Cole Thornton ’21

Two weeks ago, campus was buzzing with anticipation at the arrival of renowned lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson. One could hardly get through a day without being asked, “Do you have your Bryan Stevenson tickets?” 

Davidson pulled out all the stops to advertise the event, and Stevenson drew an enormous crowd. 

The Davidson community, students, faculty, staff, and residents of Davidson and Charlotte flooded Belk Arena unlike I’ve ever seen for any other event regarding social justice in my time here. 

From the two standing ovations Stevenson received to the energy of those in attendance following the talk, it’s clear that students were greatly impacted. 

But what kind of impact? 

Though I was not able to attend the lecture, I heard him give a very similar talk in Charlotte this past summer in which he outlined the tenets of getting proximate, changing narratives, being uncomfortable, and having hope. 

What I did witness this time, however, was the ensuing wave of social media posts sharing excerpts of the speech or images of the speaker on stage in addition to the energetic chatter among students who attended. 

As usual, the excitement following the talk has largely dissipated by this point, and we are left to see what, if any, long-term effects there are on the behavior of students who claim inspiration from Stevenson’s words.

There’s a lot to be said regarding the response to Stevenson’s talk from white students, as well as the ways in which Davidson, as a predominantly white institution, profited from this well-known activist and advanced its desire to appear progressive and inclusive. 

What stands out to me is a sinister yet unsurprising lack of self-awareness on the part of Davidson and its white students in our consumption of Stevenson’s message. 

Rarely in the conversations after the talk did I hear white students question our own or Davidson’s complicity in the prison industrial complex against which Stevenson is fighting. 

And the fact remains that student activism and marginalized students on campus are unsupported by the majority of white or otherwise privileged students. 

If you’re a white student who felt “inspired” by his talk, but you don’t show up for student activism on campus or actively support marginalized groups, who does your inspiration help? 

Davidson is an institution that was built on the same oppressive systems as the prison industrial complex. 

Marginalized students are doing and are always expected to do the work to actually push our school to be what it claims to be in terms of diversity and inclusion. 

Every day, students of color and other marginalized identities are engaging in the kind of activism that Stevenson advocates for, while so many white or otherwise privileged students are absent from events and spaces where support is called for. 

This lack of support at best and active silencing at worst for campus activism led by marginalized students should stand in direct opposition for those who want to tout the tenets of Stevenson’s message. 

There are a myriad of ways to support student activism on this campus. You can and should show up to events put on by Black students, students of color, queer and trans students, and students of other marginalized identities. 

The Black Student Coalition is hosting multiple events all month. The Asian American Initiative is partnering with Davidson Microaggressions Project and will be hosting workshops and showcases for the next three weeks. Queers and Allies are hosting the Coming Out Monologues at the end of the month. The 2020 Cultivate Justice Conference is being held here in March. The Rape Awareness Committee and Planned Parenthood put on regular events. 

I could go on and on; so many more students and groups are constantly doing unpaid and unappreciated labor to make Davidson a more just community for everyone. 

Presence isn’t the only way to be proximate. I recognize that most of us as college students don’t have a lot of our own money, but I also know that many of us who are from higher-income families have access to our parents’ wealth. 

Why not get “proximate” with money, if you have it? 

Give money to student fundraisers and activism. Donate to the DuBoisian World Scholars Society’s scholarships for West Charlotte seniors. Attend Charlotte Uprising events when they’re on campus, and give when they’re raising money for incarcerated and trans individuals. 

You don’t have to be able to give millions in order to redistribute your wealth in a meaningful way. 

The opportunities are endless. There’s just no excuse to not get involved. 

Nothing I’ve said here is new or hasn’t been said better by someone else. The call for students who have power and privilege on this campus to support their marginalized peers has been and remains ongoing. 

So I ask, what are you taking from Bryan Stevenson besides a chance to post on your social media or tell your friends you saw him speak?  What are you actually going to do? 

Cole Thornton ’21 is an art history major from Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at cothornton@davidson.edu.