President Roberta Cordano referred to the Student Body Government/Black Student Union Town Hall as the primary reason why the Kappa Gamma fraternity was suspended. But was the Kappa Gamma fraternity the only topic discussed here? Let’s review what really happened. If you’re interested in seeing the video, it is currently available on Student Body Goverment – Gallaudet University facebook page. (To view video, click here) If they take down the video, please contact us and we will post our copy.
The following persons were present at the Town Hall: Andrew Wisniewski – SBG President (White Deaf man?), Tammy Wilson – SBG Member (White Deaf woman?), Karla Mendez-Guerrero – SBG Member (Latina Deaf woman?), Jerome Smith – Gallaudet University student & BSU Member (Black Deaf man), Faith Sanders – Gallaudet University student & BSU Member (Black hearing woman), Withemina Robinson – Gallaudet University student & BSU Member (Black Deaf woman), and ReNelle Baker – Gallaudet University alumni & former BSU Member (Black Deaf woman).
Theme #1: Policing ≠ Safety
Sanders challenges the assumption that policing is a necessary measure for community safety—because Gallaudet University has the Department of Public Safety (DPS), students “should” feel “safe” but in reality, Black students do not feel safe and it is more so true for Black Deaf students. Many of Sanders’ friends have shared traumatic experiences of police brutality with the DPS. Police brutality has been a constant issue and students have repeatedly made their grievances known, all to no effect.
Baker shared that at the beginning of the previous academic year, she tried to collaborate with Theodore Baran, the Director of DPS, for a #BlackLivesMatter Town Hall to address the Black Deaf community’s frustrations about their practices. Baran did not answer her repeated attempts of contact all year long, only to show up the last week for a class-related appearance and insist that DPS staff has taken cultural competency training and “learned a lot.” Baker pointed out that the chief issue with training is that DPS staff treat it as if it’s a to-do list that can be just crossed off before returning to business as normal. For DPS employees, what is taught in training does not get applied personally and professionally. Other than “cultural competency training,” what has the DPS really done all year long? Absolutely nothing.
Smith recounted his experience with DPS where he had a fight with a friend and an officer came. The officer body-slammed him and, in attempting to restrain him, placed a hand on his neck. As a reflexive response to the possibility that he could be choked, Smith shoved the officer off him. Just as Smith was walking away from the scene, the officer threatened him with pepper spray. Smith spent three nights in jail, and the officer did not face any consequences for his misconduct with Smith. Smith also mentioned that one factor of low graduation rates in Black Deaf students is the excessive number of PNG’s enforced against them, with some PNG’s lasting as long as 1-2 years, which is a blatant interference of their education.
The DPS has an established history of brutality and misconduct against Black Deaf students, largely because they know they can and will get away with it. Gallaudet University must make it mandatory for all student complaints of DPS incidents of misconduct to be investigated—especially if it is coming from a Black Deaf student—and put involved officers on unpaid administrative leave for the duration of the said investigation. It would be best for a neutral third party to conduct the investigations for impartiality, one that does not have a conflict of interest. Enforcing consequences is not only necessary, it is ethical (i.e., firing officers immediately if appropriate). Drastic changes in how DPS officers approach students have to happen. The hire of Black officers with ASL fluency who understands Black Deaf students and how to work with them would be beneficial, according to Smith. Smith asked for the expungement of all past and current PNG records for Black Deaf students as well. At this point in time, it appears that the Gallaudet University administration does not have an applied understanding of the fact that police presence does not necessarily equate safety.
Theme #2: Add Mandatory Courses in Historical & Current Oppression
Karla shared a thought that all Greek organizations could be required to go to the events that BSU, LSU (Latinx Student Union), and other specific student organizations of color hosts, and they would learn to unpack their privileges. Karla’s suggestion, however, would put the burden of emotional and mental labor on Black and Brown students to educate White and White-passing students about their privileges—that alone is not just. The American K-12 educational system does everything in its power to make sure that Black students do not know the truth of their history so they do not know the power of their ancestors that they can stand on and fight for their liberation. Black people have had to seek out resources to learn about their own people’s history on their own time. If White people want to know the truth of what happened and is happening right now, they have to do the work. White and White-passing folks should be doing the work themselves to unpack their privileges.
In response to Karla’s comment that not everyone is aware of Black History and not all arrive at Gallaudet University with an understanding of intersectionality and oppression, Sanders recommended that the “Dynamics of Oppression” course be made a GSR (General Student Requirement) for all students, staff, and faculty, regardless of what major or field they are in. If it is not already offered as a GSR, a course on race and ethnic relations also should be (it is a discussion of the true history, the past disparities, and current disparities in life for the Black, Latinx/Hispanic, Indigenous, and Asian communities).
Theme #3: Enough Talk, Action Now
Black Deaf students are exhausted from having to fight for their basic human rights at Gallaudet University. If Black Deaf students do not feel safe or comfortable, if they do not feel they are perceived as equals (and they know they are not perceived that way), and if they do not feel as if they have a voice, it is very difficult for them to be able to focus on their education. This has been–and still is–their reality ever since the admission of Black students started in 1950. Eighty years.
It is particularly telling that the Student Body Government does not seem to have a full understanding of this. Wisniewski emphasized to the BSU participants that they do have a voice, and it took two different BSU participants to tell him it is not the case. SBG Members suggested the petition as a strategy to “help” President Cordano understand just how severe this is, and BSU participants had to challenge their assumption that the petition would be an effective strategy. The Student Body Government started the town hall meeting with a petition already prepared, which shows that they came in with preconceived notions of specific steps Black Deaf students would want for a change. It is a clear instance of the Student Body Government showing thier White privilege. The petitions are within White students’ and administrators’ “comfort zone,” where minimal effort is required on their part.
What about open dialogue? Several town halls and discussions have occurred over the years — nothing has changed, and the Black Deaf students are tired of all this cheap talk. Additionally, Baker mentioned that the Board of Trustees even had dinner with BSU students in 2016 to discuss incidents of racism on campus with feedback for action and, again, nothing has changed over the four years. The Board of Trustees did not bother to check in with BSU students again after that. Baker called out President Cordano, stating that she is a powerful public figure and yet she is not using her privileges and platform to enforce appropriate consequences for individuals, organizations, or even entire departments who have done harm against Black students.
Karla suggested protests as another strategy, and Baker pointed out two main issues. One, Gallaudet has a history of recurrent protests and the current administration is so adverse to protests that they have sent this message: “If you organize a protest, we will shut your protest down.” Two, Black Deaf students are afraid that if they protest, they will experience police brutality from the DPS. There’s literally no safe space for them. Even the “Keep The Promise” program has significantly weakened, and it is likely dissipated now—the KTP was the only place Baker felt was “home” to her.
White Deaf students, faculty, and administrators at Gallaudet University do not want to face this truth: they have to be willing to give up their disproportionate privileges and power associated with being born White for true change where Black Deaf students’ human rights are recognized and upheld at all times.
As you can see, the SBG/BSU Town Hall from last week was a fairly extensive discussion. President Cordano singled the Town Hall out for “new information” on the Kappa Gamma fraternity… but it is not new. Why does President Cordano have a laser focus on the fraternity as the so-called “face of racism,” when BSU students clearly brought up other numerous issues? While the Kappa Gamma fraternity must be held accountable, Deaf Vee Journal feels that what President Cordano is doing is a potential smokescreen to direct the attention of folks away from other related, much larger issues affecting Black Deaf students on and off-campus.