The testimonials from black people about their experience on Kansas college campuses ring both familiar and fresh as protests against racism continue across the world.
Some talk about death threats riddled with racial slurs tucked in their mailboxes, about baseless confrontations with campus police, or about being told in ways both subtle and explicit that they don’t belong.
Some students in Lawrence and Manhattan have continued a long history of rallying on campus and in the streets. But with most students isolated from each other by the coronavirus and summer break, they’ve taken their protesting online using hashtags like #BlackAtKState.
That’s allowed more students and alumni far from campus to share their stories. The posts have caught the attention of school leadership. Kansas State University officials say the school’s listening and will take action.
“It’s been powerful and painful,” said Thomas Lane, K-State's vice president for student life, “and, frankly, heartbreaking.”
At the start of the month, K-State’s Black Student Union called for black students and alumni to share racist incidents they experienced on campus using the hashtag #BlackAtKState. It was modeled on a similar movement from University of Missouri students.
Martin Luther King Jr said, "There comes a time when silence is betrayal." We share the same sentiment. Please, feel free to report any act of overt or covert racism you have experienced while attending K-State using the hashtag #BlackAtKState. pic.twitter.com/mZGkJw9Zrp
— Black Student Union (@ksubsu) June 3, 2020
Within a day, the hashtag started trending. Students and alumni wrote about incidents like police being called on them seemingly with no justification. One alumni recalled constantly being avoided in classes. Others spoke about fearing for their safety. Many recalled a noose hung from a campus tree in 2017. A KU student also shared their stories with the #BlackAtKU hashtag.
Kansas State University President Richard Myers responded to the hashtag in a video on Twitter, and said the school “will use these posts to prepare action steps to end racism at K-State.”
“I am listening and I hear you,” said Myers, “and acknowledge these experiences were hurtful and painful.”
— K-State (@KState) June 5, 2020
Many of the replies to Myers’ tweet were negative, expressing skepticism of any change until the school announced concrete actions. Black students said past talks and panels on racism haven’t led to change and said they’d refuse to participate in more rather than be used as props.
Tomeka Robinson, an associate professor of rhetoric at Hofstra University, said that’s “an absolutely valid critique.”
“If there’s nothing that is behind it, that shows that it’s more than just an exercise to make ourselves feel good, then, yeah, I get it why students are upset,” Robinson said.
Robinson said the protests against the Vietnam War, like those at KU, and the civil rights movements in the 1960s are often what Americans think of when it comes to student protests. But student protests have been around as long as universities.
“Students have been involved since the very beginning of the university system in engaging in organization and calling for action,” Robinson said.
Social media became a large part of protesting in the 2010s, though it was mostly being used for mobilizing and organizing on-the-ground protests, such as the Arab Spring revolts against oppressive regimes in the Middle East. But the #BlackAtKState hashtag protests didn’t support any in-person rally.
Civil discourse experts warn that protesting online makes it easier to artificially inflate the apparent size of a grassroot movement, referred to as astroturfing.
But they say social media demonstrations come with some advantages, including being a safer option during a pandemic. Alumni living far from campus also get to participate and show students they’re not alone in their experiences.
Whether in-person or online, experts say protests are about drawing attention. While the internet has a wider reach, tweets can easily be ignored — or muted. Physical rallies are harder to ignore.
That’s why Zyrie Berry-Hendricks, a recent KU graduate, uses a private Facebook group to organize in-person anti-racism protests in northeast Kansas. While he values hashtags like #BlackAtKState, he believes the ease of posting on social media makes it that much more powerful when protesters make the effort to show up in person.
“Anybody can post ‘Black Lives Matter’ on Facebook,” Berry-Hendricks said. “But to be physically in a space, to say this is an issue I care about enough to inhabit space … is a totally different thing.”
On Monday, Berry-Hendricks organized a protest in Lawrence outside the house of KU men’s basketball coach Bill Self. The protestors wanted the attention of those at KU holding decision-making power. Berry-Hendricks wants university policymakers to be in the room for discussions about racism on campus.
Timothy Shaffer, the director of K-State's Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy, said the real change happens at those discussions, after the demonstrations. But that only works if they’re well informed, potentially by the type experiences students share using the hashtag #BlackAt-KState.
“The idea of protest as an end-all, be-all is really a thin notion of how to deal with our collective problems,” Shaffer said. “The ability to move into … a more discussion-based or discursive way of being with one another is really important.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.