Thousands-strong protests in major cities and predominantly white towns commanding the nation’s attention. #BlackLivesMatter trending on social media.
Shouts of “I can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace.” Celebrities, professional athletes, politicians and university presidents making statements of outrage and deep sadness about the killings of countless Black Americans.
These are all marks of the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement — spurred on by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among many others.
But for OU Black Emergency Response Team co-directors Jamelia Reed and D’India Brown, the growth of the movement in recent weeks has been “bittersweet.”
“We love the exposure on racial injustices and support,” said Brown, a psychology sophomore minoring in African and African American studies and women's and gender studies. “… But at the same time, it’s just kind of crazy that it kind of took this long to get this type of exposure. And for some people, these things just started happening, but in the eyes of Black people, this is just the way things have been since the beginning.”
Reed said the Black Lives Matter movement has seen success in recent weeks, but advocates shouldn’t let that distract them from other, larger issues.
“Although I guess we finally have called … national attention to what has happened, you still see a bigger problem that still lies ahead,” Reed, an African and African American studies senior said. “Now, by no means is this a shot to the Black Lives Matter movement. I love it. I’m a part of it. But we have to really look at it.”
BERT was founded by the Black Student Association four days after the first of multiple blackface incidents in January 2019 to respond to “any racial incidents in the future and play a strategic role in making the University of Oklahoma a more inclusive environment,” according to a press release. Headed last year by Reed and now-OU graduate Miles Francisco, the group is now made up of Reed, Brown and a team of 12 others — including public relations, recruitment and retention, and local and university grievances representatives.
According to the fall 2019 OU Factbook, 1,429 Black students were enrolled at the Norman campus, making up only 5.1 percent of the student population. By contrast, white students made up 58.3 percent of the student population that semester.
As more and more become aware of the systemic racism that has plagued Black Americans for centuries, Brown said BERT’s ultimate goal is keeping the Black community safe and unified.
‘It takes a social change for us all to actually believe in this diversity, inclusion and equity.’
When it comes to BERT’s presence at OU this school year, Reed said their priority “will always be, and forever be the Black community.”
Brown said BERT has been becoming more proactive than reactive, and they plan to continue that in coming months. She said the group plans to host more events, do workshops whenever possible, listen to the community’s needs and continue to deliver on the promises and mission established before.
Brown said the group also plans to seek more feedback from its community.
Reed said other priorities are offering diversity education that OU hasn’t “fully been able to put out yet” and having necessary discussions with administrators, faculty, staff and students, adding that a lot of learning can be done face-to-face through talking.
“It takes a social change for us all to actually believe in this diversity, inclusion and equity that we held so high,” Reed said. “… So … (we are) still prioritizing the Black community … as well as learning from our mistakes in the past and going forward.”
Since the group’s creation, the most well-known BERT members have been the co-directors, but Reed said the group hasn’t been restructured to add new positions. She said, instead, the group leaders are being more transparent about who holds each position.
The change stemmed from a desire for OU community members to know who’s part of BERT and who to “expect … to be changers, and (movers and shakers),” Reed said.
In February, BERT staged a three-day sit-in in Evans Hall calling for the firing of Provost Kyle Harper among other demands including the creation of a semester-long class in place of OU’s current diversity training. While administrators refused to fire Harper, they agreed to more measures to hold Harper accountable, and OU President Joseph Harroz pledged to meet with BERT members every two weeks.
Harper announced on June 17 he’d be stepping down from his position as provost and senior vice president and returning to a faculty position, effective July 1.
“Those are calls I look forward to, they’ve become friends of mine, and I think we understand each other and we have a common goal of accomplishing these,” Harroz said in a June interview. “... It’s things that we want to talk about, (that) we think make a real change. So it is continuing, it is essential, and I think it’s an important part of those real policy changes — it’ll make a difference.”
For the time being, BERT is “pretty satisfied” with the changes resulting from the Evans Hall sit-in, Brown said, although she said progress has been slowed more than she’d like because of COVID-19 and other factors.
Reed said she has seen attitudes in many groups change toward race, with more people becoming better informed about the reality of being Black in America.
“We are seeing, with response to recent national news and even now, international news … more awakening and understanding of what the Black experience is, especially on college campuses,” Reed said, “And we’re seeing a lot more outreach, as well as students becoming more aware of what’s going on and becoming more culturally competent.”
Reed said since BERT started, she’s seen more people speaking up when they see something wrong in the Black community and other groups. She said she’s also seen a lot more improvement, unity and hope in the Black community.
“I’m always more than happy to see the successful Black community,” Reed said.
‘If I never really tried to make change, then am I really an activist?’
However, Brown said if there are so many supposed allies to the Black community, racism shouldn’t be so prevalent still. Reed said people can’t accurately call themselves activists if they’re not there to do the work.
“If I say, ‘Oh yes, I’m an activist,’ … if I never really tried to make change, then am I really an activist?” Reed said.
Brown said a lot of people are overwhelmed at the thought of doing the work, but true activism comes down to making an impact in individual areas of influence and self-evaluating acts of racism. She said an officer kneeling on an innocent Black man’s neck is obvious racism, but there are different levels of racial injustice.
“We’re not asking everybody to be a bunch of baby (Martin Luther King Jr.’s) or Malcolm X’s,” Brown said. “We’re not asking for that. We’re asking you to check your dad whenever he makes a racist remark about a Black boy that you saw on the street. … We’re just asking you to check your heterosexual guy friend whenever he makes a homophobic remark — just simple things like that that everybody can do.”
Reed said in some cases, allyship to the Black community lacks intersectionality. The cries of justice for killed Black women often haven’t been as strong as they are for killed Black men, she said, even though Black women have historically carried the Black community on their backs.
Especially as a woman and a “queer Black person,” Reed said it’s painful to see that Taylor’s case and similar cases of other Black women don’t get as much attention.
The energy of Black Lives Matter protesters also doesn’t extend to LGBTQ+ victims, Reed said. She pointed to the killing of Tony McDade in Florida, a Black transgender man, adding that “we barely hear a word” about his death.
“How can you say our Black lives matter, but you treat two marginalized groups within the group in such a way,” Reed said. “And I think that not only calls out the Black community, but it also calls out the intentions of people who call themselves feminists or these people who believe in equality of the sexes, especially white women.”
Reed said BERT is focused on intersectional activism, which she described as believing that if activists fight for one marginalized group, they have to fight for others, too. She said activism isn’t a one-and-done act, but something that evolves and continues.
“You have to fight for all, and not just the Black issues, but ... the issues that affect the Latinx community and the international students and other students, as well as other marginalized communities,” Reed said, “because you understand that this fight is not only us — it’s not only us. And the fight is not only for us. Yes, this is our name this time. But who knows next week, next week I’m going to be fighting for DACA … or for gay rights. We don’t know what’s next. But we do know that we need to stand together. And that’s what’s been beautiful … as well as tough and hard to see.”
A ‘double-sided’ movement
Reed and Brown said there’s a lot of performative allyship among Black Lives Matter advocates, which has been tough to see and damaging to the movement.
“People are attracted to Black culture, everything around it, but when it comes to Black people, it’s a very different reaction,” Brown said. “They want our hair, they want our body, they want our lips, they want everything except us. And the fact that they can kind of double dutch between having whatever privilege that they have and then also taking part of our culture and our heritage and using that as decoration or as an accessory. It’s just definitely not cool and … definitely counterproductive.”
Brown said she hesitated to post anything related to Black Lives Matter on social media because she didn’t want to seem like she was “just following the crowd.”
“I would rather see people post this just regardless,” Brown said. “It doesn’t have to be Blackout Tuesday. I just want to see you keep that same energy on a Wednesday … next Wednesday, every day. I just want that to be consistent.”
Brown said one of her fears is that the Black community becomes “numb to making the headlines.” She also said every death of a Black American takes a different emotional toll on her.
More “subtle” racial injustices shouldn’t be overlooked because Black people are getting killed in the streets, Brown said — both must be dealt with.
Reed said the politicization of Black lives has also been counterproductive, calling it “the most incompetent argument I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“To see peers say ‘... this is a political issue’ … and … organizations going back and forth about (whether) they respond and how they respond, saying this is a political issue, I think is ridiculous,” Reed said. “Because in my opinion, Republicans and Democrats alike have proven over and over again that Black lives don’t matter.”
Brown said the Black community is more than grateful for all its true allies, but added that if they’re true allies, they’re “not looking for validation, or even recognition or awards.”
Reed said she’s seen plenty of people uniting around Black Lives Matter, but she’s also seen people take advantage of the movement to create chaos and blame the Black community.
“You have to sit with yourself and be like ‘Is it worth it?’ In my eyes, it is,” Reed said. “But you know, now people are like ‘My kids are terrified.’ I’ve been terrified since I was 3.”
She said the prominence of Black Lives Matter has had pros and cons. She said she’s glad the message behind the movement is finally becoming widely supported, but she’s also been more afraid to speak her mind, explaining she was scared when a police officer came into her work because she’s posted and said things he “probably wouldn’t agree with.”
“It’s a matter of ‘is this going to change the way we have life? Or is this going to make our lives better?’” Reed said. “I think we’re all sitting and waiting, and I think we’ll be sitting and waiting for a long time.”
All told, Reed described the Black Lives Matter movement as “double-sided.”
“I’m happy people have become more knowledgeable and more active and (are) speaking about the truth,” Reed said, “But at the same time I don’t know if it has become more dangerous or more safe to be a Black person in America right now — and not only that, (to) be able to speak your mind.”