I attended this conference as a participant and this article includes my perspective.
The most important thing I took away from the UC Student Association (UCSA) Students of Color Conference (SoCC) last weekend was the importance of addressing the pervasiveness of anti-blackness in all communities of color in our discussions of liberation.
But I did not learn this through conference leaders. I learned this because Black students had to organize and demand that it be addressed, themselves.
Anti-blackness is the continued and systemic oppression of Black people in order to maintain white systems of power. It perpetually situates Black people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and as the basis of racism in this country, it is present in all forms of oppression.
“Black liberation will not only liberate the Black community, but all communities of color. The ongoing topic of SoCC tends to be combating anti-blackness, yet anti-blackness is never addressed,” said Shania Anderson, a UC Santa Cruz Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC) chair who attended SoCC, in an email. “The subject is tiptoed around and results in an ‘all lives matter’ conversation, but is never fully addressed and deconstructed. Anti-blackness has roots in ALL communities and therefore needs to be addressed.”
SoCC was established 30 years ago to provide a space for students of color to strategize actions and build coalitions across UC campuses and draws about 900 students each year. A delegation of about 80 student leaders from UCSC was selected to attend this year’s conference, held at UC Riverside on Jan. 26-28. The weekend’s program featured keynote speaker Dr. Melissa Crum, founder of Mosaic Education Network, and included identity-specific caucuses and workshops surrounding this year’s theme of educational justice.
Unfortunately, because the conference was of generally disorganized and neglected to address anti-blackness, it was unable to deconstruct the roots of educational injustice, its theme, in a productive way. SoCC dismissed the reality of Black students, and in doing so, deterred all of our collective liberation as people of color.
AVOIDING THE ISSUE
SoCC’s failure to address anti-blackness is a recurring issue. Last year’s conference, held at UC Irvine (UCI), was heavily criticized and failed to address it even though it was that year’s theme.
Discussions ended up as “oppression olympics” — with people of different identities debating whose liberation is more important — because the conference didn’t first acknowledge anti-blackness as the root of their collective issues. Many left the conference early, feeling uncomfortable, said Katherine Lê, Student Union Assembly’s (SUA) vice president of diversity and inclusion and organizer for the UCSC delegation.
Though this year’s conference was less disorganized, Black student attendees still had to demand anti-blackness be addressed because organizers failed to include it in facilitated conversations.
“As a Black student, it was very disappointing to see that we still have to go through the labor of justifying our humanity every single time,” said Reed Asselbaye, SUA Office of Diversity and Inclusion Resource Center coordinator and UCSC delegation organizer. “We still have to go through the labor of telling other people of color that we’re also fighting for them. […] We’re constantly the ones that have to spearhead issues and we shouldn’t have to do that.”
Conversation and collective frustration began on Saturday morning during the men of color caucus, which was organized by conference participants the day of. A Black male student from UCI brought up the importance of deconstructing anti-blackness and hierarchies of hypermasculinity within each community. His remarks were repeatedly ignored. The women of color caucus also saw a similar lack of recognition of anti-blackness, said Shania Anderson, UCSC ABC chair and Black Student Union member.
Black students then created their own impromptu caucus during the lunch break to discuss how to combat anti-blackness evident in these spaces, how Blackness is the center of liberation for all people of color and how SoCC continued to disregard the narratives of Black students.
The caucus group drafted a set of demands regarding how SoCC can improve to benefit its participants and about 20 students presented them to the UCSA board, which funds the conference, on Saturday night.
“[The organizers] didn’t know how to address [anti-blackness] until [Black students] came and told us what was wrong, what demands they had,” said UCSA president and SUA external affairs vice president Judith Gutierrez. She expressed remorse that students had to demand anti-blackness be addressed.
The students also requested an apology, which students who attended said took over an hour to receive from UCSA because of bureaucratic processes.
“The apology presented by UCSA was apathetic, done only pro forma and suited only to temporarily patch a problem that needs much more effort to repair,” Shania Anderson said.
On Sunday morning, the UCSA executive board presented the official apology for the lack of discussion surrounding anti-blackness. The board also encouraged students to attend an impromptu workshop discussing anti-blackness and invited Black participants to briefly discuss the importance of deconstructing anti-blackness in front of conference participants.
“Any time we have any type of conference, any type of workshop, any type of anything dealing with racism in this country, the first thing we need to point out every single time, is that American racism is built on anti-black racism,” said a Black student from UC Berkeley who volunteered to speak. “[…] There are other elements built upon that base, and unless we destroy that base, we’re all going to be affected by the branches.”
UCSA’s executive committee will be meeting again later this week to discuss the demands of the Black caucus that was present and what it can do differently in future years. The Black caucus is working to make sure their demands are implemented as well.
“What happened at SoCC was only the first step to fighting a deep-rooted issue,” Shania Anderson said in an email. “To those reading this, I urge you to do your own research and educate yourselves and your communities so that anti-blackness can be demolished.”
MOVING FORWARD FROM SoCC
Due to the disorganization and problematic nature of the conference, most of UCSC’s delegation left midday Sunday. Our delegation organizers held an in-person debrief session this week focused on how our delegation can bring what we learned at SoCC back to our respective spaces and reflect on the weekend.
“Despite the circumstances we were given, the extremity of the situation gave me a lot of time to reflect on my position as an organizer for UCSC and what I can do as an accomplice to address these issues that came up in the conference,” said Katherine Lê, SUA vice president of diversity and UCSC delegation organizer.
As an Asian- American participant of the conference, I plan to bring these discussions of anti-blackness back to my community at UCSC, as it is an incredibly pervasive issue in the Asian American/Pacific Islander community. The more people of color who understand that actively combating anti-blackness is the key to our collective liberation, the faster we will achieve it.