By: Tayo Clyburn, Ph.D., Chief Diversity Officer, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
My SMCM Community,
Once, when I was in graduate school, I was stopped by a police officer for driving too slowly through an economically privileged area of Columbus, Ohio. Per his request, I handed him my driver’s license and vehicle registration which he held unread in his hand while he questioned me. “Are you the owner of this vehicle?” he asked. “Did you steal this car? If you’re not the owner of this vehicle, you better tell me now because I can find out!” The officer’s questions didn’t make sense to me because I wasn’t a criminal looking for trouble. I was a student with a bad sense of direction, driving a few miles under the speed limit in an effort to find the restaurant where my friend was having her going away party. I sat in stunned silence, momentarily unable to speak because it was clear that though the officer was looking at me, he was seeing someone else. Finally, I said, “Sir, I really don’t know what information to give you other than what you’ve asked for.” Having learned not to take my hands off of the steering wheel, I nodded towards his hand, “You have my registration there. If you’ll just look, you’ll see the car is mine.”
Thankfully, my encounter with the officer ended with directions to the restaurant, but it was deeply troubling to me. In the seconds between my handing him my ID and registration and his finally reading them, I felt helplessly invisible and completely at the mercy of someone else’s gross misperception of me. In so many ways my experience of those seconds shaped my understanding of my humanity as a black person in relation to power structures, institutions, and their agents. The events of the last few months, weeks, and days have pushed to the top of social media threads evidence of disparities that have always existed. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority communities is demonstrative of a gaping chasm in racial group health outcomes, and the wave of protests sweeping across the nation is an effort to make legible the visceral experience of the devaluation and invisibility of Black humanity of which the over policing of Black bodies is a symptom.
As so many of you, my heart aches over the loss of George Floyd (and Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Charleena Lyles, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Amadou Diallo and so many others). And as so many of you, I find myself in deep reflection, trying to understand where I fit in this picture and what I can do to bring about transformational change so that when the fires are quelled, we’re standing at least a few inches closer to the nation we aspire to be. I count myself fortunate to be a part of a college of community during this time because these are the spaces where much foundational work to dismantle structural racism begins. The learning, sharing, and mentoring that happens within a campus community has the power to contribute to broader transformative change if we are willing to be intentional in addressing equity-centered questions in our research, in our curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular engagements, and in our day-to-day activities. We have to use our power as an institution to contribute to the change that we want to see.
Being a part of the SMCM community, working with our faculty, staff, and students is what keeps me connected to hope – that elusive trickster. As poet Eduardo Galeano writes, “For me, hope is something I have when I wake up, that I lose during breakfast and find again when the sun shines on me on the street, and then after walking a while, it falls again through some hole in my pocket. And I ask myself: ‘Where did hope end up?’ And I search for it and don’t find it. And then, straining my ears, I hear it there, croaking like a miniscule frog, calling me from all of the grasses.”
Join me in the grasses.
Tayo Clyburn, PhD (Pronouns: He, Him, His)
Vice President for Inclusive Diversity and Equity
Chief Diversity Officer
St. Mary’s College of Maryland