Letter: Wall is a regression towards racial inequality

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Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian

Editor’s note: This letter contains graphic language.

A concerned student told me this week that the privilege to use a collective artistic space on campus had been unjustly annexed. This was a Central Living Area wall that had been the subject of a racially-fractious dialogue. In the age of social media, it was easy for me to remotely verify this student’s claim. A mural bearing the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was changed to read “All Lives Matter”.

The logic of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan is that all lives matter, but Black lives are undervalued, as indicated by a higher proportion of fatal encounters with law enforcement. Hence attention needs to be called to the fact that Black lives matter as much as the lives of everyone else: “Black Lives Matter (as much as ____ lives)”.

The logic of the “All Lives Matter” slogan is that all human life matters equally, and by saying “Black Lives Matter”, the implied conclusion is that White lives, Asian lives, police lives, Muslim lives, etc, don’t merit as much value as prioritized Black lives.

Ultimately, both slogans have the same conclusion: all human life is of equal value. The disagreement is purely rhetorical, and neither slogan is racist, offensive, or inappropriate. My issue is with neither slogan. Rather my concern is the fact that the wall has since been occupied, and the addition of new art is now regulated by the Black Student Union. I say “occupied” because the wall was placed under a rotating guard by the BSU. This guard is stationed to protect the “Black Lives Matter” slogan, but now is operating to protect less appropriate art like the militant clenched fist symbol and the statement, “f— with us at your own risk.”

The most disturbing discovery was the number of social media posts that now refer to the wall as “Black Space”. This is an aggressive claim of a collective privilege for the use of a single race. Although the BSU has publically stated that they’re not preventing new graffiti from being added to the wall, it was expressed to me that this publically-stated position does not reflect the reality of what is actually occurring at the site.

The institution of a guard at the site indicates that this is probably true. After all, isn’t the purpose of the guard to prevent the creation of future art over the existing art? Does this not unambiguously mean that future artistic additions to this public space will now be seen not as the creation of new art, but rather as the “defacement” of the existing art, which the guard has been stationed to challenge?

The collective privilege of all people to create art on that wall has now been threatened. The wall once exhibited the art of many cultures and artistic persuasions. Previously, most of the art on the wall was race-neutral; completely detached from the ongoing battle over racial equality in our nation. Now, and since its occupation, the wall has been claimed for racially-specific art in support of a single race. What did those previous artists do to deserve losing the privilege to create art at that site?

This claim of the wall is an example of racial privilege. This claim is an assertion of control, for the benefit of a single race, over what is supposed to be a collectively-intended social privilege for all artistically-inclined UMass students. I don’t want the administration to challenge this claim. I don’t want an authority figure to fix this problem. I want to see the Black Student Union do the right thing. I want to see the BSU actively encourage a return of artistic freedom to that space. That space is not White space. That space is not Black space. That space is common space. By tacitly endorsing a threat to the collective freedom of expression at the wall, the BSU is risking its otherwise excellent reputation as a force for good in the movement towards racial equality.

Dominick Healey

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly illustrated a quote on the wall. It has since been changed for clarity.