September 21, 2020

Unraveling Our Truth in Real Time

Enslaved Laborers Memorial

As a 19-year-old intern, I was harassed by a fellow employee who worked on the team to which I was assigned. When I realized what was happening, I created an elaborate process for how I was never going to be alone with him, not in the audit room, not in a car, and never at night in the office.

The mental energy that was required to get the work done, do a good job, and maintain this constructed scaffolding was exhausting. I eventually told my parents, who helped me report my experience, and it was addressed. The partner and HR professional assured me that this was not reflective of the firm at large. They listed out for me all that they had been doing to support women, which included a list of their female staff members who were at or above the level of manager.

At that time, the workplace was not what it is today; women who reported these sorts of experiences were not celebrated. Before and after I made the report, my center of gravity was thrown off. I didn’t know why a group of employees stopped laughing when I entered the room, why that person looked at me that way, why I was assigned to a less-than-desirable client, or why I did not receive an offer to return the following year. The automatic trust that I brought to my first “real” job had evaporated. I became very wary.

In the last week, a similar situation occurred here on Grounds. As backdrop, at the end of the previous week, the Board of Visitors endorsed the recommendations made by the Racial Equity Task Force. On the following Monday, the National Pan-Hellenic Council—sororities and fraternities (affectionately known as the “Divine Nine”) with members who are predominately Black—held an online information session for new students. At that virtual event, a racial slur was shouted and prominently displayed on the shared screen. When the announcement came from the University detailing this and related events, I was really surprised. In the last year, UVA completed construction of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, and less than 72 hours prior to this occurrence, the Board had endorsed the Racial Equity Task Force’s recommendations. The cognitive dissonance induced by these two incidences was mind-blowing.

It has been a long time since I was an undergraduate, but I can imagine that students of color, Black students, must have had their center of gravity thrown off. As they, and in many regards I, walk across Grounds, interact with others, and endeavor to do all of the things that are expected and required, we have to construct a scaffolding to ward off, not a known assailant, but one who is unknown. The mental energy that is required to get the work done and do a good job while maintaining this constructed scaffolding is exhausting.

To our McIntire students, I said, “The hard part is wondering—as you walk across Grounds, interact with classmates, and try to move on with your everyday life—who exactly are the people you are encountering. What are they about to say or do, what do they really think about me, and am I safe in this place?”

My heart breaks knowing that what happened last Monday is likely not the last event of this type that these students will personally experience. While the implementation of the Task Force recommendations is a promising advancement for our community, the lived experience of historically marginalized people results in bigger and more complex scaffolding being built. Unlike the evolution we have had with gender equality in the workplace, we are a long way from understanding and recognizing the shared trauma that we all experience when we are told one thing—that you belong, that you are welcome, that you can succeed here—and experience something completely different.

At the same time, I am not without hope. I would not be at the University of Virginia if I did not believe in our ability to provide all students with the support they need to successfully navigate and thrive in the midst of challenging situations. On December 27, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following to abolitionist William Roscoe:

“This [his] institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here, we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

It is this perspective that we must hold on to. A long view that recognizes that institutions of higher education are unraveling our truth in real time and pressing with our collective might toward a notion of common good. There are starts and fits along this journey, but like Martin Luther King, I believe that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As UVA traverses that arc, we have bravely faced a complicated origin story and have cast a vision of being both great and good that is seeping into our collective DNA. As our walk catches up to our talk, we must all stand in the gap to fill up the space to ensure that both the goodness and greatness remain firmly rooted in who we are.

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