From Bates And Beyond: Reflections On Race, Identity, and Change

I can’t breathe.

This is a phrase that has resonated throughout the world over the past few weeks.

I can’t breathe.

These three words have so much meaning. These words mean more than just a cry for help or an act of desperation.

“I can’t breathe” represents a generation of black and brown people being silenced.

Recently the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Aubery have hurt this nation. A nation that has had generations of people persecuted and killed due to the color of their skin. “I can’t breathe” connects the pain that so many have experienced and continue to experience to this day. Why does this pain continue to persist? Why do black and brown people continue to be killed mercilessly? Why do we live in a society bent on racism and revenge?

There is more than one way to digest these events, and there is more than one voice that needs to be heard. The reality of police brutality and institutional racism is that it has damaged the fabric of society for years.

Statistically, while the average black person is 1.3 times less likely to be unarmed, they are 3 times more likely to be killed by police.

The numbers don’t lie. There are distinctions based on how people live and are perceived by others, simply because of the color of their skin. These numbers, whether you believe them or not, are indicative of systemic racism. 

Black people are dying. Black people are dying without remorse. There is no justification for racism. There is no justification for murder. The truth is that America has been built at the expense of black lives and other people of color. The pain has been unbearable while the reality persists. Sometimes there is sadness. Sometimes anger. Sometimes hopelessness. But there is always pain.

America has time and time again repressed black people under constant systematic oppression. Whether through slavery, the age of Jim Crow, or the current era of police brutality, black people have been victims of institutional racism for generations. The historic phrase “All men are created equal” has proven to be a fallacy. “All men are created equal” did not apply to black people, certainly not to black women. The struggle for racial and gender equality in the United States continues to be at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.

For black people, the right to vote has come with great cost and sacrifice. Not too long ago, a black person was only considered to be three-fifths of a person. It took an agonizing 78 years for the U.S. to abolish slavery. It took two more years for black people to gain citizenship and then another two years for black men to be guaranteed suffrage. Still, gender inequality remained for women during those times, especially for black women. The fight for equality was never simple and never promised.

Despite all of the difficulties and traumas, black people have remained empowered. Especially during the Civil Rights Movement, black people united to take action and fought against injustice led by prominent leaders such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Ella Baker. From the Civil Rights Movement, there was the March on Washington. Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” was more than just a speech. It was a declaration of freedom. “I Have A Dream” symbolized a movement for racial equality and social justice in America.

When the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmad Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor came to light I asked myself, “Why is this happening? Why does this violence and hatred continue to persist?” I clutched my fists, went down on my knees, closed my eyes and yelled “Why!” So many black and brown people have wondered why

Over the past few weeks, many black and brown people have powerfully protested in the streets of cities such as New York, Washington D.C, and Minneapolis to advocate for justice, racial equality, and an end to police brutality. These protests gathered men and women, young and old, of all races, determined to get their voice across America and the entire world. From “I can’t Breathe,” “No Justice No Peace,” and “Black Lives Matter,” cries and chants for change were voiced all around the world. As a black person, I am empowered to create change and determined to have my voice heard. 

Yet after all the protests, the advocacy, and the conversations, the question on many people’s minds is “Where do we go from here?” One of the many challenges of creating change is sustaining the momentum and educating others. At Bates, it’s no different. Over the past couple of weeks, Bates has hosted several meaningful conversations about the continuous impact of police violence and racism against black people. Led by Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Dr. Noelle Chaddock, along with student-led organizations such as the Bates Anti-Racism Coalition, members of the Bates community have organized school-wide initiatives and have expressed their opinions about race, identity, and change.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to talk to some students of color, both at Bates and from other universities, to get their perspectives about race, identity, and change.

Koyabi N’biba ‘20 described his resulting anxiety from incident of racial profiling at Bates: “The illusion of a safe space ceased to exist for me. I was no safer in Lewiston, Maine than I was in the Bronx. Over time however, I worked on taking up space again. I was reminded by Dean Reese, that I stand upon the shoulders of the likes of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and that meant something to me. I had a fruitful four years of Bates where I was able to get the chance to fight for what I believe in. I call upon my fellow members of the Class of 2020 to not be bystanders in the face of injustice and whenever possible to fight for those who are unable to do so for themselves.”
Maalik Dunkley, Class of 2021 at Skidmore College, spoke about the emotional components of being black in America: “As a black person, policing and oppression is essentially ubiquitous in our world. Thus, it brings out suffocating and paradoxical feelings of hope, depression, anger, and skepticism. I cannot escape this issue because there is almost a duty attached to my racial identity. This duty is there most certainly because there is no one else who will protect and defend my people. It’s frightening and enraging to see the same rallying cries from 40 years ago being shouted in the streets today. It’s almost evident that non-black people in power do not care for us. While true non-black allies are appreciated, they have the luxury to forget or move on. I am in the black condition permanently.”
Sarai Leon, Class of 2022 at Florida International University, talked to me about her identity as Afro Cuban. “Racism is well and alive in this country, whether it be thinly veiled policies or outwardly racist rhetoric from hate groups. These protests are necessary for pushing the policies the black community urgently needs. I am Afro Cuban and I live in Miami, Florida. I think race has always been a component of my life since I was born. As a newborn, people would come to the house and immediately ask my mother what color I came out. There was always comments about my hair, my lips, and my nose. Latino racism is dangerous because of the subtleness. We claim we are one community but we discriminate against each other, and it is something I am actively fighting against.”
Bijou Kanyambo ‘21, President of the Africana Club, talked to me about her thoughts on taking action and how to best change the Bates community for the better. “The main question is basically how do you sustain protest? It’s not just enough to hope momentum is going to continue and to not take action. There needs to be actionable steps to protect students and factuality of color. One change I want to see is in the politics department. A more inclusive curriculum instead of Eurocentric, really restructure it. There is potential for our community to be better. I need more people to acknowledge that people are suffering. As President of Africana we helped raise money.  Specifically, we have allied with other black clubs and student-led initiatives to create change.”
Perla Figuereo ‘21, co-president of BCSG, talked about finding strength and helping others during this difficult time: “I am able to find strength through leaning on others. Often times it is very easy to internalize a lot of things and not talk about your trauma, pain, worries, etc. but I have noticed that when I am ready and my body can’t deal with difficult times on my own, I look for those around me that I know love and care for me for guidance, advice, and support. A lot of times healing can come from the energy and love you get from others. From knowing that there is someone there who will listen. I know I don’t have all the answers, but being in a community with others really pushes me to find strength. I always tell people that it is important to talk to anyone and at the same time, of course, if you can handle it, be that person for someone else. We need each other.”
Dr. Chaddock emphasized the importance of how Bates community members can do their part to stay informed and become more involved in social justice: “I think that our Bates community can continue to show up. Show up in the teaching, learning and developmental space. Show up at civic events speaking out against racism in our community here at Bates and where we live. This work doesn’t just need to happen at Bates. Our personal lives must align with our professional lives when we think about developing our whole person to be truly anti-racist. I always ask people to think about ‘who is at their table, who comes to their family weddings…’ Trying to do the work of anti-racism ‘at school’ is not going to get us where we need to be as a campus or global community.”

While it has been an incredibly difficult time for people of color, we must not lose our hope. Listening to others and hearing their stories is the first of many steps in the path towards unity. We all need to do our part. We must do better.

For information on social justice initiatives at Bates please go to: 

Also if you haven’t yet, please donate to the Bates Anti-Racism Coalition Fundraiser: