Déborah Aléxis: BYU must act to make black students feel safe and welcome

Déborah Aléxis is president of the Black Student Union at Brigham Young University

An open letter to Kevin J. Worthen, president of Brigham Young University:

My name is Déborah Aléxis. I am the outgoing president of the Black Student Union at Brigham Young University.

As members of the Black Student Union, my friends and I have had to be the first responders to many racist incidents on campus. We think that to be equitable to the black student population, Brigham Young University needs to be transparent with black students and let them know prior to their arrival on campus that they may expect to encounter racist incidents with little to no recourse on this campus.

If BYU doesn’t act, it risks alienating black Latter-Day Saints. These students deserve to know the racist headwinds they will run into and the consequent emotional hurdles they will be required to clear to graduate. Such a warning may feel blunt and awkward, but it is necessary.

Black students expect that attending a church-run school that ostensibly adheres to Christ’s teachings will be an uplifting and affirming experience. We are stunned and devastated when we discover the contrary.

The following are examples of the emotional labor the black students on this campus experience:

Two years ago, a student said the “N” word in the classroom wherein the professor failed to act. Repulsed by the inaction, the sole black student in the classroom walked out. Abandoned by our faculty support at the last minute, members of the BSU attended the following class and proceeded to give an impromptu workshop about the N-word and racism.

Other misfortunes include a section TA casually saying the N-word while teaching; religion teachers perpetuating false doctrines about race; extra scrutinization by the testing center administrators for not having hair colors deemed “natural” for black people; white supremacist advertising on campus; and students displaying confederate flags in dorms.

In addition to these, there is the situational irony of walking by the Abraham Smoot administrative building, named after a man who owned slaves and contributed to the legalization of slavery in Utah, or knowing that leading proponents of segregation such as David O. McKay, J. Reuben Clark, Ezra Taft Benson, Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee also have eponymously named buildings on campus.

Students privileged to not be affected by the racial isolation on our campus or in our church are often exasperated with our demands for change. Their lack of historical awareness of racism in our church and consequently on our campus renders them ignorant and apathetic to dismantling the continuation of white supremacy.

Inadequate understanding of our past is not solely a BYU issue, however, as an intellectual institution, BYU has the means to intervene in that ignorance and show our student body their role in bettering our church and society.

BYU’s lack of institutional support for minority communities not only hurts our black students but our nation as a whole because our institution is creating the next generation of professionals. I am deeply invested in the betterment of my community and I’ve found that a college degree in the hands of my people not only lifts individual graduates but significantly improves the outlook of their posterity and community. I have also seen, however, that our time here can be quite injurious, deterring some of us from continuing our education.

As students, we have been impacted by the lack of black and brown mentorship available to us. The Multicultural Student Services Office provides us the means to incorporate our culture at BYU, which is very important to our identity on this campus. Despite their efforts, however, our experience as students suggests they do not have the power to redress administrative issues at BYU. Their power lies only in the capacity to buffer some of the isolation and adverse experiences that students of color encounter.

The Africana studies program provides an intellectual refuge for us because it gives us the language, history and affirmation that people of African-descent are and have always been intellectuals and contributors to our society. However, their influence is limited. We also lost two African American faculty members who were vocal about making institutional changes to the university. The dearth of black faculty, and the barriers to taking on mentees for new faculty who are already not getting a lot of support, and who also bear the burden from racist acts themselves systematically puts all of us at a disadvantage.

I’ve made the best with what BYU has given me, but I don’t think BYU offered me its best. It is with deep heartache and exasperation that during my last winter semester at BYU, my wounds with this institution were further aggravated by racist comments submitted to a panel titled “Black and Immigrant” that I was moderating.

Before the panel even started, students cloaked in anonymity proceeded to submit antagonistic questions that would go on to derail the attention of audience members from the contents of the panel which I had worked so hard to organize and advertise. The following weeks were filled with apprehensive speculations of faceless students (emboldened by their verbal attacks) taking things a step further. I also grew distrustful of fellow students on campus. Friendly smiles translated to sneers relishing at the sight of my oblivion to their participation in the act. I also quietly listened to people who were not in attendance defend the comments; students would rather rationalize than admit that there is a problem on our campus.

I was frustrated and even felt responsible for subjecting the panelist and the well-intentioned attendees to this ugliness. I wondered if I was partially at fault for allowing people to submit their questions anonymously. I eventually realized that this was bigger than me, that it was a testament of the university community’s general negligence towards critical subjects like race; and the absence of an established entity that redresses issues of inclusion at BYU.

We thank you for your June 2 statement against racism and, most importantly, for recognizing that there is work for us to do. I am glad that BYU has no problem saying that racism is incongruent with its teachings, however, the university is slow to practice that.

This problem is particularly pressing because the church is inextricably tied to the university. The misfortunes we experience on this campus are carried into sacrament meetings. These spiritual wounds seem to transcend their temporality when they are inflicted by our siblings in Christ; thereby making it harder to “be one” and placing Zion further from reach.

For this reason, it is not enough to condemn racism. Racism on campus isn’t just the sum of bad experiences by individuals (though that should be enough), it reflects a broader institutional problem. Institutional problems require institutional solutions, and BYU, as an institution, requires reform. Here are some specific steps the university could take to implement change:

1. Rework the general education curriculum to be anti-racist

2. Create a religion course that solely addresses race and racism in the LDS church (not limited to the priesthood ban)

3. Create a diversity and inclusion office managed by faculty trained in diversity and inclusion

4. Devise a plan to recruit and retain black faculty and black students

5. Make racist actions an Honor Code violation

6. Restructure the guidelines of cultural and ethnic clubs so that they can better sustain themselves.

7. Change the name of buildings eponymously named after racists on campus and rename them after non-racist-supporting people of color and women like Jane Manning James.

Like the marginalized in our society, the marginalized on this campus are more vulnerable to the anxieties and uncertainty that come with their exclusion because of an unsupportive system. BYU is the best place to begin mending the fissures of our society. I believe that to effectively carry out our aims of “enter to learn, go forth to serve,” our institution must be invested in anti-racist and anti-xenophobic teachings. This way, we will produce better professionals, citizens of this nation and disciples of Jesus Christ.

We hope to see a genuine change soon.

Déborah Aléxis is president of the Black Student Union at Brigham Young University

Déborah Aléxis is president of the Brigham Young University Black Student Union