A Call To Action: What It Means to Be Black at PC

by Kyle Burgess on September 3, 2020


by Kyle Burgess ’21

News Co-Editor

In early July, the Instagram account @BlackAtPC uploaded its first post. As of September 2, 2020, @BlackAtPC has nearly 3,000 followers and over 100 posts anonymously sharing the experiences and concerns of former, current, and future BIPOC Friars. The posts elucidate what it is like to be BIPOC on Providence College’s campus. The administrator also has several posts dedicated to calls to action for members of the PC community, which can be found under the “calls to action” section of its Instagram story highlights. The overall response to the account has been positive, but  the account has received and documented a number of hateful anonymous submissions. 

The Cowl was able to interview the administrator of @BlackAtPC. What follows is a transcript of the interview, conducted by Kyle Burgess ’21. Meghan Connors ’21 previously interviewed the administrator of @BlackAtPC for the Providence College Odyssey; you can find this interview on the PC Odyssey website. Submissions to @BlackAtPC can be sent via DM on Instagram or anonymously via www.bit.ly/BlackAtPC. 

What was the inspiration for making an Instagram account dedicated to BIPOC students and their discriminatory experiences as PC students?

I was prompted to create the @Black At PC account when there was an emergence of these types of accounts for high schools and colleges across the country, and I noticed that there had not yet been one created for PC. The @BlackAt accounts, as far as I can see, began as part of the response to the murder and modern day lynching of George Floyd. 

In my view, these accounts represent the need for educational institutions and society as a whole to understand that, as horrific and brutal and reprehensible as those acts of racism are, these types of murders are far from the only forms of racism. Racism takes many shapes and forms. Many people think racism is just about extremist groups like the KKK. However, racism is not just the most extreme and intentional words and actions. In reality, racism includes, (and is more so about), the everyday, interpersonal actions and interactions and messages that BIPOC receive from society, media, politicians, and sadly our very own professors, mentors, and peers. Many of these interactions negatively and wrongly affect, define, and hurt us. They tell us we don’t belong or we aren’t intelligent, worthy, respectable, or capable because of our skin colors.

 My initial intent was to give BIPOC students, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the PC community a chance to share their experiences with racism at PC—stories they may not have felt comfortable or been able to share before, that may have been silenced, laughed at, ignored, or not properly handled. The intention was also to gather enough voices, stories, and followers to organize and call for specific actions and policies that PC should take at institutional and individual levels in order to combat the forms of racism that take place at PC.

 As a BIPOC member of the PC community, I  have both personally experienced and witnessed dozens of interpersonal and institutional acts of racism. I know PC and all institutions of higher education and organizations struggle with these issues, and I also know that while PC is sincerely trying and making progress in some areas, it is also struggling and falling short in many other ways. We can and should look at how much the institution has grown in the past decade compared to where it once was, in particular under the leadership of Fr. Brian Shanley, O.P. who has done so much for the institution as a whole, specifically on this issue. 

While I do have criticisms of some of his approaches and actions, I also believe that it is possible to both criticize and address areas that need improvement and also recognize and celebrate the progress that has been made. This duality of any person, place, or being is the very nature of the Veritas we claim as our motto and it requires each and every one of us as part of this community and family to live out what this means in every moment of every day.

How active have faculty been in sharing their stories compared to PC students? Are more alumni reaching out as well?

We have had several dozen submissions from different generations of alumni. We have also received some stories from faculty and staff who identify as BIPOC. While our account is open to submissions from any and all BIPOC-identifying members of our community, past and present, the majority of our responses thus far have come from current students and class of 2020 graduates.

 What do you view as the end goal of this account and also for systemic changes within the PC community?

This will depend on what unfolds in the coming months and year. Specifically, this will revolve around how PC will act and if/how individuals decide to take ownership and accountability for seeing racism as an issue that all must address. For the time being, I will continue to post stories as they are shared, respond to direct messages, inquiries, concerns, and things people want to talk through, respond to invitations for collaborating or brainstorming on emails and comments on posts as I’m able to and as the needs emerge, and advocate for what I believe (based on what I’m observing about comments, private messages, patterns and trends in stories, etc.) are important steps for PC to take. The goal of this account is two-fold: provide an avenue for BIPOC members of our community to have their stories heard and validate and to both advocate for and provide concrete suggestions and plans to address the forms of racism that come up at PC. Anything beyond that will be determined as things unfold.

What can PC students do to bring attention to discrimination towards BIPOC students (implicit and explicit) here at the College?

The typical strategy at many colleges is to host public events or discussions and issue public statements condemning racism. While this is certainly an important element of addressing racism, many efforts often stop here, barely touching the surface of addressing the issue. What is most important is to regularly have and institutionalize conversations around racism, implicit bias awareness programs, and training for our community on how to be active bystanders with friends, classmates, roommates, teammates, and others. Student organizations, as well as academic departments and administrative circles, must have ongoing conversations about this and learn how to check themselves and one another about implicit bias manifesting in how they interact with BIPOC (this, and the fact that white people do not step in to challenge implicit biases when they occur, is a huge part of the problem).

 Take a look at the type of stories that this account is highlighting. The vast majority of instances are interpersonal interactions in which a white member of our community is engaging with our BIPOC Friars in a racist way. This is where much of the change needs to happen. This is also where we need intervention and action. We need to have more members of our community step up and intervene when racism occurs. This can happen by training and educating every Friar to be an active bystander just as intensely as we train and educate them to think, engage, and reflect critically. This is what a liberal arts education is about. If we do not train and educate students to do this, we are failing them not just in their time at PC and once they graduate and move into the next phases of their personal and professional lives, but we are also failing them in what it means to live a life that is characterized by truth, love, and charity. These are values we claim to practice and advocate for as an institution proclaiming the name of the Catholic Church and of Jesus Christ. We need to do more to live this out. This should be our focus all day, every day, in every moment.

It is also important to set up systems and structures for accountability such that if a professor, student leader, staff member, or any student harms another person on the basis of race or any other marginalized identity,  they are held accountable and provided an opportunity to learn from their mistake and rectify the situation. If the student is not willing to do the latter, they should face consequences to their actions. The reason why we have hundreds of thousands of instances of racism on campus is because people are not held accountable.

 The administrator of @BlackatPC provided further information regarding the account’s views on communication and collaboration, action, and censorship.

On Communication and Collaboration:

I have been communicating, brainstorming, and strategizing with several departments, faculty, students, and student organizations about how to best go about addressing the concerns that this account is raising whether in the community at large or in their specific area of focus. I am always happy, ready, and willing to engage in those conversations via DM on Instagram or email at BlackAtPC@gmail.com and plan to do more outreach on this front later on. I also vow that if mistakes are made or if something is said or done in such conversations that are misinformed and/or harmful, I will keep such conversations private so long as people are open, sincere, and willing to engage. The goal here is reconciliation and healing, not shaming and cancelling.

 On Censorship:

We do not censor anything here because we absolutely refuse to allow deniers of racism to use the claim of being censored as a reason to not address these issues. The only exceptions to this rule are direct, indirect, or personal threats to someone’s safety or the safety of someone else. Our goal here is accountability, justice, and reconciliation, not censorship, cancelling, or firing those who engage in racist language or behavior (so long as physical harm or threats of physical harm are not involved).

 While we understand the concerns and pain behind students’ calls for firing specific faculty members, this account does not support that, assuming direct threats or actions of physical harm are not being perpetrated. We do believe that there should be more accountability, processes, and consequences for faculty who are consistently reported for racist language and behaviors. One specific area in which PC must improve is developing these processes and creating a system that deals with reports of bias and provides accountability.

On Action:

@BlackAtPC’s Initial List of Proposed Action Items:

• The Office of Community Standards at PC does not seem to be up to par compared to our competitor institutions regarding racism and other incidents pertaining to race. I would suggest ramping up the efforts of this office, because once our policies are better enforced, I believe this will play a major role in minimizing incidents of racism amongst students.

• Provide implicit bias training for PC Public Safety, as many of the stories we have received detail how BIPOC are disproportionately targeted and harassed by Public Safety officers. This specifically has also been a longstanding issue of systemic racism at PC.

• Ensure that there is some form of accountability (not necessarily dismissal, except in extreme cases of harm and negligence) of faculty who are found to have multiple reports of racism against them.

• Establish mentoring programs and spaces for BIPOC faculty, staff, and alumni to connect and support one another and create pathways and connections for them to support BIPOC students.

• Ensure that the programming offices of PC Study Abroad and Internship List (SAIL), Campus Ministry, Orientation Leaders, Resident Assistants, media organizations, etc.) are provided with the tools, training, and confidence to address racism when they see it come up, and also so that they are self-aware and catch themselves when they inevitably act upon internalized racial biases and treat BIPOC differently compared to white individuals

• Include anti-racism requirements and expectations to any and all job postings and job descriptions for staff, faculty, and student employees

• Add a required seminar on anti-racism and diversity, equity, and inclusion for incoming freshmen in the same way that training modules are provided for alcohol consumption, sexual assault, etc.

• Commit to and actively create a more diverse leadership team at the executive levels, including the Board of Trustees

• Provide a replacement for the Balfour Center, which previously provided resources and textbooks for students of low-income backgrounds 

Ultimately, as powerful and important as every single voice represented on the account is, there is only so much this account can do. We need the President, Vice President, Provost, and Board of Trustees to provide specific action items, policies, practices, and programs that will continuously address these issues, not just when they flare up after specific events. I know personally that Fr. Sicard means well and that he is sincere and genuine in wanting to make real change and progress on these matters. It is important to follow up on that sincerity with policies and programs meet the needs and that this account is highlighting. Each of us has the choice each moment and each day to decide whether we will step up to do our part to fulfill the unmet needs and heal the pain that exists in our BIPOC students. As has been shown in the stories on this account, many choose instead to perpetuate, deflect, demean, or ignore these things. I am hopeful and confident that PC will choose to do the right thing and will come out on the right side of history.

“I am hopeful and confident that PC will choose to do the right thing and will come out on the right side of history.” Photo courtesy of BlackAtPC.