On Sept. 27, Psychology for Equity, Awareness and Community Enhancement (PEACE) hosted Revisiting Racism: Two Years After the Gorilla Incident in the auditorium in Ball Hall. The event was hosted to help facilitate a conversation about race and racial tensions in America and on campus.
The evening started with a short video, then moved to a more interactive activity. During the film, organizers handed out different colored paper stars to everyone in attendance.
The stars were colored blue, green, yellow and red, with each color representing a different type of person in America throughout history.
Those with blue stars acted as white, respected and privileged members of society who, in the 1700’s, owned slaves. Green stars represented stay at home mothers of three. Yellow signified strong black men who would be considered “excellent pieces of property” and red representing black women who were described as “nothing but an object.”
The five points in each star represented five separate periods in history from 1701-1960’s America. Throughout the activity, points of stars were crumpled and ripped signifying the struggles you would’ve faced in that time period.
Reaction from the crowd following the activities conclusion were emotional and succinct, everything from “this sucks” to “feels terrible” and even a few expletives, prompting many attendees to speak up about how they felt.
Emotions manifested themselves quickly once people began to speak. It started when one woman broke down while explaining her inability to grasp why these things happen to minorities and how she feels powerless to help.
Another woman broke down while sharing a story of how she’s been a victim of racism on ETSU’s campus. Almost immediately another student, Trevor King, was by her side to offer support and comfort.
“It hurt my feelings that she was upset,” he said. “I’ve been in her shoes before and I just knew I needed to be the strength for her.”
King wasn’t the only one hurt seeing tears fall from those who’ve been victimized.
“It hurt,” Byron Brooks, president of PEACE said. “It was honestly hard to keep it all together up here [on stage.]”
Her story, unfortunately, wasn’t the only one. In a room that was about 80 percent full, almost everyone had a story to share of how they witnessed racism or were victims of it both on campus and around the country.
”I was worried about people being cold to this topic, but I was extremely happy to get the response we got from everyone,” Brooks said.
While the event was hosted by PEACE, students truly led the conversation. Two students in particular, King and Jaylen Malik Grimes, played an even bigger role by sharing their experiences from that day.
King and Grimes were both present the day an ETSU student walked up to a Black Lives Matter protest dressed in a gorilla mask on campus two years ago. Both had very different responses to the incident.
Grimes took center stage and described how he felt peace and forgiveness was the best way to respond. Something the crowd empathized with.
“Going up there was really big for me because it’s me expressing my feelings and emotions,” Grimes said.
King wanted to fight back but now realizes that could’ve made an already hostile situation worse.
“I could’ve messed it up for everyone,” he said.
It was a night of healing and positive discourse, but after so many stories, it’s painfully clear there’s still a long way to go.
“Racism and any ‘ism’ is a long-standing issue and has a long-range impact,” Brooks said. “If we aren’t engaging in these conversations, how can we do anything else?”