A digital movement: Creating a safe space for Black Trojans seeking institutional change

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Whenever Sol, a rising senior and creator of @black_at_usc on Instagram, spoke out about her experiences of anti-Blackness with peers and faculty at USC, she was usually met with indifference, disbelief or dismissal. Following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent worldwide protests, she began discussing social media posts detailing experiences of racism and microaggressions facing the Black community with a few of her friends and was inspired to create a similar space for the Black community at USC. Since then @black_at_usc has accumulated more than 450 posts and 11,100 followers at the time of publication. 

Sol, who wished to remain anonymous because of the gravity of the account’s allegations and pushback she may receive from students or administrators and who is using a pseudonym, created the account to amplify the voices of Black students, faculty and staff and provide a safe place for Black Trojans to share their experiences of racism and microaggressions experienced on campus. Choosing to adopt an anonymous platform where individuals are able to submit via a Google form, Sol then stylizes the posts to fit the Cardinal and Gold colors of USC.

“This account is simply a safe and supportive space for Black Trojans to be heard,” Sol wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. “Whether they are current students, alumni, faculty or have any other affiliation, I wanted them to know that their stories matter and they will be heard.” 

Working on and creating the account on her own, Sol looks to validate the experiences of Black Trojans through sharing the posts and forming a community where they do not feel alone in their experiences. 

“Oftentimes, we as Black students experience injustice but we will repress our emotions or memories because we may feel alienated or too hurt,” Sol wrote in the email. “Seeing so many posts detailing the unique lived experiences of others makes us realize that we aren’t crazy! These incidents are happening on a daily basis and we have a right to be upset, angry and disappointed by what is supposed to be our Trojan Family.”

At the time of publication, @black_at_usc has posted submissions detailing microaggressions and acts of racism faced by Black students and staff from the Department of Public Safety, the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, Undergraduate Student Government, Greek life, Dornsife Letters of Arts and Science departments including the Writing Program and Global Health, School of Cinematic Arts, School of Dramatic Arts, Daily Trojan, Annenberg Media and more than 20 other student groups and University departments since the creation of the account June 25. 

A digital forum

For alumna JT Arowosaye, who initially attended Black Lives Matter protests but decided to stop for health reasons related to the coronavirus, virtual protesting through @black_at_usc proved to be just as effective to continue her involvement in the movement. She was one of the first people to begin tagging USC schools and organizations on the submitted posts. 

“It’s letting [organizations] know ‘Hey, we see this, and it’s addressing you, or it’s about you and you should speak on it — whether it’s true or not,’” Arowosaye said. “This is what somebody experienced, and you should, as an organization — that says all these things about uplifting your members, students, community — you should probably figure out what to do about this.”

Haben Gebre, a rising senior majoring in human biology and Spanish, has also been tagging accounts under each submission. Catching wind of the social media account through friend repostings, she immediately began following it. Although unsurprised with the contents of the submissions, Gebre said she was grateful for the space provided to display the microaggressions and blatant acts of aggression that have impacted marginalized students at USC. 

“I think a lot of these aggressions are either unnoticed or internalized, so I think a medium like this to publicize our experiences is fantastic because now we can’t turn a blind eye anymore,” she said. 

Gebre noticed that although there were various people tagging accounts, departments and organizations were unwilling to respond to the posts. Deciding to tag personal accounts, Gebre looked up DPS Chief John Thomas’ Instagram profile and tagged him in a post detailing racist protocol instigated by DPS officers. Twenty minutes later he responded to the post, asking the person who submitted the anonymous account and others who faced similar experiences, to message him directly or file a complaint. 

From there, Gebre began compiling the posts into an email to schools facing allegations, urging them to take action and investigate the offenses. Although she received responses from some of the schools she emailed — the Viterbi School of Engineering, Dornsife and Annenberg — besides SDA and SCA, the responses only addressed their commitment to addressing issues of anti-Blackness on campus without detailing further actions. 

As Arowosaye continues to tag accounts on each post, she said she believes that as Black people are engaging with the posts, they should consider the toll reading the submissions may have. 

“If you are Black and reading a lot of these things, even if you don’t think it’s getting to you, it definitely [does get to you],” Arowosaye said. “And I don’t say that in a way to knock @black_at_usc, I just think it can be very triggering. I think it’s a space and a forum that’s needed, but I think, for me personally, for some of my other friends, we just have to step away once in a while.”

Since the creation of the account, the comment section and Sol’s direct messages have been littered with troll accounts, questioning the movement and posts. On Sunday, Sol received an anonymous submission from a student in a group chat with members of USC College Republicans, Young Americans for Freedom and Turning Point USA who said members were planning to submit false submissions to discredit the @black_at_usc account. YAF and TPUSA did not respond to the Daily Trojan’s inquiry on the issue before publication. In an email to the Daily Trojan, USC GOP wrote that they condemn any efforts to delegitimize the account’s mission to uplift Black voices and were not aware of members’ intentions to do so but are investigating further. 

Admiring the @black_at_usc page for its authenticity, Jae Deal, adjunct instructor at the Thornton School of Music, also said he believes the submissions have created a comfortable space for the Black community at USC, even if occasionally riddled with fake accounts criticizing the credibility of the stories in the comment section.

“It just feels so much easier to express ourselves in a grassroots movement amongst people who have had similar experiences,” Deal said. “And that’s why that page feels safe.”

Months after they deactivated their Instagram account after watching mutual followers flood their stories with performative activism or negligence in addressing the Black Lives Matter movement, Ariann Barker, a rising sophomore majoring in screenwriting, discovered @black_at_usc through mentions of the account on their Twitter timeline. Looking to broaden the audience of the account, Barker reached out to Sol for permission to post the anonymous submissions as a Twitter thread. 

Receiving more than 780 retweets and 1,300 likes on the thread, Barker then created a thread detailing their own experiences as a college student at a predominantly white institution and SCA. Through @black_at_usc posts, they were able to see that they were not overthinking the actions of their peers and professors as racists or harboring racist sentiments. 

“Reading through the responses, it awoke something in me where I was like ‘Wow, I thought that I was really depressed and melancholic because of my natural chemical imbalance,’ but I then realized that a lot of the things that I was upset with and a lot of the reasons I felt like I was under mental duress came from the burden of attending a PWI,” Barker said. 

Barker has also received anonymous submissions via Twitter that they posted on the thread, that has included naming professors. Although choosing to take the brunt of the repercussions that may occur with going public with their names, Barker said they have not received responses from either the professors or the schools they teach in. 

“You have faculty who are saying the n-word or things like that that are absolutely horrid, that’s just reprehensible and unacceptable,” Barker said. “I would think that such an esteemed or supposedly prestigious university would vet its professors to make sure that they’re … talking about the right things, but if they aren’t, it’s definitely a fault on part of USC for hiring them in the first place.”

The @black_at_usc posts have also highlighted microaggressions and racism present in campus media organizations including the Daily Trojan and Annenberg Media. In a 2017 front cover supplement story on campus sexual assault, a Daily Trojan graphic featured black hands grabbing white legs. An apology was issued after publication, and the student who raised concerns offered to lead a sensitivity workshop for the Daily Trojan’s staff. The workshop did not take place after the meeting with the student. However, in an email to the Daily Trojan, the USC alumna who submitted the @black_at_usc post said that she did not offer to lead the workshop but was asked by the two DT editors at the time. She instead offered to assist them with research and materials to lead their own workshop. Other microaggressions from the campus newspaper depicted on the account highlighted the difficulty of pitching Black stories and seeing Black Trojans represented in print. 

Annenberg Dean Willow Bay, the writing program in Dornsife, Panhellenic and Interfraternity councils and DPS have released statements publicly or to the Daily Trojan in response to post allegations. The organizations and departments apologized for anti-Black racism experienced in their communities and said they were committed to address the issues detailed in the posts.

In an interview with the Daily Trojan Thomas and DPS Assistant Chief David Carlisle said they cannot investigate the anonymous incidents and that it would instead be handled by the Office of Equity and Diversity, where DPS will be able to see the outcome of the incident and incorporate it in future training. Thomas also mentioned that he is personally monitoring the account daily and that he encourages students to come forward with their claims if they feel comfortable doing so.

Pressing for change

Three days after the creation of the @black_at_usc account, USC’s Instagram page issued a post acknowledging the new account and provided a link to President Carol Folt’s anti-racism initiatives she released June 11. The post followed hundreds of submissions on the @black_at_usc account. 

Following the University’s post, Sol asked USC to not tag them in posts until action was set in motion.

The next day, Folt announced by email additional initiatives in light of the posts’ allegations of racist actions to be led by Provost Professor Shaun Harper and researchers from the Race and Equity Center in collaboration with other USC officials including Vice President for Student Affairs Winston Crisp and Provost Charles Zukoski. The actions included focus group interviews with Black students, faculty, staff and alumni, public forums, surveys and a professional learning workshop for employees. 

Sol decided to construct her own plan following the email’s release, believing that administrators were committed to continuing with limited concrete action. The page now includes an additional link for Black students to submit their demands for USC. At the time of publication, Sol has received more than 300 responses to the demands link that she looks to later compile and post on the account. Her demands include reestablishment of the Awujo House resolution, a 24/7 cultural space for Black students, and the defunding of DPS to allocate extra funds to hire Black mental health professionals and medical service providers at the Engemann Student Health Center and Keck Hospital. 

“I read her email, and I was so sad I actually cried,” Sol wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan following Folt’s Tuesday announcement. “After all the work Black Trojans have put into sharing their stories, Folt decided that her four step action plan would suffice. Her response showed me that she either doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation, which is bad, or she does understand yet she still continues to ignore the part she is playing by failing to address these accounts adequately (which is worse).”

While Sol acknowledged the removal of known eugenicist Rufus von KleinSmid name from the now temporarily named the Center for International and Public Affairs, she believes there is more work to be done on part of administrators.

“I have felt for a long time that USC addresses issues but fails to fix them,” Sol wrote. “The issues of racism, white supremacy and anti-Blackness within the USC community are very large issues to tackle. Perhaps that’s why the responses usually involve flowery language such as ‘zero-tolerance policy’, ‘no place for {insert alleged offense}’ and usually ends in a resolution to enforce some superficial change. To me, it is not enough that the USC administration removes the name of a eugenicist off a building. They must ask themselves why they named it after him in the first place.”

Folt declined to further comment to the Daily Trojan on her new initiatives or criticisms the email received. 

Although Deal said he believes Folt’s email was sincere, he said he thinks that the initiatives could have been better presented.

“It just felt like we were about to be asked to relive our trauma in a clinical setting and that the framework for this new platform would be used later in the future,” Deal said. “It just felt analogous to the phenomenon of the infrastructure of the United States being built on the backs of Black people — on our struggle — and it didn’t sit well with a lot of people of color.”

In light of the University’s response, Sol said she hopes Folt and administrators will instead begin to listen to community demands and create initiatives to halt the issues highlighted in @black_at_usc posts.

“I want to make it known that I have no intention of stopping the work I do,” Sol wrote. “The stories shared on black_at_usc have highlighted just how bad the experiences of Black people at USC can get and right now I know we are all sick of it. People aren’t willing to take whatever performative crumbs of action the administration will offer. I hope that the USC community (students, faculty, staff and alumni alike) will unite and become a real force to be reckoned with.”

I, Too, Am USC

The @black_at_usc account isn’t the first campaign dedicated to fighting racial inequity on campus.

The 2015 I, Too, Am USC campaign was a social media-driven account where people of color posted their stories of racism and microaggressions on white boards, standing alongside descriptions of their experiences. Levi Powell, a former USG diversity and inclusion co-chair, helped create the campaign alongside then-seniors Ama Konadu Amoafo-Yeboah and Skylar Dunn and then-junior Rini Sampath. The page has more than 2,300 combined followers on Instagram and Facebook.

“The whole basis behind the I, Too, Am USC page … was the notion that Black and underrepresented minority students at USC in undergrad really had this overwhelming sense and feeling like we didn’t belong, like it wasn’t our University,” Powell said. 

When Amoafo-Yeboah was planning for the I, Too, Am USC campaign, she and her peers initially created the account to provide a space for only the Black community to express their racist experiences on campus. However, receiving pushback from white and non-Black people of color to expand on the initiative, they ultimately altered the campaign to concede to the outcries, she said. Looking back, Amoafo-Yeboah said she wishes she and her peers would have been more unapologetic for who they were initially campaigning for and is glad the @black_at_usc page is a space solely for Black stories.

“I remember at a Senate meeting, we were presenting on the [Black House resolution], and I broke down, talking about my experience and our experiences as Black students at USC and it took that moment for a senator, who we’ve been trying to get through to for so long, to recognize the gravity of what we were talking about and to be able to even remotely begin to care about the issue,” Amoafo-Yeboah said. “That’s the problem, that it takes all of this for people to see us, to see the issue.”

Now, five years following the creation of the I, Too, Am USC campaign, the @black_at_usc account is similarly devoted to exposing racism on campus, specifically focusing on anti-Blackness. However, Amoafo-Yeboah said she notices the same static behavior from administration now as when she was advocating as an undergraduate. 

“It’s the same story, over and over again, and the institution just tries to exhaust the students who are organizing or blacklist them and figure out ways to exhaust them so that they can just brush the initiatives under the rug, and it’s disheartening,” Amoafo-Yeboah said. “This happens at every institution. This is just what white supremacy does. They owe us for all of the trauma that we endured and the psychosomatic manifestations of that trauma.”

From John Alexander Somerville’s admission to USC in 1903 as the first Black student to earn a degree at USC who faced petitions against his enrollment, to the Los Angeles Police Department and DPS’s racial profiling, such as a 2013 instance of Black students getting arrested at a house party following a noise complaint, the University has historically left anti-Black racism unresolved and stands seemingly complicit in inflicting racial traumas, Sampath said.

“The pain of Black students has been on full display, not just through the USC Instagram that just emerged, it’s been on display since this University started,” Sampath said. “The onus is on [administration], the ones who are paid PhDs, researchers on staff, to unroll the month-by-month action strategies … It’s on them to actually implement the recommendations made to them in years past … and make the structural changes that students, faculty and alumni, have been asking for.”

Regarding past student activism against campus and institutional racism, Sol wrote that she finds it disheartening that USC continues to fail the many people that have used their talents to highlight injustices. However, she wrote that she believes the world is in a powerful time to remain connected virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, which she said has helped increase the attention the page has garnered. 

“I know that the fight for racial equality is much bigger than black_at_usc,” she wrote. “If President Folt chooses to follow in the footsteps of her predecessors who refused to change this institution for the better, someone else will pick up the torch and continue to fight for what is right.”

In the three years he’s been at USC or at any school that he has taught in, Deal has never witnessed a community like the @black_at_usc page. 

“I’ve never seen this kind of autonomy and solidarity in students with this approach, out of any of the institutions where I’ve taught,” Deal said. “This is unprecedented. It’s almost a testament to how amazing USC is as a university because whoever’s behind it is — they understand policy … they understand diplomacy, and their approach is something bigger at play, I can sense. And this is just the beginning.”

For Barker, the account created community engagement that they did not witness in their first year at USC. 

“That’s what the beauty of this account is, is that not only are allies or even Black people who … knew about their own experiences personally, but might not have known about the experiences of others in such detail, are banding together,” Barker said. “That’s the gorgeous, bittersweet nature of what has come from this account and all of this is that awareness is not just for allies but for us Black people as well … in terms of how the underbelly works and how [racism] can permeate just about every facet of your life at USC.”

For Tierney Franklin, a prospective student for the School of Architecture, reading @black_at_usc posts made her reconsider  her offer of admission and shifted her focus toward attending Howard University, a historically Black university. Following Folt’s response, the deliberation for another school solidified even more, she said. 

“A lot of work still definitely needs to be done,” Franklin said. “I think it’s a beautiful thing that the students at USC are standing up, and I noticed there is a lot of love still on the page — not just from Black students but from other students trying to grab [USC’s] attention. So I think that [change] can definitely be done but for me, [USC’s] just not a good fit at this present time.” 

As Sol continues to receive posts of the widespread threat of anti-Blackness on campus, she expects administration, student government organizations, Greek life councils and students to engage in the communitywide effort to achieve targeted solutions to the problems listed on the @black_at_usc account. 

“Those who have borne their souls and been vulnerable by sharing their stories,” Sol wrote. “Those who read these stories and empathise deeply with them. And those who can’t because these experiences are so traumatising and simply too hurtful to relive. Your experiences are valid. You are valued. Your lives matter.”

Lauren Mattice and Natalie Oganesyan contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the student who submitted a @black_at_usc post regarding a 2017 Daily Trojan supplement graphic offered to lead a sensitivity workshop. In an email to the Daily Trojan, the alumna stated that she did not offer to lead the workshop. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.