Ella Sanders and Mai Wheeler: ‘CC Black Voices Pt. 2’

Oct 9, 2020 | NEWS | By Pema Baldwin | Photos courtesy of Ella Sanders and Mai Wheeler

Ella Sanders and Mai Wheeler are back for a second week to discuss how they decided to start their Instagram page, CC’s lackluster antiracism campaign, and the intersecting difficulties of the Loomis quarantine. Follow @cc_blackvoices for more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you talk about creating @cc_blackvoices?

Ella: So, I created that before I came to CC. I had seen that there were some Instagram accounts for other groups at the school, and I was very curious as to whether there was one for Black students because I wasn’t really sure how many Black students they had, but also I just wanted to know whether or not I had a community available to me for issues specific to my own group — my African American community. So, I was kind of doing some digging online and I saw that there really wasn’t any sort of social media presence, or really any visual representation. We did find the old Black Student Union page, but they only had one post and it was from a year or so ago, so we were kinda like, ‘Damn…’ (laughs). So because we had seen all these other Instagram pages, we were like, ‘Okay, well… Why don’t we make our own?’ You know what I mean?

These aren’t new events; police brutality has been going on, but it was so tense and really in the forefront of our minds — like, we really couldn’t escape it online at all; every time I went on Instagram, it was somebody getting nailed on, somebody getting shot in the back, and it was just thrown in my face 24/7. I was extremely depressed because of that, and I didn’t really like going on social media. My mom was like, ‘Ella, please just don’t go on there anymore’ because it was so traumatizing. Even just watching the news was really hard because I’m very much the type of person to wake up in the morning and watch the news every day, and the news was also throwing that in my face, so it was hard because I really love my culture and my community so much, and, you know, I’ve always been aware that we’ve been attacked because of who we are.

I’m very proud, and part of my pride comes from the fact that my community is able to overcome so much. When I do start feeling bad, I’ll be thinking about, like — my grandparents had to live in Jim Crow, and look at how they are now. They’re fucking awesome. So, knowing how strong and resilient my community is helps, but it is really heartbreaking because I identify with it so heavily to see them being murdered online all the time simply because they’re Black. When I see those videos, I think of myself, I think of my family, and I think of my friends who I love very closely, and it’s just, like — it feels like my heart’s being torn out. So, we made this page because we wanted to be able to create a space where Black students felt like they could turn to in this PWI [predominantly white institution] where they could look at it and be like, ‘One: I’m not alone, but two: there’s a space online where I don’t have to fucking see us getting killed every day.’ Obviously, we do try to talk about issues specific to our community like mental health and police brutality, but also for the sake of not having to relive hardships, we also talk about things like, you know, ‘What kind of music do you guys listen to? What are y’all looking forward to about coming back to school?’ It’s kind of a spectrum of topics, but basically the idea behind it was to give Black students a voice on campus, and it’s pretty self explanatory in the username, but there was a lot of thought that went behind it as well.

Mai: Ella is the founder, so I didn’t really play any role in the founding process, but I would second everything that she said, and making sure to not only let Black students on campus know that they had a voice, but playing a role in uplifting it and making them feel like their voice was valued was definitely important.

Ella: I think one thing that’s weird — let me go check — but there was a lot of support coming from the other Instagram pages that were from CC, which is really nice to see that community and whatnot, but I don’t think the actual school itself follows our Instagram page, which is so weird because they follow all the other Instagram pages. I mean, I’m not pressed, but I still think it’s weird, and I feel like that in itself — I mean, it’s an Instagram page, OK— but social media is a big deal nowadays, obviously, so for the school’s main Instagram page to follow every other page, except for ours, I was kind of like … I know you’re active. It’s just kind of strange. Yeah, they don’t follow it. I just checked again, so there’s that. If you were looking for some tea: Colorado College does not follow our page, but yeah. It was really just to develop a sense of community and an online presence for the Black students at this school.

Black student trends have been declining from what I’ve seen online on the school’s website. They’ve been declining ever since the Trump election pretty much. The school has been admitting less and less Black students each year since then, so I would say that if the numbers are going to keep getting smaller, there’s going to be a need for increased representation and support for these students because, I mean, strength in numbers, so if our numbers are decreasing, then what?

Mai: And something I would really emphasize is that I think a lot of the responses, whenever people voice these concerns, are, ‘Go talk to someone about it; talk to your professors, talk to the Butler Center.’ All of those are really great resources, but not everyone feels comfortable doing that, and I think that CC needs to find a way to accommodate those who don’t feel comfortable doing that. Also, with the issue that I had in my block one class, I feel like the reason that was able to happen was because professors don’t know how to deal with internalized racism, and I don’t think that’s really a conversation that we have when we talk about antiracism. White people are not the only perpetrators of racist ideology. In fact, people of color being racist is honestly way more detrimental in a lot of spaces than white people because it often opens the door for white people to voice their racism and feel comfortable in it when they can point to someone and tokenize them, so I really think that we need to call on CC and ask CC to incorporate that more in their training because I really just felt like no one knew how to tell a Black person that they were being hateful towards other Black people.

Ella: Also, I feel like sometimes — I mean, we haven’t been here very long, so I could be wrong — but from what I’ve heard from other students and faculty is that sometimes the school will be like, ‘Oh, well we don’t know what the students want,’ but then there’s not really a way for the students, that I know of yet, to work their way up to the administration because a lot of time the first response to when something is racist is ‘File a complaint.’ And it’s like, what does that do if the professor is tenured? There needs to be more options available, and instead of it being so reactive, it really does need to be proactive. Not just like, ‘We have an antiracist education,’ or something like that. If this is an antiracist campus, how do you still have professors that facilitate, enable, and even incite racist conversations and dialogue within the classroom? You know what I mean? There needs to be some guidance there because some students will just go off on rants and spread misinformation to support hateful and inherently racist arguments.

One thing that Mai and I have noticed is the double standards that are there. If you allow a student to give a presentation on slave mentality saying some bullshit like, ‘Oh, Black people have a slave mentality, and that’s why they get killed; that’s why they were slaves — because they had a slave mind.’ But you are a professor and you’re like, ‘Sorry, Tom. I’m not going to let you give a presentation on why women belong in the kitchen because that’s sexist,’ but why did they allow [the other one], you know? That’s where this is strange.

A lot of people feel that CC is extremely liberal, but when you are in these vulnerable subgroups, it doesn’t seem liberal, especially if you’re constantly being attacked for your race, or even if it’s just every once in a while — one time is too many. You know what I mean? Like, how liberal can you be if you still have racist classrooms?

Mai: And I think something really important to acknowledge is that for our orientation this year, we had a mandatory Zoom about sexism that we had to attend titled, like … what was it? Was it ‘discrimination?’ Is that what it said?

Ella: It was something like that — something where people thought it was going to be about race. I think it was ‘discrimination.’

Mai: It definitely had a word like ‘discrimination’ as the keyword in the title, and they mentioned race maybe once in the entire presentation, and the rest of it was about gender identity and sexism towards women, and while I think that is a valuable conversation to have, it was very weird to me that that was mandatory and the conversations on antiracism were optional, especially when CC pushes this really large antiracist initiative.

A lot of my closest friends go to Vanderbilt, and they had them read an entire book about recognizing forms of oppression and forms of discrimination — that kind of stuff. So, it’s very odd to me that CC didn’t do anything like that for us. I mean, I guess that you could say that our common read acknowledged it a little bit, but I don’t think it’s enough to subtly acknowledge it. I think that it needs to be talked about directly because sugarcoating it, or hiding it behind metaphors and stuff like that, doesn’t help the Black people on campus.

What are your plans for this year?

Ella: I’m currently staying on campus. I’m probably gonna stay until spring semester as well. I’m kind of back and forth on trying to decide what’s my best option: to stay on campus or to leave campus. As far as my plans for the future, it’s really just revolving around my healthcare requirements for school because right now I’m thinking about going into the medical field, so that’s kind of where my head is at. If we’re talking more so about the CC Black Voices page, we do have a lot of posts lined up specifically about how to create an antiracist classroom, or how to prevent harmful discussions and anti-Black sentiment in the classroom, things like that — protecting Black students in a PWI.

I will say it’s difficult to be constantly churning out content when you are having to deal with all these different things. Like, I know for me, I was in CAL [Collective for Antiracism and Liberation], and I still am in CAL, but when I first started, I was definitely way more active than I am now, and I kind of had to take a step back from a lot of these ongoing efforts on campus because it’s hard to be experiencing it and then trying to fight it at the same time. You know what I mean? It would be easier if I didn’t have to deal with all the stuff, as far as police brutality, the pandemic — the pandemic disproportionately affecting Black people in specific states. I mean … just everything [laughs]. Just everything, you know? So when they’re constantly having discussions that pertain to police brutality or fighting it, I just get exhausted so much faster, and I definitely burn out a lot faster because it does negatively impact our mental health. So, I did take a step back from those activist groups for a while for the sake of protecting myself, but I do want to be more involved in them in the future. Right now, CC Black Voices is what I can do — what I can handle — at this moment.

Mai: I’m back home in Nashville. I chose to leave, and they’ve given me the option to come back if I wanted to, but I am going to stay home at least for the rest of the semester and possibly next semester as well. But yeah, not a big fan of Colorado Springs as a place. It’s definitely very different from Nashville, and it takes some adjusting. I think I’m more willing to come back sophomore year when I have somewhere that I can cook my own food easier just because the food is really bad out there. When it comes to CC Black Voices though, I would agree with what Ella is saying. I’m a Bonner Fellow, and so just having all of that going on at the same time is definitely a lot and very stressful. I had to talk to my block two professor and basically just be like, ‘Hey, I honestly can’t give you my a hundred percent because being Black is really hard right now.’ There’s no way to sugarcoat it. It’s really hard, and I think a lot of non-Black people don’t realize that the headlines that you see about Black lives don’t leave for us. There’s not a time when I’m not thinking about it or when it’s not on the back of my mind, at least. It’s constantly looming over most Black people. There’s racism in the outside world and the inside world — the CC community — and with racial tensions being as high as they are right now, it can be very debilitating. So, you know, CC Black Voices is really important to us and we really want to be there for the Black people on campus, or just in the CC community in general, but at the same time we have to make sure that we are healthy — Me and Ella.

Ella: Yeah. Also, for me, I was in the Loomis quarantine, and I had to start off my first week of my block one in quarantine. It was really hard being in quarantine and having to isolate, because I didn’t have a roommate, while also grappling with police brutality. I remember just being so, like … I had set up this routine when I came to school; I was doing really well, and then I got thrown into quarantine and I felt like it definitely wasn’t the same for me as it was for other students. That’s why I was kind of frustrated with the school because I felt like they had said all their antiracist stuff — posted their thing about George Floyd — but having to go into quarantine and then having all that stress on my mind of grappling with racial trauma at the same time … I was dealing with a lot of trauma over the summer, but even when I came to campus, and the thing with Jacob Blake had just happened as well while I was in quarantine, and I accidentally saw the video; I remember just being so sick to my stomach. I literally could not get out of my bed for, like, two days. It was just really hard to be thrown into that — being in your head all the time — and having to come back out to do classes and stuff.

So, that was pretty difficult. Putting students in quarantine when you know that they are grappling with racial trauma and giving them shitty food [laughs]. I would go back and forth between stress eating and then just not eating at all, and they gave me food that I was allergic to pretty much all of quarantine, so I couldn’t even eat a lot of the time. It was just a very unsettling environment, you know what I mean? I was very unhappy, but like I said, I was put into quarantine, having to go to school, and then having to deal with seeing the Jacob Blake video and all this racial trauma.

I really thought that I was not going to be able to finish my class. I was very uncertain, so that was pretty difficult. I feel like they should be more conscious of that. They definitely have amazing faculty and staff to advise them when they make decisions like this, so I’m not sure what’s going on up there with the administration. How does this stuff happen? You know what I mean? Like, I don’t understand. I know that they tried, but that’s honestly not enough. I don’t feel like we should have to settle when it comes to racism or racial trauma.

There’s a lot that they could do to improve their antiracist campaign. I think that when it came to quarantine, my perspective was definitely left out. A lot of kids were upset for different reasons than I was, and they’re totally valid, but I feel like understanding that there’s layers to each person on campus, and race and mental health are definitely layers, and I don’t think that they anticipated that when they were doing our quarantine. It was a very general, traditional approach — like, a general psychology approach — when they should have adapted or taken into consideration what each different student was dealing with based on where they came from. Were they an international student? Were they a first year? Were they coming from a wealthy background or a less wealthy background? Were they dealing with fucking police brutality and racial trauma? Were they dealing with the racial trauma of having to — if they were immigrants or refugees — see headlines about ICE? They knew that the Jacob Blake thing had happened, so it’s just like, where was the support from the school? That was traumatizing, and I was put into quarantine in the middle of that.

I was just like, ‘What the fuck? I can’t do any of this right now.’ I feel like there should’ve been some sort of talk with professors to understand. They could have done something to prime professors for the fact that their students were going through more than just a pandemic. I’m not trying to say, ‘Oh, we’re the only ones who experience pain,’ but that was a lot all at once, and they definitely had the knowledge and access to the information to be like, ‘Hey, this specific subgroup of students is extremely vulnerable right now and we need to act on that,’ but they didn’t, and they still haven’t.

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