“Stop Staring at Me” — A Conversation with Kahjirah Harris, Black Student Activist at BU and on Instagram @RagingBlacktivists

A herd of students marched and headed west of the campus as the sun set on Commonwealth Avenue. Among the loud chants of the masses and the bright lights of dozens of police cars, a single voice rose in the cold evening. It was that of a black woman. It was that of Kahjirah Harris.

“You have failed to protect and respect us,” she said. “You have used us and capitalized off of us in the namesake of diversity and inclusion while saying ‘fuck you’.”

Kahjirah Harris was speaking in the name of Black BU, a movement that was born following since Ben Shapiro’s Nov. 13 visit to campus. When the conservative pundit came to give a talk titled “America Wasn’t Founded on Racism, It was Founded on Freedom,” Harris read part of Black BU’s statement as students on the other line of the fence entered the venue where the Shapiro would give his speech. 

Harris is passionate about social justice and has built a platform to educate others about systemic racism and inequality at large. On Instagram, she and her best friend Jamicia have founded an activism account called @RagingBlacktivists, which has over 22,000 followers to this day.

Harris and I sat down for a conversation about her life as a black woman at Boston University and her hopes and struggles as an online activist. Responses have been edited for clarity.

Students of the Black BU movement at a sit-in on Marsh Plaza on Nov. 13, 2019. Kahjirah Harris is holding the megaphone and speaking to the group.

A.V.: How do you think BU should have reacted to Ben Shapiro’s invitation to come to campus?

K.H.: Personally, I still don’t know what BU could’ve done besides not use the money of people who this man constantly degrades and dehumanizes. It was a huge slap in the face and it felt like BU failed to protect the very people they capitalize on under the name “diversity.” I don’t think he should’ve not been invited. But I do believe BU should’ve stated that they would not allow him to come speak with a title that openly disrespects and disregards the impacts of an institution like slavery. I wholeheartedly conceptualize the idea of free speech, but free speech doesn’t include disrespecting and gaslighting black people. It doesn’t give you the right to speak words that will upkeep institutions that violently impact black people and can manifest into so many other things. I think what the argument of what free speech is comes down to this definition of “free.” The way this nation has defined it has come to the various expenses of minorities in America. And I think BU could’ve at least acknowledged that. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, BU and the white people in Boston have reminded us that this facade of liberalism is constantly backed by whiteness.

A.V. How did you feel on the day of the protest? What were you thinking when you were marching to the venue and when you read the statement?

K.H.: I felt very determined. This is something I take pride in doing. I take pride in interrupting and deconstructing institutions that oppress people. The statement I read was important to me because it encapsulates the manifestation of Ben Shapiro’s words. The atmosphere of the protest was one of resilience and power. It was amazing to stand in solidarity with people who recognize the power of words and respect your identity and are willing to physically work and sacrifice their bodies to bring awareness.

A.V.: BU isn’t a traditional historically black university. What made you decide to come here?

K.H.: I’m from Atlanta, which is considered a black mecca. I went to an all-girls high school where everyone was black or brown. Walking down the streets, all I saw were black people. My high school prepared me to understand blackness. I came to BU because my voice was particularly needed somewhere that does not understand black culture. I needed to come to a space like BU that believes that they’re more progressive than they actually are. I think it’s important for people to see me, to see a dark-skinned, black, fat woman. I want to provide a voice for people who look like me or black people in general.

Harris speaking to the 2018 graduating class during her Salutatorian speech at the Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy.

A.V.: How do you feel now? Do you regret coming or are you enjoying your time here?

K.H.: Sometimes I wonder if this was really the best decision for me, because it is tiring not seeing people who look like you and not being able to be truly comfortable. But I do know that because I took up the job of being an activist and infiltrating systems and trying to educate people, this is what I’m meant to do. I love being at BU and having conversations with people of different demographics. I’m meant to be here. I’m meant to have my voice heard. This is my calling.

Harris and her friends who are studying at BU on the Posse scholarship.

A.V. What led you to create the @RagingBlacktivists account?

K.H.: I wasn’t always into activism, but in seventh grade, I had a teacher who was a part of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Ever since I had a conversation with her in 2012, I have begun trying to understand my social and political position in this country, which is what fed into me and my best friend creating this account in 2016. 

A.V.: What is the most challenging part of educating people online? 

K.H.: The hardest thing about educating people online is people feeling entitled to hate speech because of the newness of the Internet and its laws. Because I’m a public figure, people feel entitled to give me their opinion.

A.V.: And what is the most rewarding part?

K.H.: On a daily basis, I get about 20 DMs from people who tell me they’ve never thought of the things I’m talking about on this platform—they’ve never thought of anything in that way. Recently, I did a post on environmental justice. I talked about how environmental racism has existed for centuries in this country. Just because people are starting to see pictures of turtles having plastic straws in their noses, now the frame around environmental justice has been shifting, even though it’s been impacting black and brown communities for decades. People have asked me questions about how they can be better allies and how can they begin to understand their social and political position in this country or in the world. 

Harris exploring Boston in fall 2019.

A.V.: You went to the march in Atlanta for reproductive rights. What motivates you to march? How is it different from online activism? 

K.H.: I’m a strong believer that activism on social media is the new wave, even though people discredit it. Social media is the way we communicate with our generation. If I post something about what’s happening with the Muslim community in China, that can reach people all over the world. I love marching and I do think it’s a thing that brings awareness, but social media also brings awareness. I wouldn’t compare the two at all. I think both are needed.

Harris and her friend Jessica Senquiz at a march to support the protection of reproductive rights in Georgia last summer.

A.V.: How do you think people of color are treated at Boston University? 

K.H.: BU is an interesting place. But to be fair, Boston is an interesting place demographically. The city and its universities have a fairly large population of Asian-American and Asian international students, but there aren’t that many Black Americans here. Stratifications between groups exist in the way people group themselves, but it’s under a facade of progressiveness. In my eyes, progressiveness in Boston is saying you’re against racism, but also having a place for Black and Brown communities that is visibly segregated. BU tends to replicate this image where they present themselves as progressive, but really tell us that we have to go out of our way to find comfort here because they won’t provide that for us.

A.V.: Do you think BU gives people of color spaces on campus?

K.H.: Definitely not. We have to create our own spaces in these schools. I remember when I first got to Boston, I realized I could walk on Commonwealth Avenue for twenty minutes and not see another black person. And the fact that I have to go to a specific location—the Howard Thurman Center, which not many people know about—shows BU does not provide spaces for us. No one knows that it’s a safe space for minorities and people of color to come and be ourselves without feeling judged. To an extent, clubs and organizations are spaces, but these spaces aren’t created by BU. They are created by students who recognize that BU is not a space that is for everyone yet.

Harris and her friends on the College of Communication’s lawn at BU last spring.

A.V.: How can faculty improve?

K.H.: A lot of professors here have never encountered a black student. Black students are 7 percent of the student body. Overall, that's 700 students out of 16,000 students. A lot of the time, professors say oppressive or blatantly racist things or the way they word things is very rooted in blindness. I had one professor say that Langston Hughes, who is someone who has given a lot to black culture, was a racist man. I told him that racism is an institution where people are oppressed and people in positions of power cannot be oppressed by people that are oppressed by the institution. I think BU should provide courses or cross-cultural courses for their professors and students. 

A.V.: And how can white students be better advocates for their black friends and peers on campus?

K.H.: Stop staring at us! It makes us feel uncomfortable. It instills in us the feeling that we’re not welcome here. Also, I think just understanding that even though you personally believe or you might have a perception that your whiteness has yet to inhibit anyone, it has. To white women, understand you have a certain political power and that gender does not denote your whiteness. Students need to begin to understand what their position looks like in this country and how their identities impact each other on this campus. They need to stop positioning themselves as victims and understand that sometimes they are being privileged. Being privileged isn’t necessarily negative. It means that you impact people in a certain way, so you need to use your privilege to fight the systems that you’re benefiting from. 

A.V.: You mentioned the Howard Thurman Center. The other day, Dean Elmore was saying that we were all in this space talking with each other but a lot of us have similar political opinions overall. Do you think “Coffee and Conversation” is helpful? Do you feel like it’s a space where progress is being made?

K.H.: Most definitely. Progress is being made. A lot of people like to view racism as a black and white issue, but actually anti-blackness is rooted in a lot of communities of people of color. Even if not enough white people come out, I think having those intense conversations between communities of colors is just as important as having conversations with white students.

We all have our own prejudices and our own systems of maybe antisemitism, colorism, and anti-blackness. Also, just because this is a school of liberals, there are very different levels of liberalism—it’s a spectrum. 

Harris with friends on the BU campus.

A.V.: Do you have any advice for high school juniors and seniors who want to follow in your footsteps?

K.H.: It’s not easy. It’s hard to take up this social and emotional labor or any job that has to do with dismantling one of the most powerful institutions in this country and in this world. It’s not easy but if you know that you love what you’re doing, then keep doing it, because it’ll pay off in the end. The amount of opportunity I’ve gotten from owning this Instagram account and educating myself and trying to understand these things is amazing. I hope that they don’t give up. Sometimes, you will question, “Is this really what I’m meant to do?” But you are meant to do it.

A.V.: Any final thoughts? 

K.H.: I know I might come off a certain way in this interview, but I’m definitely open to having a dialogue and people DM’ing me. I have several friends who I disagree with on several different topics and we talk about them all the time. These conversations aren’t easy, but they aren’t meant to be easy. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

“It’s your job as someone in a position of privilege and power to understand how you’re impacting others,” Harris said.

You can follow Kahjirah on her personal account and on her activism account.

 

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