Letters to the Editor: 2/13/19

“Everyday People” Doesn’t Show My Everyday Reality

Alicia Penn ’19


            “Everyday People: Images of Black Life at UVA Law” is the photo exhibit currently on the second floor of the Law Library. It’s part of a cross-grounds Black History Month exhibit. However, as much as this exhibit would like you to believe it is reflective of the lives of Black people at UVA Law, it is not.


            The exhibit features several photos of Black people occupying space at UVA Law and, for the most part, the people in these photos seem to be happy. The exhibit does a good job of showing the happy moments of everyday life of Black life at UVA Law, but it falls short of showing the everyday reality of the incredibly exhausting experience of being Black at UVA Law.


            To be Black at UVA Law means choosing your battles when your peers say problematic things in class; it is deciding whether to prioritize your mental health over getting into an argument in Constitutional Law; and it is knowing that Black people are incredibly underrepresented in the student body and in the faculty.


            I think the best way I can convey the daily feeling I have for you is this: One of the speakers at the town hall we held after Jason Kessler’s first visit to the Law School said when she learned Jason Kessler was here, she simply said, “Oh, just another white supremacist in the library.” That resonated so deeply with me. Because truthfully, so many of my peers are complicit and benefit from the white supremacy at the roots of this school. I am very aware that this institution was not built for me. I am aware that the system was not created with me or people like me in mind. Not only that, but my peers have engaged in acts that let me know this place still is not for me: from uttering the n-word in public to engaging in microaggressions.


            The school loves to pretend we are all at an equal level—that everything is so fair. After all, we all are on the same curve. But imagine constantly processing these things I have just described while studying to take exams next to people who are not affected by any of these things at all. Imagine being shaken to your core by these events and knowing you are graded on a curve with someone who does not even see the problem. It is so incredibly exhausting, y’all—it is not fun, it is not all smiles.


            Now, I do not expect a photo exhibit to be able to display all of these complex and nuanced feelings—that is a lot to ask. But what we currently have feels dishonest and false. It feels like the school is using my face as part of a publicity stunt to show how great Black people have it here. It feels exploitative. I do not subscribe to this narrative that Black life at UVA Law is great. Personally, I have not been particularly happy for most of my time at UVA Law. I have never felt my race more than while attending UVA Law. But that is not the takeaway you get from this exhibit.


            I am happy that the Law Library is doing something to commemorate Black History Month because Black History Month is important and we do not do nearly enough to celebrate it. And I really like taking a look at the history of Black life at UVA Law, but the execution needs improvement. As the exhibit stands currently, it is not an exhibit about the reality of Black life at UVA Law. It is at most reflective of an outsider looking in on Black life at UVA Law.