An Unapologetically Black Space

by Johnnette Johnson

Johnnette Johnson is a rising senior from Marksville, Louisiana majoring in American Studies and French. Though her journey with the Race & Racism Project only began this summer, she has been involved in racial justice and community work since her matriculation at UR. A peer mentor and UR Downtown ambassador, when she’s not on campus or with family she’s out enjoying nature. She hopes to continue doing the work of commemorative justice and collective healing.

Black alumnus Stan Jones’ (’83) words rung in my ears as I sat in front of the university’s commons.

“Where I come from, you recognize humanity.”

I remember my first stay at UR. It was during what they now call MOVE, the Multicultural Overnight Visitation Experience. The weekend was one where many prospective students of color and their hosts flooded campus – the flood being low-level but a flood nonetheless.

Far from the University of Richmond’s reality, black and brown smiles were everywhere. That initial feeling of warmth and belonging is what that drew me in, but my financial aid package is what secured my place at the school. Not having to ask my parents for money was a huge relief for me.

Fast-forward to my arrival on campus. MOVE’s fantasy bubble of a weekend bursted. Surrounded by white students and their macbooks, I was the only black student in most of my courses. Four professors yet only one professor who sort of looked like me. Three years later and change is only microscopic.

A black intellectual at a predominately white-institution, I actively complain about the dominance of white culture and white people on campus. Representation matters, but what’s really missing is a deeper sense of connection and belonging for students of color.

Where I come from, you recognize humanity.

-Stan Jones (R-1983)

In an interview conducted by Ayele d’Almedia (’20) and Jacob Roberson (’19), Mr. Jones recalled this same sense of alienation on campus. “… it wasn’t a lot of things on campus in terms of social outlet–dances, or parties or anything like that–where you really felt you belonged. You just happened to hear about it, so you just went over there. But…nobody invited you, you just kind of hung out.”

The interview was still playing on my laptop when I heard a UR tour guide and her group approaching the area where I was perched.

As I sat and listened to Mr. Jones, the tour guide decided to stop right in front of me to give her pitch on campus security to prospective students and their parents. I was initially confused as to why they would consciously disturb my peace when they could have easily stopped elsewhere on the same corridor, but now I understand. They did not see me.

My existence, my humanity was not acknowledged. Neither the tour guide nor a person in the tour group took one second to think about how they might have disturbed me. It’s this invisibility, manifesting itself in various forms, that alienates us from campus life.

In Abby Muthoni’s (’19) documentary “DivURse: A Black Student Experience,” B-School student PJ (’19) says when she sits in her classes other students move away from her instead of engaging. I also recall a friend of mine, Indira Cruz (’18) saying that one of her B-school professors would actually avoid her hand if she had it raised to answer a question. Alumnus James Reed (’81) admits, like many of today’s students of color, that this social life mainly existed off-campus. These moments of alienation are not to be taken lightly. They have the potential to accumulate in our psyches and rest there as contributions to an unbalanced mental health.

“Every human being needs to belong to a space and a place” are the words of my mentor, ProfSi or Dr. Andrea Simpson. Working with Race & Racism this summer is, for me, a manifestation of that black space –an unapologetically black space. I call it unapologetic because it’s time for us to stop being so timid about the reality of our situation. As real stakeholders in this institution, let us call out its patriarchal, capitalist, racist nature for what it is.

Our mental health depends on the sustainable creation of our own spaces and places of being. Rather than waiting to be acknowledged by others, we must acknowledge and check in with one another.

Unless the goal is a symbolic gesture displaying UR’s “diversity,” people of color barely appear as active agents in the university’s kept history or any other published space. Gone are the days where I wait patiently for the university to bring justice to this malpractice. I will instead use my energy to hold space for us be it in the archive or in real life.