Being Black at UVa: My Part of the Story | UVA Student Council


*I think it’s important to begin with a caveat:  the thoughts listed below are my own.  I am not arrogant enough to believe that my personal experience can even begin to encapsulate the tiniest spectrum of black students’ opinions about life at TJ’s university.  But, after the incident where a racial slur  was spray-painted on Beta Bridge accompanied by a childish cartoon (see above), I feel compelled to use this platform to express a few thoughts about how events like this impact me and potentially others who may relate. – end caveat.*

Put the phrase “uva student” into a Google search.  For me, the top images are the following:

uva student

google searchin’ is fun!

Undoubtedly, my finding are impacted by my browsing patterns as a graduate student, member of student council (s/o to Former President Vroom), and other various Google magicks I won’t even pretend to understand, but I think the point remains: the widely-held image of the embodied student experience at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia is middle to upper-class, clean cut, white American. Moreover, the most influential and prestigious positions on Grounds are typically held by (extremely brilliant, thoughtful, and talented) white men.  Although I respect the University’s strides towards inclusivity and have been lucky to work with student leaders who have been intelligent and capable regardless of their race, gender, or my perception of their socio-economic status — the homogeneity remains.

What does all of this mean? Why am I still rambling? Alright, to the point: image matters. To individuals, like myself, who attend a predominantly-White institution (PWI)  built by my enslaved ancestors, I am almost always acutely aware that I am different. Incidents like spray-painted slurs and others that occur on Grounds (see 4th Year Taylor Gist’s article here) exacerbate a deep-rooted discomfort and anger. I know when folks envision a UVa student, I am not the first person who pops into their mind. Sometimes it takes people a minute to wrap their minds around the fact that I am a doctoral student here. (for a humorous portrayal of being black in a PWI see Buzzfeed).

I attempt to balance the varying weights of my identity to produce a coherent outcome that honors the intersectionality of what it means to be a black woman, Virginia-born, dancer, aesthete, wife, scholar, clinician, doctoral student at the University of Virginia.  I, like many others, may become exhausted by thinking about these things and wonder if there is something wrong with me for investing so much cognitive energy into these questions that are so difficult to parse apart. While my image (see below) may not be the first one that pops into mind of a random individual asked to describe their image of a UVa student, I AM a UVa student.

three sunglasses

And whoever ignorantly trolled us all on Beta Bridge, immaturely (or more frighteningly, sadistically) thinking their provocative language would garner attention, or laughs, or whatever else…I appreciate the opportunity that this has presented for active dialogue about steps moving forward.  After this event, and my scattered observations over the last three years at UVa, I present the following propositions to the Student Body.  FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU CAN DO (and who made it all the way down here– GO YOU!)- START READING HERE: Please feel free to e-mail me directly ( if you have other thoughts or ideas.  Student self-governance is participatory; it is individual and collective – so get on it!  Take 5 minutes during this disgustingly busy exam time to shoot me a thought in response to this query: “How can the University of Virginia continue to move forward in the direction of inclusivity?  What are your action-oriented steps to make this happen?”

My Thoughts (I am more than willing to participate in the development and/or implementation of any of the steps listed below):

1.    EASILY-ACCESSIBLE REPORTING PORTAL: An anonymous portal (to supplement Advocate) where individuals can report incidents confidentially and simply on-line. Have this portal be publicized as an institutionally-supported tool

2.    COMMITTEE: If a member of the university of the University community chooses to include their contact information, they can be referred to a group that addresses their concerns and determines steps moving forward (e.g., referral to a support group at CAPS, contact with StudCo to issue a statement, wider programmatic responses at the University-level).

3.    COMMITTEE COMPOSITION: The group could involve leaders (appointed or elected) from various organizations around Grounds that works with issues of diversity around Grounds and could involve Marcus Martin (the Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity) and his office.

Peifer Out,

Janelle S. Peifer, Representative | Graduate Curry School and Chair | Graduate Affairs Committee