SIUE faculty member hosts discussion about race in America in act of protest

Shaken by the deaths of George Floyd and Sandra Bland, Prince Robertson, assistant director of student conduct, turned to a new form of activism: He hosted an open meeting with civil rights academics from across the country.  


Sandra Bland was an African American woman who was found hanged in her jail cell after being arrested during a traffic stop in 2015. George Floyd was an African American man who was killed by police during an arrest on May 25. 


Robertson said he felt broken by the loss of life at the hands of law enforcement, particularly by the deaths of Sandra Bland and George Floyd, so he decided to host a town hall as a form of protest. 


“We can protest in other ways, and this was one way that I wanted to develop, and I felt that we don’t have to be celebrities to have a town hall meeting. We don’t have to be in politics to have a town hall meeting. So I said I’m going to do it myself,” Robertson said. 


Robertson was joined by Karen Olowu, from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Alexandra Hughes, from University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Kevin Reese, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The conversation started as each panelist said how they were feeling in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. 


“How do I feel today? I feel like I could be the next hashtag. You know, when I walk out of my house, there’s a chance I could be the next national media story, the next hashtag, the next petition, that could be me,” Reese said. 


Reese, coordinator for the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said each death feels as if a weight has been added to his ankles, and is pulling him down.


“Why am I so threatening to you? What makes me so dangerous?” Reese asked.   


Hughes, a professor of culture and race, said she teaches about racism so that her children will live in a better world, and that many Black children are made aware of the color of their skin before white children. 


“I think a lot of us, as Black people, have stories of when we were at a very young age. Like I remember the first time someone called me the N-word, and I was in like the second grade and this little white boy did it,” Hughes said. “And I remember that.”


Olowu, affiliate of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Black United Front, called for African Americans to recognize that they are colonized.


“They called my people savages, that’s what they called us when they came upon us. They came upon us and said, ‘Oh, these people are savages, they don’t really understand civilization, let us educate these poor savages.’ They’re still educating us Nigerians and all of us Blacks,” Olowu said. 


Hughes said while it is fine for Black people to educate white people to an extent, white people must also take it upon themselves to learn. 


“We didn’t put us into slavery … we didn’t do this. But yet again, we still have to push and advocate and fight and teach and all this other stuff. We all talked about how we are educators … we are trying to still teach people, but we are technically the ones that live this every day,” Hughes said. 


Robertson asked panelists how to take initiative, and said one way to create change is by voting.  


“As much as we’ve been hurt as a people, we’ve got to continue to vote. And we need to be strategic on how we vote. Not just talking about the president, but I’m talking about governors, senators, sheriffs, judges,” Robertson said.  


Hughes said non-Black parents have a responsibility because change starts at home. 


“People who are non-Black keep asking me, ‘Well, what can I do? What can I do?’ And I say, ‘You know what you can do? You can do this, you can teach your child,’” Hughes said. 


At the end of the discussion, the panelists were each given 60 seconds to say anything on their minds. Reese said it is important for Black people to remember that their lives matter. 


“I need you all to understand that your life matters. I know this is a very difficult time, I know things are stressful, things are frustrating, but I can guarantee that on the other side through, [it] is going to be great,” Reese said.  


In the video’s caption, Robertson said his goal was to help people who may need more understanding of how to operationalize what is going on, as well as for viewers to see the importance of demands and initiatives that can be developed in their own communities. 

To watch the video, visit Robertson’s Facebook page.

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