Being Black at Georgetown founder hopes conversation continues after school year ends

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly referred to a ban on racial preferences in admissions at the University of Michigan. The ban is state law, not a policy of the university. This version has been corrected.


Aya Waller-Bey, a senior at Georgetown, launched the social media campaign #BBGU — or Being Black at Georgetown University — to spark a conversation about life for students of color. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Aya Waller-Bey, who will graduate from college Saturday, has had four years of #BBGU.

She just wasn’t calling it that for most of the time.

The hashtag — which stands for Being Black at Georgetown University — has been around only since December.

Waller-Bey, a sociology major with a concentration in social justice, launched it after seeing the success of a similar campaign at the University of Michigan. A few months later, classmates started “Dangerous Black Kids of Georgetown University” (or #DBKGU), a photo campaign that challenges stereotypes of black men and women.

Both efforts join a number of social media campaigns begun by students of color at predominantly white colleges nationwide over the past year.

At the University of Michigan, students started tweeting with the hashtag #BBUM (Being Black at University of Michigan) in November, shortly after total black student enrollment was reported to have dropped from 6.1 percent in 2009 to 4.8 percent in 2013. After the release of those numbers, a fraternity advertised a party called “Hood Ratchet Thursday.” A Facebook event listing for the party, which was later canceled by the university administration, reportedly made gang references and teased a “twerk contest.”

In March, Harvard students of color launched a play and photo campaign called I, Too, Am Harvard, inspiring similarly named projects at the likes of the University of Iowa, Princeton and even Oxford.

On Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram, students mused about common themes such as being the only black person in a class or feeling isolated on campus.

The campaigns also sparked discussion about micro-aggressions — a term that was coined in the 1970s to describe subtle slights that capture tension between different races, sexes or cultures. See: Can I touch your hair?; No, where are you really from?; I don’t even see you as a black person.

It is a decidedly millennial twist on protests of the past, some of which occurred on the same campuses decades earlier. Yet, in 2014, when the Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on racial preferences in admissions — students say they are not so much fighting racism as the notion that racism no longer exists. And now, as the school year winds down and the initial excitement around the campaigns wanes, students hope the conversation they kicked up again will continue.

Waller-Bey knows it has fizzled before. In 2009, after a series of racial incidents on campus, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia commissioned a diversity initiative. A 2012 article in Georgetown’s student newspaper, the Hoya, credited the initiative with spurring changes — including a more diverse faculty — but declared the initiative stalled.

Martha Biondi, who explored the student protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s in her 2012 book, “The Black Revolution on Campus,” said recent court rulings underscore a unique challenge faced by today’s student activists. “Students today are savvy organizers,” said Biondi, chairman of the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University. “They’re smart in using social media, but unfortunately they’re fighting a more uphill political and legal battle than many students were, say, in the 1970s, where there was a more auspicious political and legal environment.”

A legacy of activism

It may be a more challenging time legally or politically, but there are echoes of that more auspicious 1970s moment at Georgetown. For the past two years, Waller-Bey has lived in what is known as the Black House, a coed house run by Georgetown’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access. Students of all races can apply to live there. It was founded in response to black student activism in the early 1970s and became a place for black students to congregate and support one another.

The Black House maintains that community-centric legacy today, offering a space for student groups to host meetings and social events, but also Thursday night “Scandal” watch parties. It has also been the site of many discussions about diversity at Georgetown.

At an annual Black House dinner, hosted by the university president in February, Waller-Bey and a group of other student activists presented demands for change at their school, this time in proposal, not hashtag form. They wanted the university to take a more active role in ethnic heritage months and to consider instituting a diversity requirement as part of Georgetown’s undergraduate curriculum.

After some town hall meetings, and the election of underclassmen to continue the effort, the group began meeting regularly with university administrators to tackle the issues raised in the proposal.

Beyond the hashtag

#BBGU has turned into more than a hashtag, but Waller-Bey credits social media with helping the campaign have more of a lasting impact at Georgetown. Students who identified with other minority groups launched similar efforts. And the whole conversation took place in public.

“There have been alumni involved and there’s still a written track record of what people have said. I think that allows us as people to hold the university accountable and to understand, like, ‘Hey, this public shaming thing works,’ ” Waller-Bey said. “When the university is embarrassed or when things are just not held within a community of students, they’re forced to respond because it looks bad PR-wise.”

At the root of many of these campaigns is the fact that these universities pride themselves on diversity. According to Biondi, that may work in favor of this generation’s student activists.

“I think if the courts aren’t on our side, demographics are on our side,” Biondi said. “Young people can try and harness the idea that diversity is in the interest of all Americans.”

Few understand demographics better than Georgetown Provost Robert Groves, who previously served as director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I think the way we think of this is that the mission at Georgetown is to train leaders for a world that is more and more diverse and to be a successful university, we have to have on campus — at faculty, staff and student levels — the kind of diversity that exists in the world,” Groves said. “And then we need to set up an environment where all of us get better at interacting cross-culturally and across race and ethnicity lines.”

Groves, who has been in meetings with the students behind the social media campaigns, said that programs are in place at Georgetown to address some of the concerns raised and that he considers the hashtag activism a benefit to the community.

“It allowed them to express these feelings in solidarity with students on other campuses,” he said. “It led to a great new dialogue at Georgetown. On that score, we’re indebted to them.”

‘I love it so much’

On a Thursday morning in April, Alexis Oni-Eseleh is showing a group of prospective students and their parents around Georgetown. The biology and global health major will be a junior in the fall. She shows the group everything she loves about her school — the myriad student groups, the architecture, the views of Washington’s landmarks, the polarizing cupcake scene.

Oni-Eseleh is, to these students anyway, the face of Georgetown. She was also the face of a Dangerous Black Kid of Georgetown University, when she participated in the #DBKGU campaign. She does not see any tension between pitching the school and criticizing the way people think and act concerning race.

In fact, the project, which satirically counters negative perceptions of people of color and was the brainchild of senior Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, does the opposite. The photos featured mostly black students pictured alongside a list of their accomplishments and aspirations. It conveys a deep love for Georgetown.

“It’s sort of showing, ‘Look how amazing I am,’ ” Oni-Eseleh said. “I’m here at this prestigious university and I’m phenomenal and there’s nothing dangerous about me.”

And despite the issues highlighted through #BBGU, Waller-Bey calls Georgetown “the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“I’ve always tried to make it a point to say that I love Georgetown, and it’s because I love Georgetown that this is happening,” Waller-Bey said. “I’m challenging the university to think critically about these issues because I love it so much and I don’t want other students to have to feel this way.”

Bethonie Butler is a producer and a reporter on The Post’s engagement team. She oversees online comments and has also contributed to The Style Blog and She The People.

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