Martese R. Johnson, a 2016 graduate of the University of Virginia, wrote this letter to incoming students as a commentary. He is the black UVa student who was injured while being arrested by Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officers in March 2015.
Dear Class of 2021,
Welcome to the University of Virginia, and Wahoowa! In the past, when I’ve written letters to accepted students, I aimed to congratulate them and describe the high quality of education they would receive at our university. It was to foreshadow the inevitably frequent encounters students would have with diversity, change and growth on grounds. I would explain how UVa was going to provide each of them with the resources to become dynamic, engaged global citizens. I would boastfully describe our “Community of Trust,” accentuating what it means to champion honor and excellence. With these virtues in mind, I would assert that students should feel elated to become members of our achieved community, joining us in time to celebrate the university’s 200th year of existence.
I will not do any of those things in this letter. I would instead like to begin by apologizing to each and every one of you. I am sorry.
Halfway into my first semester at UVa, I was called a nigger in front of peers at a white fraternity party. It took two semesters to see that very same word written across our university’s popular Beta Bridge, accompanying cartoon graffiti of a creature with an obscenely large penis. Semesters later, I’d come to terms with the lamentable truth that, more often than not, the university would fail to live up to its prodigious advertising campaigns. The skewed nature of the beautiful student anecdotes that had been shared with me before matriculating had been revealed, representing merely the highs in a wildly tumultuous university climate. College would not be the perfect racial and cultural melting pot that could prove my elders wrong in their steadfast anxiety toward prolific racial intermingling. Instead, my experiences at the University of Virginia taught me exactly where their deep-rooted interracial anxiety had originated.
By the middle of my college career, I’d experienced enough ignorance, microaggressions and social cruelty to never be surprised by a negative racial encounter again. When reflecting, I feel grateful that I was afforded the time to gradually cope with these issues, rather than being forced to acknowledge the harsh degree of racism in my new community all at once. I apologized earlier because I know that you will not have the same transitional grace period — not even a minute of it.
Quite often, we emphasize to incoming students the virtues of our community, neglecting to share the bitter realities that oppose what may initially appear a picturesque collegiate experience. We do so in an effort to protect you, allowing you to ease into the many pains that accompany our community’s virtuous attributes. We failed you this time around.
Instead of a smooth transition, you were engulfed all at once by the radical hatred that exists and thrives within our community. You have not yet stepped foot on the University of Virginia’s Grounds, but you have already been exposed to the ability of our “Community of Trust” to breach our most cherished values and replace them with unabashed depravity.
It is less than a week before move-in, and I realize that many of you will walk onto Grounds feeling anxiety and apprehension. That will not change no matter how many words you read from impassioned UVa alumni who vow to stand behind you. I will not ask you to feel comfort despite a highly uncomfortable university environment, as I prefer to address realities with real solutions — and we both know that smiling in the face of an over-present injustice will not quell the fire. Smiling and pretending things are OK will only allow such a fire to grow, burning down the positive institutions that students like you have worked tirelessly to build.
Instead, I ask each of you to find comfort in the challenge — in the possibility of there being a different narrative for students who arrive at the university after you. Understand that when people feel threatened, facades will fade away and the world will consistently show its true colors. This is not a UVa phenomenon, it is a world phenomenon, and running away from this reality will be proven futile with each attempt. Instead, learn to address it.
Stand by your commitment to attend the university, and embrace the opportunity to make an impact now. Our community has faced a myriad of challenges in recent years, equipping us with the knowledge and skill set to approach these issues with productive coalition and solutions. We must remember that the Ku Klux Klan, alt-right and all other radical revolutionaries are mere spawns and remnants of larger institutions that have made it their business to discriminate against difference. Join us in this righteous opposition, learn from our mistakes and continue to grow the countercoalition that we’ve built ground-up. With strength in cohesiveness, we will dismantle obsolete institutions that work to oppress people for their innate traits and personal beliefs.
You have been accepted into a cohort of some of the world’s most powerful minds, tasked with challenging a stubborn world to change for the better. I cannot promise you a picture-perfect college experience — nobody can, because that simply does not exist. What I can promise you is an opportunity to genuinely contribute to the world being a better place. It is the responsibility of all of you — no matter race, nationality, or creed — to come together in addressing these issues during your time as a UVa student and beyond. Behind you will stand many who have, and continue to fight the very same enemy, including myself.
Do not be afraid. You were chosen because you are passionate, driven and quite capable. We are in this together, and we will win.
Martese R. Johnson, University of Virginia, 2016
P.S. Sometimes the university really does live up to those flashy advertising campaigns. Our proud alumni network is proud for good reason. Reach out and let’s work (email@example.com).