If you are familiar with Black Girl Buying and how I started, you have probably heard something along the lines of “I was a student in St. Louis when Michael Brown was killed, and I didn’t like how my university responded, so I looked for something that I could do”—and that’s if I mention my university at all. Over the past few years, I have become increasingly aware of how little I talk about my time in graduate school, but, rather, how my experiences shaped the path that I am on today. So we don’t talk about WashU (to the tune of “We Don’t Talk about Bruno”), but that changes today.
I enrolled in a dual JD/MSW degree program at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) in the fall of 2012. My original goal was to create policies that support thriving families, so I wanted to make sure that I had the practical knowledge of a social work background to inform the policies and the credibility of the law degree to make them happen. Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen. You know how they say you plan and God laughs? Yeah, that’s what happened.
Anywho. One of the first memories that I have of graduate school is a white man walking up to me and one of my classmates (also a Black woman) and announcing to us that he had never had a conversation with a Black person before like it was something he should be rewarded for—in 2012! There was also something about whether or not comparing someone to Aunt Jemima was okay (this same classmate wrote a paper a couple years later about why fringe groups—like Nazis and the KKK—should be allowed to hold meetings at schools just like the drama club, so…there’s that). Now he was only one of my classmates, but honestly, he wasn’t particularly outrageous or anything—and that’s the outrageous part!
Here’s a little bit more background: WashU is less than 20 minutes and 10 miles from Ferguson and is also one of the largest employers in the region. When I went, it had the top social work school and one of the top 20 law schools in the country. Lots of resources. Lots of influence. Lots of potential.
On August 9, 2014, I was preparing to begin year three of my four-year program. I found out that Michael Brown was killed, Ferguson (and the world) erupted, and I was ready to go. I was ready to do something. I am not a march-in-the-streets protester (although I applaud and support those who are), so I was looking for other ways to demonstrate. I—foolishly—thought that the two schools I was in, which I felt had the greatest potential for impact in a hurting society, would do something, and I was disappointed that neither school did anything. If I’m being honest, I am not completely sure what I wanted them to do. As I have previously noted, there was no effort to even acknowledge—let alone understand or address—the pain that many of the students were feeling, the impact of the flawed system on the community in which it sat, and the privilege it exuded from the safety of its campus until it was almost time for the grand jury to make a decision (almost three months after the fact). It was such a missed opportunity. For schools that have forums and discussions and roundtables and speaker series on just about every topic you could think of, to not even have that was disheartening. I wanted more.
There were law clinics and internship placements and community partnerships that maybe could have been leveraged to provide guidance or support or education, but instead, there was a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” photo that I don’t think was ever even posted. As someone who is not from St. Louis and did not know the lay of the land (like many students on campus), I did not know where to even start and I felt like there was no opportunity or avenue to connect with someone who did. I was frustrated and exhausted from repeatedly explaining why the conversations were necessary before ever getting to the conversations themselves. I was disappointed that students and faculty alike were content to operate as though nothing significant had happened because, for them, nothing had.
I decided to dedicate my academic work to police brutality, racial disparities, and anything else that I could think of that would shine a light on some of the things that Black people experience every chance I got. I wrote papers and completed projects on racial disparities in school discipline, strategies for addressing racial fragmentation, allowing discussions of collective trauma in schools, and preventing sexual assault at HBCUs.
Still, there was nothing from the school except an effort to distance itself from everything that was happening… Until November 4, when the dean of the law school sent an email to faculty, staff, and students in which she stated that “[n]o matter what decision the grand jury renders [regarding Darren Wilson], there is every reason for us to trust the process.” On November 10, an anonymous group of students posted paper body cutouts with the names of Black and brown people who had been murdered by police and white vigilantism. The dean promptly responded, seemingly backpedaling on her initial statement and encouraging the law school community to “reflect upon the deeply problematic issues” the cutouts demonstrated.
Instead of reflection, we saw faculty, staff, and students tearing down the cutouts, defending “blue” lives, and threatening the students who were involved. Across campus at the school of social work, students recreated the cutouts, acknowledging what was happening at the law school, and received a similar response. Although I was not involved in either group, those responses cemented that WashU was not a safe place for me.
So I turned elsewhere. I saw a call to action on social media to boycott Black Friday (or only support Black businesses instead), and I felt that it was something I could do. So I did. And the rest is Black (Girl Buying) History.