Growing up in Hammond, Indiana, near the south side of Chicago in the 1970s was as one might imagine. Less than a decade after the greatest movement of civil rights in the history of America, I was oftentimes in the middle of something that I didn't quite understand.
As a preteen and impressionable young man, my curiosity was piqued by subtle gestures from gang influencers and older men who were supposed to be griots of the community. Branded by the underworld of socialized male identity, I wore the perceived toughness of manhood — flanked by my biological brothers who had paved the way.
I am the youngest of seven children, first-generation, Black and heterosexual using the pronouns he/him/his, but most of all — I am American. My childhood memories of high school riots and watching my older cousins fight for their sense of belonging stained my brain for life. This was my first glance at inequality, injustice and fear. My elementary school would release classes early just so we could return home safely. Though I was considered middle class, many of the individuals in my neighborhood viewed themselves as less than their realities.
In order to combat racism, each of us must have: faith, purpose, someone to love and something to look forward to.
In my eyes, the fight for freedom was not a physical fight — it meant survival of the fittest emotionally, spiritually and mentally.
Racism as a system is directly correlated to power and control, something I realized when my best friend was suspended indefinitely from our high school — without due process — for a theft he did not commit.
I attended a Catholic, private school with more than 900 students. In my graduating class of 215, only 10 of us were Black. It was considered an elite school that, frankly, people from my neck of the woods could not afford to attend.
Being exposed to racial slurs after school, placed in remedial courses and given a class clown superlative at the senior year awards ceremony were not positive memorable experiences. However, my life — these experiences — has driven me to work as an advocate for college students at CU and beyond.
Today, values, beliefs and mindsets are being challenged across the globe. The sense of uncertainty plaguing the American consciousness seems to have no end in sight. My 83-year-old mother is wondering if she will be able to see her grandchildren for the holidays, due to the sudden surge in COVID-19, and my 18-year-old triplets, who are in college hotspots, are trying to stay safe. I, too, join CU and others in anxiety, caution and wonder.
And yet, there are practices to help us deal with racism and all other systems of oppression. In my life journey, I continue to return to these ideas: It is not about me, but about us. “It takes a village.” Find ways to acknowledge one’s shortcomings, and make a pledge to change them. Dig deep into the very soul of the human spirit and practice seeing the good and committing to the work of doing the next right thing.
Finally, in order to combat racism, each of us must have: faith, purpose, someone to love and something to look forward to.
These issues have long existed in our nation. Today, we have the power to make a difference — and it begins with a change of perspective. Let’s work together to make it happen.
Austin Jamar “JB” Banks was appointed dean of students and associate vice chancellor for student affairs at CU Boulder in summer 2020. He previously served in the same position at Winston-Salem State University where he was a senior leader on issues involving student health, wellness and safety. He earned a bachelor’s degree in speech communication and criminal justice from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a master’s degree in educational leadership with a specialization in leadership and multicultural student development and retention from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a certification in leadership from Harvard University.
Photos by Matt Tyrie