A message to the App State community from Chief Diversity Officer Willie Fleming

Monday, June 1, 2020

One of my mentees, an African American male student, reached out to me for words of wisdom while trying to cope with the violent death of George Floyd. He stated that he was “emotionally and mentally drained, exhausted and saddened.” What does one say when he himself is outraged, angered and searching for the right words to explain senseless, tragic and utterly unacceptable behavior? How does one reassure, yet again, when we keep seeing the same violence happening to men and boys of color that should never happen to anyone?

Over the last three months as we have collectively dealt with the coronavirus and its effects, I have marveled at the many acts of kindness and humanity shown from people of all walks of life to others. As we struggle through a pandemic that is taking the lives of so many people from all walks of life, but disproportionately people of color, I have witnessed people of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds care for folk they don’t know, yet who they know are deserving of care. There are countless examples of our students, faculty, staff and alumni doing this. They include everything from academic and service projects to help food drives and local businesses, to scholarly research that is underway, to frontline healthcare workers endangering their lives to help others. Their humanity drives them to treat all with dignity and respect. They seem to understand our interdependence during this fight against COVID-19. People all over the world realize that we are caught in an inescapable network that will destroy us if we can’t work together as a collective community in solidarity. Yet, in the midst of such beautiful expressions of humanity, we experienced another inhumane act of violence from the persons charged to protect.

As I reflect on what my mentee shared, I know his concerns run deeper than his words expressed. What message does this act of brutality and centuries of inequalities send to young people of color? What are they learning about their own worth? We cannot allow ignorance, lack of cultural appreciation and racial insensitivity to define who we are. This young African American Appalachian State student witnessed the worst of life played out on the stage of life on May 25, 2020. The script portrayed his ethnicity as invaluable and dispensable, which is totally contrary to what he knows about himself. He knows he and other men of color should never have to fear what happened to George Floyd and to so many others physically hurt, emotionally tormented and killed in our nation.

I commend the efforts of App State Police. I’ve facilitated many Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence trainings to this welcoming department and its cadet training program. While the Minneapolis Police Department needs to be held accountable, it’s important to recognize what happened there has happened in too many different cities throughout our country. No one should be designated a criminal or unhuman, because of their race, gender or cultural ethnicity.

Appalachian State University can and does contribute to the work that still needs to be done. We are transparent enough to admit that we don’t always get it right. While on our campus in the winter of 2015, the late Julian Bond stated; “You have to be ready to make a mistake. And pick up and do it again.” We understand that in our urgency to become a stronger, more inclusive community, we will make mistakes. Our challenge is to use these mistakes to become stronger as a community that recognizes the lives of marginalized persons on our campus are different, and we must validate the difference. I encourage each of us to exercise our best effort to make this campus a safe place, whereby all are valued, supported and respected as full contributing members of our community.