Before coming to the States for college, I had never gone beyond the borders of Kenya. While I had expected some level of culture shock, I wasn’t prepared for the jarring reality of being Black in America. Sure, I had skimmed through US Black history in my high school lessons, so I was familiar with the basics—slavery and its abolition, the civil rights movement, school desegregation. I had read of police brutality in horror, but Black Lives Matter was just a hashtag that I didn’t fully understand. Back home we face white supremacy too, but it takes different, often subtle forms, such as economic neo-colonialism. And then I came to America, and I saw the racism behind the hashtag firsthand.
As I settled into life at MIT, I couldn’t help but notice the ease with which my white counterparts seemed to cruise through life, opportunities within arm’s reach. Yes, they worked hard, but there was definitely something else at play. It took me a while to realize that they were sailing through a system built from the ground up to accommodate whiteness. I was not inadequate or inferior, but trying to fit into spaces that had not been created with people like me in mind.
Being Black in America, I found, involved a constant, intense process of reconciling how I view myself and how others view me. I am African, Black, female, an aspiring engineer, multifaceted in my passions. But I came to learn that to some people, simply being Black and female makes me inherently lazy, inferior, and undeserving, at best an accessory or a means to the success of some more deserving man. And yet I’m relatively lucky, living in a progressive bubble at MIT. For too many Black people in this country, their racial identity is the one factor that determines their hopes and dreams—and in some cases, whether they live or die.
This year proved especially gut wrenching. A day after the video came out showing Ahmaud Arbery being shot and killed by two white men as he was jogging, I received a call from a close Kenyan friend living in one of the more conservative US states. As a member of his college’s track team, he was expected to log daily miles for training, but he could not bring himself to run outside anymore. “I feel like there’s a moving target on my back, and I keep checking to see if someone’s following me,” he said. When the video of George Floyd’s brutal murder went viral, I had just started a UROP at a lab I had been longing to join. For my first week I simply could not be productive. The trauma of seeing a man who could easily have been my uncle die at the hands of people charged with protecting him—and knowing that this was the reality for Black people in this country—shook me to the core.
Being Black in America, I found, involved a constant, intense process of reconciling how I view myself and how others view me.
So when the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) and the Black Students’ Union (BSU) created a petition to support Black lives at MIT this spring, I was excited. The first part of the petition calls for three- and 10-year strategic plans to address racial bias at MIT. The second part zeroes in on a key issue of the BLM movement, focusing on reducing the scale of policing at MIT. This raised important questions among my fellow members of the Women’s Independent Living Group. Living off campus in the heart of Cambridge, we rely heavily on the MITPD for our security, and officers have always been willing to show up for us whenever we need them. Wouldn’t defunding our campus police leave us vulnerable? Would we need to allocate resources to hiring a private security firm? Wouldn’t this go against our commitment to serving as a less costly alternative to on-campus housing—an attractive option for lower-income students, many of whom are minorities? I delved into the petitions, and the greater BLM movement, for answers.
In the US, “Abolish the police” has become a raw, riveting rallying cry of the BLM movement. The essential idea is to shift some police funding to improved medical care and social work in Black and brown communities as a way to reduce crime, without eliminating trained responders to deal with violent crimes. But we need to have honest, introspective conversations about what this would mean, especially for Black women and LGBTQ+ people. While some Black women have been saved by the police from abusive men in their lives, others remain trapped in such relationships for fear that calling the police could send their Black male partners to the morgue. This is a teachable moment for our white counterparts, but it should also be a teachable moment within the Black community—a time for Black men to listen as Black women and Black LGBTQ+ people talk. What kind of world would a Black girl, a Black transgender or nonbinary person, feel safe in?
It should be a teachable moment for the Institute, too. In 2015, the BSU and BGSA outlined steps that MIT could take to create a more equitable, inclusive environment. Somewhere along the way, this initiative trailed off, and it took a video of a Black man being choked on the street by a police officer to revive the conversation. Yet it seems that some of the steam is already dying down. Five years from now, will Black students be presenting yet another set of recommendations, referencing those still not complete from five years ago? We can’t let that happen. WILG ultimately decided to support both parts of the BLM at MIT petition because MIT needs to hold itself accountable for its initiatives on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
One crucial lesson I have learned from my two years at the ’Tute is how to be a problem solver, through pure grit and commitment. We can solve this critical problem too. MIT needs to commit to diversity and equity by investing in a concrete, well-funded, fully staffed strategic plan to create an environment where Black students feel welcomed and understood—and can thrive.
Veronica Muriga ’22 is an electrical engineering and computer science major from Nairobi, Kenya. Find her summary of the petition supporting Black lives at MIT, as well as resources for becoming antiracist, here.