This article was originally published on May 21, 2021.
I don’t remember the first time my parents told me I had to “be twice as good” to receive half as much as my white peers, but by the age of 8 the sentiment had stuck. Their admonition lives in every fiber of my being, reminding me that because I was born Black, I must be superior to counteract America’s desire to relegate me to a class of inferiority.
In middle school, I realized that twice as good actually wasn’t good enough. Being four times as good was the minimum required of me as a dark child with natural hair to break from the nation’s predetermined path for Black children. By the time I reached my senior year of high school, I was honored to be admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and to become a Hussman School of Journalism and Media student. If anything was going to help me be twice — no, four times — as good, it would be attending one of the nation’s top journalism schools at the United States’ oldest public university.
How much more simple-minded could I have been?
UNC’s board of trustees decision this week to deny tenure to Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Nikole-Hannah Jones is the evisceration of all Black UNC students. It clarifies that the university has no regard for its Black students, and that even being 20 times as good still isn’t good enough.
When an institution considered a bastion of higher education that is intended to enrich rather than constrict the world’s intellectual boundaries makes a decision rooted in maintaining white supremacy, what value does it have? What can be gained from a university that teaches its students to be intellectually and historically dishonest in the name of honoring whiteness? What can be gained from a university that chooses to desecrate its name in order to appease America’s predilection for racial oppression, and that chooses to tell its Black students that their contributions are non-essential? For the board of trustees to kowtow to criticisms of Hannah-Jones is not so much an admission of racism as it is a dedication to racism and its intention to distort, distract and destroy.
It is obvious that the university expects its Black students, and in particular its Black journalism students, to swallow this blatant anti-Blackness and disrespect and to ignore being dehumanized by the very institution that asks for their dedication (and money) daily. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to attend journalism classes next semester when I know that the opportunity to be taught by a Black journalist who is one of the most seminal writers of all time has been put on the line in the name of conservative politics and white feelings.
Surely I and other students aren’t supposed to believe in the board of trustees’ unanimously endorsed “Build Our Community Together” diversity initiative after this decision. Denying Hannah-Jones her tenure has hollowed out any of the university’s previous, and future diversity efforts into a basin of self-preservation and optical concern. The only thing that Black journalism students can be sure of is that the University has no intention of adequately supporting their work, and has actively made the decision to devalue their degree. Apparently, discrimination is worth more to the board of trustees than empowering students with the chance to truly feel seen in the classroom, and to benefit from being taught by one of the university’s most distinguished alumna.
To carry the weight of this disgusting decision — in addition to being one of the only, if not the only, Black student in my journalism classes — is a box I didn’t check when I applied to UNC in 2018. But it is obviously a weight that the university thinks its Black students, who are routinely bombarded with the violent reality of being Black in America and the isolation of attending a predominately white institution, must carry.
To be clear, I don’t want my white peers and professors to operate under the assumption that this abhorrence does not affect them or the quality of their experience at UNC. Hannah-Jones’ tenure denial not only spits in the face of Black students, and Black journalism students in particular, but all of UNC, because it explains that the University is not committed to authentic learning.
No one is winning in this situation — not even the white people this decision is supposed to act as a protective incantation for. If the board of trustees is willing to take away that which is owed to a Peabody Award winner, a MacArthur genius grant recipient, and Pulitzer Prize winner because they are so vested in racism, they’d sacrifice anything to make sure that it has a place at the school — even the school itself.
What else can we expect from a school that has just begun to rename buildings named after white supremacists? What else can we expect from a school in a state that says the murder of a man shot in the back of the head by police is justified? What else can we expect from a school that was, quite literally, built by slaves?
We can still expect a lot. We can expect for it to not look its Black students in the eye and tell them they’re worthless, and we can expect for it to not be so irreverent to the nation’s racial climate that it tells a woman who is 20 times as good that she will never be enough.
But if that is what we expect, we cannot be talking about UNC-Chapel Hill. Because the university has proven to me, yet again, that all I can expect is its respect for racism and its disrespect of me.