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Column: UNC needs more than a performative Black History Month

Opinion-celebrate-bhm-at-pwi

I’m not sure why I was expecting an email or acknowledgement of Black History Month from the University on Feb. 1. Although it would have been nice to receive a message from our new interim chancellor, it’s not like there’s a precedent for that kind of thing.

Maybe Black History Month isn’t a big enough deal to constitute recognition from the University, or maybe it’s just so routine that it doesn’t cross people's minds anymore. Regardless, as February unfolds, most universities attempt to commemorate the achievements and contributions of African Americans throughout history.

Historically Black institutions naturally have more to celebrate; N.C. A&T is the alma mater of trailblazers who led peaceful protests during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. On the first of February, the anniversary of this sit-in, they can remember all they did for the liberation and education of Black people in this country.

It’s hard to expect UNC, a predominantly white institution, to note the month in any similar way — but even other public universities, like N.C. State University, have event calendars, including keynote speakers and dining hall menus tweaked to celebrate Black culture. 

Perhaps it’s UNC's uncomfortable history with Black affairs that makes the atmosphere surrounding Black History Month feel strangely detached and, at times, even disheartening. 

It wasn’t until 1951 that Black students were admitted into the UNC School of Law, and they still were not allowed in the undergraduate program. These students lived on a different floor from white students, were forced to use separate pools and weren’t allowed to sit in the student section at football games. They were not embraced as fellow students by the student body. Later, in 1955, three Black students enrolled in the undergraduate program. This decision was heavily protested again by the student body, noted by a letter of protest against integration signed by then-Student Body President Donald Fowler. All three students left the undergraduate program at UNC before receiving their diplomas.

I’ve complained about this before, and I’ve been met with criticism I can’t refute. I know I chose to go to a PWI in the South. If I wanted a school with a reputation of uplifting Black students and education, I should have gone to a historically Black university. I knew that schools like UNC often come with a history that set people back rather than propelling them forward.

But my qualms are not just with the undeniable racist past this University holds. That was expected. I find a bigger issue in the fact that UNC seems keen on shying away from this history instead of recognizing its impact on past and current students.

UNC can’t erase its history, and they shouldn’t try. While UNC sites and sources that remember past Black students as “pioneers” are great, they don’t tell the full story. Some UNC press releases on the celebration of Black History Month this year do little except highlight the Black people who work for the department, which feels performative, and many of the educational resources available read like they were written by ChatGPT. 

If you do a little research, you’d find that some of UNC’s early buildings were built by slaves, and it was only in 2022 that specific buildings named after known white supremacists were renamed. 

It's honestly dystopian to celebrate Black History Month on a campus like UNC; it can feel like an empty gesture, a checkbox on the diversity and inclusion checklist without a genuine commitment to addressing the institution's historical shortcomings. 

But things don't have to be this way. Discomfort can serve as a catalyst for change. UNC has the opportunity to turn this discomfort into a meaningful dialogue about its past and present commitment to diversity. Instead of hiding from the University's racist history, it should be acknowledged openly, discussed in classrooms and integrated into the institutional memory. 

Creating a more inclusive and supportive environment requires more than just symbolic gestures during Black History Month. It demands a comprehensive examination of institutional policies, curricula and a commitment to fostering a sense of belonging for every student. It requires UNC to face the past head on, or else every Black History Month celebration and initiative will continue to feel like a slap in the face.

@DELCRAWL

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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