Letter to the Editor: Black community feels isolated after college mishandles the deaths of two black students

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I am grateful to be at Oxy. I have amazing allies and supporters within the faculty, staff and student body that have pushed me to be a better student and person. I recognize the efforts the administration has made to help us through this difficult time, and will never forget the acts of kindness and respect members of the administration showed to the families of my friends Ilah Richardson (first year) and Jaden Burris (sophomore) like setting the Occidental flag at half-mast and holding memorial services. However, as a black student, I share the pain of a black community that has greatly struggled during this time of mourning and that feels the school has handled aspects of this situation improperly. I know that the school does not intend to make us feel isolated, but their actions have made me and other students feel otherwise. I hope by writing this I can shed light on how this feeling manifests at Occidental for black students, and hope that we can work through ways to move away from this. 

The campus and administration seemed to treat our extended spring break like a reset button to prepare for the second half of the semester. However, this ignores the fact that two black students have died within a month of each other and it assumes that students can put a timeline on grief. Ilah’s passing came Jan. 27, two days before her 19th birthday. She contacted campus safety in medical distress and was rushed to the hospital where she passed soon after arriving. Less than a month later, Jaden attempted to take his life Feb. 16, and was later taken off life support by his family Feb. 20. Ilah and Jaden, two beautiful black minds, with all the potential to do the greatest things, were taken from this earth too soon.

Now more than ever, the isolation and social fragility that impact the black community at Occidental College shows. I can never properly convey the weight that the loss of two young black souls has on a community of black people. However, the administration’s inappropriate handling of these deaths has been so harmful by perpetuating isolation among black students that I feel compelled to try. Losing two students in general, one to suicide, is traumatizing. These losses have affected the Occidental Community as a whole, since Ilah’s and Jaden’s light was felt by many, but when two out of only around 150 black students have died, the amount of loss and isolation felt by black students is multiplied, often unmanageably so.  

It feels as if the opinion of the black community was not respected under the given circumstances. Shortly after Jaden’s death, we urged the school to consider canceling classes for two days, to give not only the black community but all of Oxy time to heal, reflect and get the emotional and mental help needed to absorb the trauma of such closely tied, shocking and young deaths. This request, made by both students and faculty, was ignored by certain members of the administration. Instead, classes continued throughout the week and during memorial events, making students feel obligated to keep up with school work, even if told that some classes were optional.

It is beyond me how the administration could think that letting school continue as normal is the healthiest option for their students. In its defense, the administration said that students spoke up about wanting to continue their regular schedule and routine. But honoring these special cases should never outweigh the fact that an entire demographic of the Occidental community spoke up in opposition and was greatly suffering from the loss of two of their members, let alone the pain of the school as a whole. 

The administration seemed to not comprehend our pain; if they did and still chose to ignore it, then real questions about institutional morality and the authenticity of the school’s mission statement arise. That week, I went to class completely on auto-pilot. My body might have been present, but my mind was everywhere else. I found it impossible to focus, yet it felt like a crime to skip class when others didn’t seem to be suffering as much as me and I feared falling behind. 

The school further demonstrated values that conflict with those of the student-centered and social justice-oriented institution it views itself as by displaying certain insensitivities. A student-led ceremony for Jaden, which the administration was aware of, was consistently interrupted by curious people on campus tours, who immediately took out their phones to take pictures of mourning students. In addition, campus security felt the need to have two officers circling the ceremony in full uniform, keeping a critical distance from the students. However, their piercing gazes cut deep into the hearts of many black students, constantly reminding us that even in our most harmless moments of hugging, singing, and crying we are still seen as institutional threats. Though the visitors probably had no idea what was going on, their unabashed voyeurism of a crowd of predominantly black students speaks to a recurring pattern of treatment towards the black community at Occidental. 

While the school has initiatives in place to help our demographic feel embraced to some extent, there is also an underlying feeling the school capitalizes on our presence. The safety of black students on campus, like myself, is compromised by actions that make us feel out of place in an institution that promises us that we are supposed to be here, but ignores our cries for help. This is not a feeling that has emerged only from Ilah and Jaden’s passings. Our isolated experience prior to this is part of being black at Oxy, and we were made aware of that from the very beginning. 

We first-year black students came to Oxy with all the hope of being at an institution that worked to make us feel wanted. Instead we arrived at a college with two board members who partook in blackface, and an underfunded and understaffed black studies department, and came to realize that out of the 600 incoming students fewer than 30 were black-identifying (which we were then told was “good” for Oxy). Upperclassman black students shared similar feelings and alienating experiences to those of us first years, who were confused and questioning our place here. They explained that that’s how things have been around here, but assured us that we can look to our black community for help  — that while we shouldn’t expect too much from the administration, we can always depend on each other. With this, we black students took on another year at Oxy, hearing professors wrongfully claim that there still is a black studies major, experiencing countless microaggressions and seeing the school attempt to create a dialogue about the blackface incident only to arrange a panel of non-black professors whose misunderstanding about the depth of the situation further isolated black students.

In spite of all this, black students have attempted to make the best of every tragic situation by pushing forward ideas and suggestions for change. When a community, already stretched thin by lack of support, undergoes such traumatic events, the support that we can give each other deteriorates as we struggle to take care of ourselves. 

In 2015, with the AGC occupation, black students brought forth demands necessary to make them feel more comfortable and less marginalized on campus. It is now 2020, and most of these demands have not been met. The ones that have, like the creation of a black studies department, are barely holding on. Even now in this time of despair, we are told that although things will take time, the school will get better for us. While this is hard for us to believe, we would love to see the administration work towards needed change. 

This is just a fraction of a longer list of harmful normalized dynamics that have been affecting us and our experience at Oxy. With this, I hope that the students and the Oxy community as a whole can understand that too much has happened to continue to ignore the pain and suffering of their black students. We are a strong community, but we are hurting from our loss and need to be seen.

 To incoming President Harry J. Elam, I hope that your desire to listen and understand how you can help will come to pass and this school can start to move in a positive direction. We will be away from campus for longer than expected, and I hope to come back to Oxy seeing visible change and an administration that can rightfully serve all of their students. 

Jazz Henry is an undeclared first year. He can be reached at henryj@oxy.edu.