, we often wear hats that we aren’t totally qualified to wear. For those professors and administrators whose personal identities and characteristics lie at the intersections of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability and class, we are frequently unequally burdened in providing care, emotional and physical labor, and other supports for vulnerable students who often have fewer resources available to them on predominantly white university campuses. This is the “invisible labor” we don’t get paid (or promoted) for.
For new professors like me, publicly and loudly supporting students also means working against the administration that pays me. These student protests, especially in the case of #NotAgainSU, often call for the resignation of senior-level campus officials. These are people who carry a lot more weight on campus than me. So, my fears aren’t just about physical safety.
Like many first-generation folks who hail from marginalized and underserved communities, I am vulnerable in my position on campus. My ability to feed myself, keep a roof over my head and support my family remains tethered to my ability to maintain a job. I am not independently wealthy, nor can I afford to jeopardize an employment package I worked so long to negotiate. But these are the risks of making institutional and systemic changes on campuses. Fighting may come with a price — one we, as faculty members, aren’t always willing (or able) to pay.
Unfortunately, my experience is not unique. College campuses like the University of Missouri, Harvard University, Yale University and the University of Texas at Austin have had highly publicized incidents of racist language and actions over recent years. In my estimation, many more will have these issues as we move forward.
Campuses are but microcosms of the larger societal environments which begot them. In the United States — a place established under colonial rule, sustained by Indigenous genocide and land pillaging, chattel bondage and slavery of Africans and Black Americans, and marked by the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, internment of Japanese immigrants and ongoing detention of Latinx immigrants on the United States-Mexico border — it is no surprise that college campuses remain a site of social and political contestation. Thus, students who are socialized into racist ideas, white privilege and their own entitlement will remain fixtures in higher education. This is America, after all.
We can’t end all of that at once. But we can certainly chip away at it with intention.
These events force us to confront the thin line between our beliefs and our practices. They force us, as faculty members, to make hard choices about how we will use our energy, what risks we are willing to take, what fears we will face and whether we have the strength to fight.
As I continue to navigate the protests and campus in the aftermath of this recent uptick in racism at Syracuse University, I may be afraid at times. I may even burn out. But fear is not enough to keep me from struggling for a more just campus environment. As a Black, queer, radical feminist, this is my praxis — theory and practice — and it requires that I show up for those most marginalized even when it poses a risk to myself and those I hold dear.
Jenn M. Jackson is an assistant professor at Syracuse University in the department of political science. Jackson’s research is in Black politics with a focus on group threat, gender and sexuality, public opinion, political psychology and behavior.