By Kiara Gilbert
Before coming to Princeton University as a first-generation, low-income student, I had built my entire résumé around my personal expertise in dealing with race. I had organized protests and given speeches to hundreds on the importance of abandoning a color- and culture-blind educational system. I even received an acknowledgement from Princeton for these efforts.
I never would have foreseen that even I would need a wake-up call.
The severity of the conflict in Charlottesville caught me unaware, and it wasn’t until I watched the clip of Deandre Harris being beaten that the urgency of the situation hit me. As I watched the surge of White Nationalists overtake, stomp, kick, and assault Harris with poles, I felt myself being violently jerked out of the Ivy League bubble surrounding my school and back into my own personal experiences with racism before college.
Once again, I was back in high school, where certain teachers would silence my speeches condemning racial insensitivity in the name of tolerance. Like many who foresaw an event like Charlottesville occurring, I was asked to tolerate the intolerable.
Once again, I was the girl who burst into tears during a tour of a college campus, because I saw footage of Alton Sterling being murdered.
Once again, I could hear the accusatory undertone lurking beneath every congratulation upon announcing that I would attend Princeton University to my wealthy, White peers.
At Princeton, as I’ve dealt with my racial background in theory, I have sometimes forgotten that being able to distance one’s self from race through an academic perspective is a privilege. Every day, millions of people must live lives that are palpable reflections of the racist policies and sentiments that formed the foundation of this nation.
From redlining to the rejection of loans to Black veterans returning from WWII to an enforced lack of educational opportunities to institutional poverty, racism has been a part of the America since its beginning.
Though my flight to a prestigious college campus may have seemed like an escape, even the comforting cloak of an Ivy League education cannot enshroud me from the realities of hatred, racism, and prejudice facing those in the low-income communities of color I seemingly fled. Charlottesville has reminded me that no matter how physically detached I might be from my community, the communal pain that ebbs from blatant racial conflict will always manage to reach me.
I have always gripped my racial identity with both hands, and as a prospective philosophy major, I find joy in applying Locke to the lack of Black-owned property and Nietzsche to the internalized barriers against a Black-facilitated revolution. Sometimes this causes my peers to bristle, and they frequently ask me why I continue to bring up my Blackness in scholarly settings. “Why are you always bringing up race?” they ask.
But after everything I have seen, after what happened in Charlottesville, I can only answer—as a true philosophy major—with another question.
How can I not?
Kiara Gilbert is a philosophy major at Princeton University. She is a 2017-2019 America’s Promise Alliance Youth Trustee.