‘There are not a lot of spaces that are safe for Black students here at Wash U.’: The pandemic reaffirms the importance of Black affinity spaces on campus
As sophomore Abayomi Awoyomi describes it, walking into Washington University’s Danforth University Center last year meant one could always find a group of Black students—up to 15 at a time—crowded around the large octagonal table in the center of the dining area. Students would be chatting and laughing, either just stopping by or parked there for a few hours.
This year, of course, the dining scene has changed. The DUC table was removed during first semester, and now has returned split up by plexiglass dividers. With virtual classes, upperclassmen who would frequent the table now have little reason to come to campus. The lack of visible a Black community has been felt by students who pass by the table, now often empty.
For Awoyomi, who says that most of his social life involves interacting with other Black students, having a place to consistently gather on campus was important to him, especially on a campus that has a predominantly white population. According to Wash U’s most recent data on racial demographics, only about 10% of students identify as Black.
“I knew coming here that this is a PWI [Predominantly White Institution], and that there was not going to be a lot of Black folk, but it still came as a shock,” he said.
Junior Nana Kusi had a similar shock when coming to campus her freshman year. For her, Wash U.’s location in St. Louis, one of the most segregated cities in the US, played a part in how she felt she fit in on campus.
“There’s a very unique experience of being Black in St. Louis,” she said. “Coming here was one of the first times that I was keenly aware that I was being treated differently because of my Blackness.”
Kusi recalled being one of the only Black students on her freshman floor, and seeing a slur involving the KKK written on a common room whiteboard. She was told that the only thing that could be done was to take the whiteboard down.
“That was one of the first times that I saw that even blatantly racist incidents that made me feel uncomfortable as a Black person could largely be ignored,” Kusi said.
Black spaces, like the table at the DUC, were some of the only places where Kusi felt she could freely talk about her experiences with microaggressions with people who would understand where she was coming from.
“The Black table was really great for me, because just being able to sit down and vent about my day or whatever was going on to anybody that would listen and get their unfettered feedback was extremely validating,” Kusi said. “[It] was great just knowing that I’d always have somebody to lean on, even if it was a stranger.”
Sophomore Renée Austin also counted on the Black table at the DUC as a place where she could always feel included.
“There are not a lot of spaces that are safe for Black students here at Wash U.,” she said.
Freshman Jebron Perkins has only heard stories about the currently-dormant Black table. Perkins said he first heard mention of the table from an upperclassman student he met at the first “Abolish WUPD” protest this year.
“She was emphasizing the importance that we do go to the Black table at the DUC, and that we maintain that as a Black space for Black students, because if we don’t, it will get taken over,” he said.
Perkins witnessed this phenomena for himself during the first few weeks of school in the fall. He said that at the very beginning of the year, Black students would congregate at the playground area in the South 40, to meet each other and chat.
“We went like every day the first week, but we started showing up just a little bit less, and instantly there [were] always other people there,” he said.
Austin feels bad that the class of 2024 hasn’t been able to fully experience Black spaces on campus.
“I think they haven’t had a proper, more immersive introduction to the Black community here at Wash. U. due to COVID,” she said.
Though the Black upperclassmen have attempted to reach out to the freshmen through social media and group chats, Austin admitted that it’s harder to really connect. “These online interactions with each other—we haven’t been able to continue developing relationships in the same way,” she said.
With the future of the Black table up in the air, many students brought up concerns about it being taken over by non-Black students, either intentionally or unintentionally.
“I don’t like the idea that students would purposely try to disrupt the Black table or other spaces that we’ve tried to create here on campus,” Austin said. “But it is a very tangible reality that there are students here that either don’t understand why we would feel a need to have those spaces, or very possibly there are students who actively do not want us to have the safe spaces.”
Perkins is concerned that students might not grasp the need for Black students to carve out places for themselves, and wouldn’t understand the importance of keeping the Black table.
“There’s so many non-Black [students] at this school that believe we live in some kind of post-racial society,” he said. “They might go and be like, ‘you guys don’t need to self-segregate yourselves.’”
Even though Perkins doesn’t believe the majority of students are racist, he says there is a possibility of the table at the DUC being knowingly taken over. “It’s not malicious in intent, but you know, the road to hell is paved in good intentions,” he said.
Kusi is hopeful that the center DUC table will come back as a space for Black students. “As a senior, if our campus is open, I plan to continue to sit there, and I know it’s really important to some of my other peers in the Black community,” she said.
Speaking to the concerns of other Black students about the table being intentionally claimed by non-Black students, Kusi encouraged non-Black students at Wash. U. to engage in some active introspection about their privilege, and to learn from Black students about their experiences, especially those students who might take over current Black spaces.
“If somebody feels the need to do that, I think they should question why the idea of space where Black students feel comfortable [is] so threatening,” Kusi said. “Why do Black students feel the need to retreat within our communities at this university?”