Dozens of students crowded into the main lobby of Trotter Multicultural Center on Thursday for “I’m Black and…” — an open discussion that parsed the various cultural, ethnic and sexual identities within the Black community.
Hosted by the Black Student Union, the forum was geared toward educating students on intersectionality — the concept of recognizing the interconnections between identities, particularly when it comes to discrimination.
Public Policy senior Hattie McKinney, BSU vice-speaker, began the conversation by asking attendees how they would define being Black.
While some attendees said Blackness is defined by music, dance, hair or fashion, LSA sophomore Shavon Edwards said she feels Blackness is often misdefined by people within the Black community.
“I feel like a lot of people in our culture define Blackness in terms of a textbook definition and by history, and as we all know, history is never told in our favor,” she said. “When we are describing what Black should be, we should not base it off of books or how other people told us how we were at that time. For us to progress as a people, we need to come up with our own definition of what Black is.”
McKinney then extended the question and asked attendees to think about what it means to be a Black student at the University.
Some attendees said it means to be from Detroit and to be attending the University on a need-based scholarship. One student said it means to be the sole liaison to the Black community when any Black subject is being discussed in class.
LSA senior Chris James, BSU executive board member, said there should be no definition or stereotype of what it means to be Black at the University.
“There is no fit definition of what Black is,” he said. “When you go into the real world, the first thing people are going to see is that you’re Black. They’re not going to see what comes along with that. Being Black can encompass so many other cultures and heritages and identities.”
LSA junior Travis Jones III recounted the shootings of unarmed Black men by police officers in Staten Island, N.Y., and Ferguson, Mo. last year. After those incidents, he said, Black men were often painted as thugs.
“That is a major stereotype in which people who are not in (the) culture have now used to describe us,” he said. “It’s really important that we understand these stereotypes because they’re using them against us and we don’t do anything about it. We all need to take action.”
A portion of the discussion was also dedicated to thinking about how diverse sexualities fit within the Black community.
BSU Speaker Capri'Nara Kendall, a Kinesiology senior, said she believes the Black community is generally not accepting of the LGBTQ community.
“I feel sometimes people that identify as LGBTQ are often outcasted in the Black community,” she said. “I feel like heterosexual Black men tend to shy away from gay Black men because they don’t want to be associated with it. We as a community need to be more embracive of it so people that are afraid to come out feel comfortable and know that even though they are different, they will be accepted, because we all have differences that set us apart.”
LSA senior Lawrielle West said it’s important to remember that attacks against the Black LGBTQ community can also come in the form of microaggressions.
“Discrimination and making people uncomfortable isn’t always blatant,” she said. “We just have to be careful in our language and be aware that not everyone in our community will have heteronormative identities.”
Trey Boynton, director of the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, said learning to listen to the LGBTQ community is vital in building connections with them.
“What it would be like if we said, ‘Trans community, come on. Let’s do this together, let’s talk about gayness and gay marriage’?” she asked. “This intersectionality conversation is so important because it’s all connected, the hate, the laws, the systems. If we approach this issue from that way, we can all connect.”
LSA senior Cooper Charlton, Central Student Government president, was also present at the discussion Thursday. In an interview with the Daily after the forum, Charlton said the event was helpful in forming individual connections.
“I think that last year, the Central Student Government didn’t do the best job of reaching out,” Charlton said. “It’s all about connections. I think the connections and getting to know people through personal relationships really comes down to personal interaction. I don’t think it’s fair for me to sit in chambers and make these constrictions of what the campus needs. I want to do that with others.”
In an interview after the forum, McKinney said she hopes students will now take more ownership over their own identities.
“I hope that students take away that can be who they are,” she said. “We fill in what we want to be and we can defy stereotypes, we decide our presents and our futures.”