James J. Lyons IV
“We were sold this watered-down version of history that glorifies colonizers and enslavers, and it systematically writes out the contributions of communities of color. There is much work to be done in order to reconcile with this deeply racist past and to adjust our systems as a result of this miseducation.”
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My name is James Joseph Lyons IV. And this is my voice.
My first year at Northeastern, my white roommate told me, “you know, slavery wasn’t actually that bad.” He then tried to justify it by talking about how his ancestors had treated their enslaved people. I had to just roll over and go to sleep so I wouldn’t punch this kid in the face, and risk getting kicked out of a school I had spent years dreaming of attending.
In the words of James Baldwin, “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” And by growing up in a mixed race family, I knew this rage early on. There’s a stark difference in the lived experiences of my Black and white family, and I’ve seen it. Take, for example, the time my mom’s car broke down when she was with my older brother. Luckily, she has AAA, so she called them and they were going to come to her car, and then she calls the police because where she broke down was right in the middle of an intersection, and she didn’t want anyone to slam into the not-moving car there. As soon as the officer showed up, he’s like, ma’am, you need to move your car. And, you know, he’s like, “we’re going to tow it with the town service.” My mom explained to him that she has AAA, and she didn’t wanna use the town service because that’s going to cost $90 that she doesn’t have. And the cop just wouldn’t budge. My mom, of course, she also wouldn’t budge. Next thing you know, my brother’s on the phone with my dad and he’s like, “dad, you gotta come quick. Like, mom is literally about to get arrested. They’re about to drag her out of the car.” So he shows up at the scene and suddenly the cop’s demeanor is entirely different. And suddenly it’s this attitude of like, “oh, hi sir, how are you?” You know, “oh this is your car? Oh, okay. Yeah, we can wait for AAA, no problem.” The difference? My mother is a Black woman from Trinidad and my dad is a white man.
Now, what these experiences have taught me is profound—The fact that these macro and micro aggressions are still happening today during my lifetime, that’s a direct product of a flawed educational system. The other day, a co-op, Bay’ah—she’s our economic opportunity director—she held a space for reflection and conversation in light of the George Floyd lynching and the ongoing protests in our country. One of our white coworkers in the office started talking about how she had to have a conversation with her son about white privilege, and then she started to cry. But she started to cry, and then she explained that she said, “I’m crying not because I had to talk to my son about white privilege. I’m crying because I’m ashamed I hadn’t done it before.” That sense of shame that she has for not talking to her son earlier about this, I think that’s the same sense of shame that our entire nation should feel right now for not having properly educated Americans on the evils of racism and white supremacy that are embedded into our society.
For me, this realization in particular allows me to redirect my rage away from individuals so I can instead focus on the systems that allow ignorance to flourish. As Americans, we were sold this watered down version of history that glorifies colonizers and enslavers, and it systematically writes out the contributions of communities of color. There is much work to be done in order to reconcile with this deeply racist past and in order to adjust our systems as a result of this miseducation. This is where I think the work of anti-racism begins at Northeastern. As a predominantly white institution, one that was founded in 1898, it’s a natural consequence that we should have policies and procedures that stem from white supremacist ideology. We have to remember that Black people couldn’t even go to the same schools as white people until about 60 years ago. And simply building a more diverse student body does not automatically address the long standing legacy of white supremacy on the books. For Northeastern especially, being located in Boston, which is known as one of the most racist cities in America, we must work three times as hard and ten times as fast to combat anti-blackness, and to develop a culturally competent community. As I was telling president Aoun last week, cultural competence is comprised of five literacies: Racial/ethnic, queer, religious, gender, and socio economic. Right now what we’re seeing in America is a significant increase in racial literacy. More and more people are educating themselves about anti-blackness in their communities. And in particular, more white Americans are reconciling with white privilege, and teaching their children about the implications of their own white privilege.
I genuinely believe that Northeastern can emerge as a leader right now. Our institution’s commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion are among the top reasons that I chose this school. But we also have to recognize that our school has changed significantly in the last few decades. In 2018, it was reported that we had fewer domestic Black students than we did in 1980. When I had asked a university official about this, her response to me was, “Well, let’s look at the history: In 1980, if you could afford to come here, you came here. Today, we’re a much more elite institution.” I spent the next few months wondering why she didn’t think Black people were elite. After all, doesn’t Harvard have more Black students than we do? I’ve talked to president Aoun about this disheartening experience a few times. And time and time again, he has responded the same: “This is unacceptable.” I know he believes that. I know he cares to make sure that no student experiences what I had to when talking about this. Unfortunately, we have a lot of work to do to prevent micro-aggressions like these from occurring on our campuses, just as all American universities do. Luckily, here at NU, I can say our senior leadership is finally open to having this conversation, and to work directly with students, faculty, and staff to make Northeastern better for Black and other academics of color. While the racial battle fatigue is real, I am nonetheless excited to see where this moment takes us.