The Performance of Wokeness. That’s what I have been calling the act of expressing concern for social problems without making any effort to ameliorate or solve social problems.
When the Neo-Nazi commentary surfaced, the outpouring of concern and, for some, shock, was admirable. It was also to be expected. In these times, such demonstrations are part of how we do our identities, especially in small liberal arts spaces like Davidson. But, beyond the immediate weeks, how would we respond? Beyond simply demonstrating against what transpired, would we make systematic efforts towards a better racial climate?
Some of us, out of the fatigue of always being the ones to respond to such incidents, have withdrawn from the work for some self-care. Some of us, those of us who were performing wokeness, have totally forgotten about what happened and have moved on with our lives. Some of us still live with the horror of know that there is a slice of Davidson College, in its past and present, that harbors and nurtures white supremacy, the same kind of white supremacy that underpins what happened in Christchurch, New Zealand.
In our Contemporary Race Theory course, we wanted to find a way to remind ourselves of how we felt the day the Neo-Nazi comments were brought to light. With these excerpts from our class writings, we hope we can reengage the campus in thinking about how to create a community in which we all belong.
-Dr. Joseph Ewoodzie
Randi Geffrey ’20
I have had ties to four mass shootings in my lifetime. The first incident occurred in October of 2011 when I was 12. In my hometown of Seal Beach, California, eight people were killed making it the deadliest mass killing in Orange County history. My best friends lost their mothers, one of whom I revered as my second mother. I will never forget this day and the weeks that followed.
The second incident occurred last October in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Route 91 Harvest music festival was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States committed by an individual. Nearly all of my friends who remained in southern California attended this festival, including my parents. They all survived, but my next door neighbors, parents of a 2-month-old newborn, did not. I will never forget this day and the weeks that followed.
The fourth massacre occurred less than two weeks after the third one on November 7th of this year. On this night, Thousand Oaks, California mourned the loss of thirteen loved ones. Parents, forced to bury their children, begged for gun control rather than condolences. I lost my friends and high school classmates. I will never forget this day and the weeks that have followed. I have carried each of these mass shootings around with me every day, but none of them weigh me down as much as the third one.
The third incident occurred on October 27th in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the Tree of Life synagogue. It was a Saturday, meaning the Shabbat morning service would commence at 9:45am. My cousin, Daniel, was volunteering for this service. At 9:45am, the service began, and by 9:50am the gunman had already entered the synagogue and begun firing. Nine minutes later the police arrived. But it was already too late for eleven victims, including Daniel who was hiding in the kitchen with his friend Richard Gottfried.
I knew none of this information until later that night.
Back in Davidson, NC, I had just woken up at 9:45am, and by 9:50am I was walking to Commons for breakfast. I learned about the shooting at noon via Twitter. I immediately recognized the location Squirrel Hill, but I didn’t know from where. After a couple of hours, it finally dawned on me. I had just passed through there after visiting my family less than two weeks prior. I felt uneasy knowing that I was just there, but I hadn’t truly processed the hateful motivation behind the crime yet. And I certainly did not think twice about whether I knew any of the victims or not.
I continued my Saturday in the library doing homework and studying until dinner. I spent the majority of my time with my textbooks, rarely checking the Internet or my phone. I had a few texts and calls from my parents but did not respond. I did, however, listen to their voicemails.
Their voices sounded normal and claimed that they wanted to know when I needed to leave for my semester abroad. I wasn’t leaving until February, so I didn’t think it was urgent. I did not have time for them. I had too much schoolwork.
After dinner, I continued with my work until about 9:30pm at which point I decided I had accomplished enough and was able to go out with my friends. I still ignored my parents. I figured I would call them in the morning. Plus, it was 6:30pm PST, and they would just be sitting down for dinner. I was being considerate. At least, that’s what I told myself.
At 3am I decided that I was tired and should probably head home, so I started my walk up the hill. This was the first time I actually looked at my phone all day. Since I knew my travel dates already and had enough time to talk to my parents, I figured I would call them on my walk home. I was about halfway back to my dorm by the time my dad picked up the phone. He asked where I was all day. I lied. I said I was doing homework and was about to get into bed. But it was a Saturday, and my dad knew me better than that. He assured me that it was okay if I was out having fun with my friends. I felt too guilty for ignoring him all day and figured the only valid excuse was schoolwork. So, I continued with my lie. I was in the library up until the point that I decided to call him.
It was midnight his time, so I assumed that he would be in bed. But it didn’t sound like he was. He asked me if I saw the news. I said I had and that the Pittsburgh shooting was heartbreaking and horrible. I knew that my dad, born and raised in Pittsburgh as a practicing Jew, would be affected much deeper than the rest of my family. I asked if he was okay. Not once did I think about the rest of my family who still lived in Pittsburgh.
After these brief lines, the rest of the conversation became very hazy. He broke the news to me. “Daniel was killed this morning at the synagogue.” He was somber, but he wasn’t crying. I could tell he was being strong for me. It was reminiscent of when he told me that my grandmother, his mother, had passed away. I knew what was going to come next, but I beat him to it. Before I knew it, tears were rushing down my face and I was sobbing hysterically. At this point, I had stopped walking and happened to be standing right in front of Commons. The exact spot I was when the shooting actually occurred.
I was uncontrollable.
I just kept sobbing and screaming. All I could say was, “Daddy stop. This isn’t funny. Stop joking with me.” I can’t exactly explain why I said what I said. But they were the only words that came out of my mouth for the next ten minutes. Now, we were both bawling. And I was running. Directionless.
But my dad and I were not talking about the same Daniel. You see, I have two cousins with the same name. The Daniel that I thought was killed is 19 years old and a sophomore in college. When I was in Pittsburgh visiting my family, I had stayed at his house and even slept in his bed. My other cousin Daniel is 71 years old. Daniel Stein, the elder of the two Daniels, was the one who was murdered. But this distinction in Daniels did not make anything hurt less. At this point, my dad was just trying to get me to calm down from my hysteria.
“Randi, Daniel was 71 years old. At least he lived a fulfilling life.”
My dad thought my hysteria was stemming from my belief that it was my 19-year-old cousin and not Daniel Stein. But it didn’t matter. Nothing would change the fact that Daniel Stein was murdered.
I stopped screaming. I stopped running. I found myself standing at the front door of my friend’s apartment. I promised my dad that I would call him in the morning, and we hung up. She let me in, and I wept in her arms for hours.
Two weeks later and I had barely attended any classes or even left my room at all. I talked to my dad every day. Now, I had time. I made time. My eyes were constantly red and teary, and I had no desire to talk to anyone. I was virtually mute. When asked what was wrong, I replied simply. “Nothing, just some family issues.”
That’s what it felt like. A family issue. It deserved to stay within my family, and no one else needed to be involved. Even though I knew much of America wept with me, it wasn’t the same kind of crying. They mourned the hate and violence that prevails in their beloved country. I mourned the murder of Daniel Stein and the other ten.
As I walked around campus, there were endless amounts of conversations regarding gun control, hate, and the power of political rhetoric. I never once heard anyone mention the loss of life. Nothing was individualized. Those eleven were immediately grouped into the larger category of “death by mass shooting.” But this shooting was different. And two Davidson College students made it very clear on their Twitter accounts.
On November 7th , Carolina Workers Collected doxed two Davidson College students, exposing their homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic beliefs. One of them openly supported Robert Bowers’ actions. She applauded Daniel’s murder.
I knew, now, that my grieving window had closed. Rather than mourning Daniel’s murder still, I was forced to think about myself and my peers. I was scared for retaliation. I was scared for more openly anti-Semitic sentiments. But most importantly, I was scared for a copycat attack.
Rumours poured through campus; words became twisted. Stories changed. The whiteboard found the Monday following the shooting, claiming that “Hitler did nothing wrong,” turned into an entire whiteboard praising tactics used during the Holocaust. A class assignment written on a whiteboard in the library became a blueprint for a future school shooting.
Everyone was on edge. The fear permeating campus did not discriminate. Minorities and the majority alike urged administration for more transparency in communication and reassurance that we were safe. The word “safe” was thrown around in everyone’s conversations for the next week. But as students rallied behind this hateful act, the Pittsburgh shooting quickly turned into further grounds for equality and justice. It drowned in the pool of every other preexisting social movement.
It has been nearly a month since the posting and five weeks since the shooting, and Davidson has already found a new topic to include in every conversation. While some may be forever affected by these past few weeks, others have already forgotten. They walk around from class to class, looking at their phones, unaware of whomever is walking in their direction. They don’t search for the best hiding place with every step they take. They sit in public spaces at peace, not looking for an exit every five minutes just in case someone comes in with a gun calling for the death of all Jews.
But, they don’t need to. They know who they are, just as I know who I am. Just as other minorities know who they are. For the first time, I see myself as a member of this vulnerable group. I have a greater understanding of how other minorities feel on this campus. We know our place not only in Davidson, but also in this country. And because of that, I am now someone who walks among their peers, in fear. Every day. My perceived threat of danger has drastically changed, and I feel like my identity has made me a walking target.
I watch vigilantly as people move about their daily lives. I monitor social media for signs, looking for anything that might resemble hints of future acts of violence. I spend more time in my day anxious about strangers than worrying about myself or my friends and family. I have completely restructured my thinking. But no one knows. I tell no one of my daily precautions or internal feelings.
I tell no one that if I close my eyes, I can see events transpire that I wasn’t even there for. Already knowing the layout of the Tree of Life synagogue, I can picture Robert Bowers moving swiftly through the synagogue. I shut my eyes and watch as he enters the front door and then makes his way to the kitchen. I see his guns, and I see the faces of the victims I have never even met before. I have no control over this. I cannot stop my mind from wandering to this place. I try. But there is no use.
In addition to my own thoughts, I am constantly reminded of this morning through continual acts of hate that have occurred across the country recently. Following the shooting, numerous temples and buildings became the platform for the perpetuation of anti-Semitic sentiments. As more and more incidents occur, I only grow more frightful.
Yet, my institution tells me that my fears are irrational because I am “safe.” They use this term as if it is something concrete. You are either safe or you are unsafe, and we are safe because our administration believes we experience the same privileges that they do. They fail to recognize the abstract definition of safety, misunderstanding it to be something objective rather than perceived. I wish I lived in a world where I didn’t have to check my shoulder constantly. But I don’t. I wish I attended a college that knows how to protect students other than the White, upper-class majority. But I don’t. I wish Davidson College provided an environment where all students felt safe or had the resources to do so. But it doesn’t.
Serena Sewell ’19
Dear President Carol Quillen,
I am writing to you in hopes that you will acknowledge your unconscious complacency and understand my marginalization just as I understand your positionality. Do you remember what you said in your initial email to campus? Well, let me remind you.
You said, “I want you to know that our campus is safe. There are no threats to campus, and our staff are addressing this situation. We have no greater priority than the safety and wellbeing of our community.”
But I ask you, whose safety? Because our safety has never been the greatest priority of this institution. Safety is reserved almost exclusively to those Davidson College was designed to benefit. We don’t feel safe because this campus has never been safe for us. Your initial statement, and several others, made those of us who are systematically marginalized concerned for our well-being, but also our right to be recognized as autonomous beings’ worthy of existence, security, and advocacy by this institution. Whether it was a Jewish, Black, Latino, Asian, Muslim, or Queer person reading your email, we felt somewhat excluded from the safety that you as a representation of the historical legacy of this institution falsely ensure.
So, I went on a quest to contextualize our fear, the fear of the marginalized. After hours of digging through Davidson’s archives, I found several instances that represent how marginalized individuals are not privy to the safety that Davidson claims. Here are just a few.
A Davidsonian headline stating, “Spike Lee Promotes New Film on Campus: Bomb Threat Forces Event to be Moved to Johnston Gym Minutes Prior to Speech” (Koonce, 1992).
The initiative to bring Spike Lee, a prominent African-American filmmaker, was met with the physical threat to himself and all marginalized individuals as a whole. So, I ask you again President Quillen, when has Davidson ever been safe for us?
Then I found an interview in 2017 with former Assistant Chaplain Brenda Tapia commenting on her childhood when “sometime during the night [the] Klan came, and they burned a cross in our front yard, they burned one on the football field over at the college, and they burned one outside the Dean of Student’s office” (Tapia, 2017).
Davidson was a site of terror. Davidson has never been safe for us. And another Davidsonian headline stating, “Three Black Students Protest Campus Police Harassment” (Brown, 1972).
Davidson profiles us, stalks us, demeans us, threatens us, and harms us. So, I ask again, no threat to whom?
Upon further reflection, I came to realize more than I had ever before that when you, as a representation of the historical legacy of this institution, stated that there was no threat to campus you weren’t thinking about me. My safety wasn’t Davidson’s concern. My safety isn’t Davidson’s concern. I’m not a wealthy Caucasian Presbyterian male.
I’m Spike Lee.
I’m a black student.
Even as I’m sitting here writing this opinion piece, I recognize the fact that if this is published in the Davidsonian, it will simply be used to emphasize how progressive Davidson truly is because at least the voice of a black woman is included right? And since it’s included, it’s being listened to, right? Because aren’t I, a Davidson student?
You let us into this school, so you could not only say that you prioritize diversity, but so that you could have the statistics to prove it. And since you have bestowed this opportunity upon me, I have a seat at the table.4 But I don’t simply demand a seat at the table, I demand that your first consideration be about my fellow marginalized students. I demand the next time you promise that this campus is safe, you think about people like me.
President Quillen, as a representation of the historical legacy of Davidson College, you have a moral obligation to never forget who this institution is designed to benefit and protect. You, as a representation of this institution, have the moral obligation to not be willfully ignorant and assume this campus is safe for my people. You, as President of this institution, have the moral obligation to acknowledge your complacency in the maintenance of the historical legacy of this institution. I promise you I won’t let you forget. For your sake as well as my own.
On behalf of the marginalized,
Serena Sewell, a Davidson student
I believe white students were there [at the rally] to reassure themselves and to prove to others they stand against white supremacy and bigotry. But showing up to the rally and remaining complacent afterwards still perpetuates white supremacy. Your presence at that rally is barely a sign of defiance—it is being a decent human being. To deconstruct white supremacy, we have to be active in our dissonance. But I know my white peers do not care to go out of our comfort zone. Why should we choose to understand an oppression that our presence perpetuates? Our whiteness exists because of the exploitation of black and brown bodies. Davidson itself still profits from that exploitation. To defy that structural exploitation embedded within Davidson’s existence, we need to stand with our peers. Our whiteness will continue to exist if we defend non-white students on campus. Additionally, our privilege and safety will continue to exist. However, our empathy and human decency ceases to exist the moment we turn our backs on our peers, and some of us already turned.
We only showed up to the rally to perform our duty of the white ally we love to claim. The best part about being an ally is you can forget. The privilege of safety allows us to forget about the event without personal repercussions. We only responded on such a large scale to this event because the neo-Nazi questioned our privilege of safety. How unsafe were we, really? We feared a general threat of violence on campus, but our identity remained unthreatened. White students’ fear faded quickly because it was not connected to our identity and our personhood.
To protect and support minority students on campus, we as white people need to stand against our ignorance. It will make this campus safer for the people who need it. If you want to be a good ally, first you must stop thinking how you can live up to the title of ally. Frankly, you should not care about it for the name and recognition. You do not deserve recognition for being a decent human being. You need to care. Second, you must remain persistent. You cannot give up when your interests are no longer involved. Third, stop acknowledging your privilege and use it to benefit others. Everyone knows how much privilege you have. Use it to speak up against the administration on behalf of the minority students who deserve better on this campus. Get involved in non-white spaces. Learn and understand our peers’ experiences on this campus without having to ask them. Email the administration in support when marginalized students are displeased with an administrative reaction. Defy the demoralization that Davidson and whiteness perpetuates. Your whiteness makes a difference: use it.