Elizabeth Spenst is a student at Yale University and the editor-in-chief of DOWN magazine.
Last year, multiple colleges once again saw the rise of student protests, including Yale, against the discrimination of POC on campus. And although it served as an unnerving reminder of the racism still prevalent across America, weaved into the school grounds of even the best of institutions, it also became a triumph of youth empowerment.
Real change in real time often feels like idealism, especially in a modern age of continuous police brutality, gun violence, sensational politicians and white cinema. But we hold on to the surge of voices, online and around us– we stay anchored. We filter through a tainted system, and we demand for a shift in wind, whether it be through a hashtag, an op-ed, a student march. I think about Matthew Salesses’s lines:
“I see the anxiety now in white media over the subject of race, over how to talk about #BlackLivesMatter. That anxiety makes me wonder. In the classroom, when I mention white supremacy, a few heads nod; more turn away in fear. Maybe I see hope in that fear. Fear of people’s own complicity. Hope that people condemning “violent” protests are afraid of their own rising awareness. Some can see the truth and don’t want to. The bells are ringing. What if this country is waking up?”
Are we waking up? Real change in real time often feels like idealism, yes. But hey. The best of today’s students, a youth absorbed in an internet that strips America bare, are blazing, shaking the shoulders of their country, stretching, laughing. There is so much to do.
Can you give a brief explanation of what DOWN is and tell me what the process was like for developing it?
DOWN Magazine is an online publication by and for students of color at Yale. We publish weekly, and have come out with two zines that are also on our website. Students of color at Yale have always wanted a publication of their own that would be dedicated to their voices and perspectives, as well as fill in the gaps of coverage neglected by other campus publications. In 2014, Eshe Shirley gathered a group of students together and came up with the name and concept of DOWN Magazine. DOWN stands for “Defining our world now.” Dr. Briallen Hopper connected me with Eshe the next semester, and together with Eshe and Sebi Medina-Tayac we made DOWN a reality by recruiting a larger staff and actually publishing content.
As you were able to be part of the protests at Yale, how do you think students in smaller colleges or even high schools should combat racism or sexism?
I live tweeted the March of Resilience on DOWN’s account. We marched at Yale because we wanted to show the administration and the world that students at Yale are committed to improving the campus for marginalized groups. The key is that it can’t just be the students, however. Administrators and those with power also need to be committed to racial equality and justice for marginalized people.
I would say that asking for what you need is important, which is why DOWN published lists of demands from undergraduates and from students at the School of Medicine who also wanted change. The other key is to show that what you are asking for is not just from a few individuals, but is supported on a larger scale. This is why we published letters of solidarity from other groups of the Yale community like alumni of color and Yale’s Indigenous Graduate Network & Native American Law Students Association. High school students can use the same combination of asking for what you want and showing support via petitions and letters of support or even demonstrations.
The term used most to criticize the Yale and Mizzou protests has been “political correctness.” What are your thoughts on that criticism and the term in general? Is it just another way to dismiss discussion on race and gender? How should it be properly used?
That criticism is inaccurate for many reasons, but what bothers me the most about it is the lack of empathy that it embodies. If you feel that your free speech is hindered by “political correctness” then you are ignoring what marginalized people are asking for and making the issue about the rights of privileged people when that’s not what it is about. It means that you are unwilling to consider the fact that the status quo on college campuses and across America is meant to maximize comfort for straight, cisgender, white people. Equality feels uncomfortable for people who benefit from inequality, and rather than acknowledging these deep-rooted issues people want to make it about themselves again.
Discussions about free speech and political correctness can sidetrack from actually getting things done for marginalized people. I don’t think that the term “politically correct” makes sense for anyone to use, because it’s less about politics than it is about power and it can’t be “correct” unless we’re all informed about the undertold histories and experiences of marginalized people. Instead of using the phrase “politically correct,” people should just say what they actually mean, like “these demonstrations make me uncomfortable because I don’t understand what’s going on” or “I don’t want to actively work to change my racist and discriminatory ideologies.”
When we see student protests achieve change, or a POC winning an award, people across social media celebrate, yet some also refuse to. After Viola Davis won her Emmy last year, I remember feeling strongly for this article, which goes against the idea of being “grateful” for first steps towards equality. But even then, does taking the time to look back at progress and be happy about it hold value? Is it better to remain angry and keep focus? Should people be celebrating small successes?
Praise the person, shade the institution. Viola Davis deserved the award and I applaud her hard work, but the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences should not feel like they deserve anything for doing the bare minimum.
In terms of personal responses, I always consider the mental health and wellbeing of people of color in these situations. As a Black woman, I could spend all of my time getting angry at people for racism directed at me or people like me. But if I did that, I would have no joy in my life. I would die an early death. There are a lot of medical studies on the effects of racism on the Black body, and a lot of these effects are out of my control like that fact that a doctor would assume that I experience less pain than a white person when prescribing pain medication or treating me for an ailment. Rather than add to the reasons why my health is in jeopardy, I can choose the terms of when I engage.
For people also looking to study race, how would you recommend they get started? What path did you take to get to where you are now, being the editor-in-chief of DOWN? Were you always interested in these subjects?
Start with what excites you. If you like reading essays, read some essays by people like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. If you like fiction, read Maxine Hong Kingston and Toni Morrison. I personally think that fiction and nonfiction by people of color are great ways to get started because they force you to empathize with people of color as you read a first person narrative. If you go to a school that offers classes where you can learn to think critically about race, I would definitely recommend that you take those classes.
I began thinking critically about race my first year of college. I took an introductory class to Ethnicity, Race, & Migration, I took a seminar on African-American Poetry, and I wrote about what I learning in a writing class taught by Dr. Hopper. It was an exciting time for me because I finally had the vocabulary to talk about what I had been experiencing all of my life. My white father and Black mother both immigrated to the United States, so figuring out what race means in America is something that I’ve always been interested in but haven’t fully explored until coming to college.
In your piece with FADER, when talking about the lack of “language” and “understanding” concerning race, you noted it as a “failure of our education system that race isn’t discussed.” If you had it your way, how would you enter this discussion into the education system? Would it be through a separate class? In middle school or high school? What would the curriculum look like?
As I said before, we need more writers of color in the core curriculum. From kindergarten up, students need to see a representation of people of color outside of caricatures in our American history classes. White bodies and perspectives cannot be the norm. I want white children in white suburbs to question why there are so many people of color in their coloring books and phonics textbooks but none in their communities. I want history classes to make us feel ashamed of America, not proud of its legacy of genocide, slavery, and discrimination. This is the education that the next generation needs. For our generation, it would beneficial to have a separate racial awareness class for high schoolers to combat the prevalent miseducation, but I worry about the ways that this type of class can be corrupted by those who teach it and design the curriculum.
This is why our teachers and administrators also need to be trained so that they don’t transfer any ignorance onto the next generation.
Coming from a place of privilege, what do you think is the best way for people who are not black to support the black lives matter movement? Besides hashtag activism, is there any other way in which people can make some difference?
A great way to help is to explain to other people why Black Lives Matter is important and necessary so Black people don’t have to do that. People feel more comfortable saying racist and uninformed things when there are no Black people around, so if you are able to be in those spaces
then please do the work of educating people.
What is an ultimate long-term goal you have for yourself? How about for DOWN?
My long-term goal is to keep writing, and to have a body of work that I am proud of that can add something useful and positive to the world. I want DOWN to have a space of its own in New Haven in the future where writers and editors can work. Of course, I want DOWN to be around and thriving when I come back for my 20th reunion.
Who are the people you would say have influenced you the most in your life?
Ms. Christine Accetta, my 3rd grade teacher had us memorize these really long and difficult words for spelling tests, and that has always stuck with me because she showed a bunch of 3rd graders that we should never underestimate ourselves. Professor Elizabeth Alexander opens up worlds when she teaches, and I have learned so much about Black art from her. I’ve never met Brit Bennett, but her writing has been really influential for me. Her essay on Addy Walker, American Girl is one of my favorite essays.
Do you have a favorite book? What are you reading currently?
I just finished reading Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, and that might be my favorite book ever. The main character is a girl named Esch from rural, poor Mississippi and the story is set right before Hurricane Katrina hits. Ward writes beauty into each line, and this is a great work of literature that is especially accessible for those who know what it is to be young, Black, and silenced. I’m currently reading The Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis and rereading [insert] boy by Danez Smith, which is one of my favorite books of poetry.
Are there any fandoms or hobbies that you are involved in? Do you consider them to be a large part of your life? Which television shows or movies have had the greatest impact on you?
A friend and I run a Black poetry blog (travelingasafamily.tumblr.com) that recently hit over 500 followers. We pair Black art with Black poetry, and that has been one of my favorite things to do for about a year now.
I watch a lot of beauty gurus on Youtube because it’s a really fascinating culture, and I’ve learned a lot of makeup tips and tricks from them over the years. Watching a makeup tutorial is actually a really good way to de-stress. I’m currently working on an essay about Beauty guru culture because I need something to show for all of the hours that I have put into watching these videos besides flawlessly winged eyeliner.
In terms of movies, there was a summer when I watched Across the Universe and Hairspray over and over again so this has probably influenced my life in some way.
What small artists or writers should Margins look up and interview next?
Sebi Medina-Tayac is a Senior Managing Editor for DOWN and he also writes for The New Haven Independent and other campus publications. Eshe Shirley is also a Senior Managing Editor for DOWN as well as its founder, and she has written a lot of great op-eds for different campus publications. There are a lot of great artists at the Yale School of Art, especially Tomashi Jackson and Gerald Sheffield.