Embracing discomfort: Abeer Tijani envisions ‘new USC’ built on empathy

first_imgUSC has not yet released a statement in explicit support of Tijani at the time of publication. A memo from vice president of Student Affairs Winston Crisp and Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Dr. Varun Soni sent Aug. 24 referred vaguely to online intimidation and doxxing with no distinct renouncement of the harassment against her. “I think that you have to prepare to give yourself as much constructive grace as possible,” Tijani said. “I think critical grace makes you understand that you can’t do everything and you’re not going to do everything right and you’re going to do a lot of things wrong but that also simultaneously propels you into action and makes sure that you’re keeping yourself in check in terms of not being complicit.” Anonymous submissions to the @black_at_usc page, an Instagram account that shares unheard stories of Black Trojans, alleged Fritz of making racist and microaggressive remarks against Black students. Soon after the posts circulated online, Tijani created and spread a petition requesting his resignation from USG. Following a lack of response from Fritz and Ritch, Tijani filed a formal impeachment complaint against them a few days later on July 1. Following the complaint and increased pressure from students, Fritz resigned in early July. Ritch resigned Aug. 5. “My sophomore year of high school, I was in this SAT prep class, and our first assignment was for us to look up a dream school and a school that we knew we could get into,” Tijani said. “And at that time, I didn’t really know where I wanted to apply or anything. But something in me was like, ‘I think living in California would be cool. I visited UCLA first and my mom actually really liked UCLA, but I was just kind of like ‘Eh, it’s fine, it’s cool.’ And then I visited USC and … I absolutely knew that this was where I had to be.” From a young age, Tijani said her commitment to empathy and loving people came from her mother, who, before anything else, taught Tijani to “see people as people …  as opposed to coming in with preconceived notions or expectations or stereotypes of how somebody should be.” Through her religious and collectivist cultural upbringing, she also said she learned to value her community.  “I think that a lot of the time with social movements and advocacy, people feel as though they can’t really do anything, or I think a lot of the times we can feel really small when trying to tackle really big issues,” Tijani said. “However, there comes a certain point where you’re kind of forced to move to action because something just either exacerbates you so much or shocks you so much, or you have — at least for me — a physical, visceral reaction and you’re just kind of like ‘I don’t get it.’” While Tijani, believes a “new USC” is in the works, she won’t be one of the students to see the fruits of labor from current and previous activist efforts.  “I think that they have been the most clear cut example to me of how possible it is for an anti-racist world to exist because I get to live in that world every single day, due to the people that I surround myself with,” Tijani said. “I have friends from literally all over the world, from lots of different backgrounds and that have walked so many different paths of life, and they have absolutely made me a better person, a thousand percent.” Envisioning a “new USC” However, Tijani’s college experience has included uncomfortable moments, such as observing the cyclical pattern of public outrage around continued acts of racism and trending headlines on social media following a Black person’s murder. With allegations against prominent student government leaders on campus coming to light amid nationwide talks about race and ongoing police brutality targeting Black people, Tijani began demanding change on campus. “The manipulation of that context [anti-Blackness], the victimization of Truman, and the martyring of Rose that followed took away from our movement and centered whiteness amidst it all,” the statement read. “This is anti-Black. This vivid manifestation of white privilege and blatant disregard for Black students and Black voices became very apparent in the treatment of Abeer Tijani.” “I want to be able to come back in 20 years. And if my kids want to go to USC, I shouldn’t hesitate to say ‘Yes,’” Tijani said. “I shouldn’t hesitate to say, ‘I know that it’s different because we put the work in to lay the foundation for it to be a USC that I [didn’t] get to experience, but you absolutely should.’” Two days following the killing of George Floyd and amid a worldwide reckoning over racism, Tijani sat down in front of a camera and called for her non-Black followers to educate themselves, show up for Black people and “do the right thing even if it makes you uncomfortable.” Gathering the courage to deliver a message that would resonate with her friends and peers, she recorded herself 10 times before releasing an IGTV video titled “What I need from you” — a video that she also recorded in Spanish. Also directed to her non-Black friends and followers on Instagram, a small community of people on her then-private account, Tijani discussed the urgency for them to engage in anti-racist efforts through the conversations they were having with family and friends, and also within the communities that they were a part of.  Although she believes the community in which she grew up was not holistically anti-racist, Tijani said she was surrounded by people of different backgrounds that pushed her to consider other people’s stories and circumstances to the best of her ability for the past 21 years of her life.  Tijani continued to meet people who inspired her in college. With aspirations to attend law school, Tijani was mentored by April Yang, a former Gould School of Law student who encouraged her and was someone she could bounce ideas off of. From her friends on campus to her journalist role models Anthony Bourdain and Noor Tagouri, Tijani said she was able to find courage and strength when she struggled to see that within herself at times.  Pushing for campus accountability Tijani envisions the University’s future as a place where the student experience is one based on respect and [everyone in the] community is comfortable being themselves.  “I think talking about the psychological effects that racism can have really wears on you, and it’s definitely worn on me,” Tijani said. “As I discuss and engage and educate and inform people, I’m also reliving my own traumas simultaneously, but I don’t have as much space and grace to be able to work through that.” In her statement, Tijani emphasized the necessity for an inclusive, non-discriminatory campus that serves to protect all students regardless of identity and beliefs. “There are no words that accurately describe all of the wonder, intelligence and delight that is Abeer Tijani,” Timko said. “She just makes people want to think about things that they didn’t even know existed, and she inspires people to educate themselves and others around them … Abeer, without any doubt in my mind, is the most remarkable person that I’ve ever met.” Tijani is one of the student leaders leading the efforts for a more inclusive and anti-racist campus. Her vision for a future USC is where “anti-racism is a core tenet” and the community is based on respect and comfort. (Photo courtesy of Abeer Tijani) She also encourages students who are currently involved in the Black Lives Matter movement —who are feeling fatigue, anxiety or exhaustion — to not pressure themselves to do everything but to also not be complicit in racism.  “I think back to really uncomfortable moments that I’ve had or moments where [I’ve] felt small, and I don’t want [a new student] to feel that way because I don’t think that [they] deserve to feel that way, and [they] absolutely [don’t] deserve to be made to feel that way,” Tijani said. “I think whatever we can do in this present time … to make everyone else as comfortable as possible, is absolutely necessary.” Learning across barriers “I try to learn about people’s stories as much as possible and … that has helped in terms of being able to communicate issues across different cultural barriers or cultural circumstances,” she said. “We really are so much more alike than we are different … there’s not that much that separates us as human beings from person to person. I wish people would realize that more.” Emigrating from Nigeria at age three, Tijani resided in a diverse neighborhood and attended a high school that was 12% white. When she got to USC, it was a culture shock. Although many label the campus as diverse, 29% of the student body is white, according to USC’s 2019-2020 “Facts and Figures.” A continuing commitment to supporting Black Lives Matters and the other causes student activists along with Tijani have advanced shouldn’t be in the form of a fleeting moment, a repost or in a space where there won’t be any dissidents, she urged.  Alexis Timko, a junior majoring in journalism and law, history and culture, recently met Tijani after watching one of her IGTV videos and reached out to ask if she could repost it on her account. Since then, they have collaborated on creating a list of action items for Greek organizations. Only knowing each other for the past three to four months, Timko said Tijani has driven her to be a better person and is excited to see the changes she will continue to make at USC. According to Timko, Tijani has engaged in her activism efforts without compensation — when the onus should not be on her as a Black woman — including a Greek life panel Tijani put together in June.  Over the summer, Tijani worked to hold former Undergraduate Student Government President Truman Fritz’s accountable for instances of racism. (Photo courtesy of Abeer Tijani) “This letter has led to the eschewal of Abeer’s efforts to call out injustices; it has emboldened people to pin her advocacy for marginalized students to the ad hominem attacks suffered by Rose,” Franklin wrote. “False narratives that discredit and misconstrue Abeer’s activism have been used by trolls and bullies to virtually harass and dehumanize her online.” Growing up in Irving, Texas, one of the most diverse zip codes in the United States, Abeer Tijani sought a similar community when she came to USC. Watching YouTube videos from USC students like Katherout and Justin Escalona, she imagined herself fitting into the USC ecosystem almost immediately and fell in love with the campus through her laptop screen. As she was taking her first steps on Trousdale during her senior year of high school, the first word she thought of was home. “All my friends, in their own unique ways, have inspired me because they’re people that I know that I can have uncomfortable, dynamic conversations with and that we can challenge each other’s ideas and that we can really push each other to be better,” Tijani said. “I think it’s really important that you surround yourself, not with people who are always going to agree with what you have to say, but with people that are going to make you a better person even if what looks better  like makes you uncomfortable.” Wanting to connect more with the people around her, Tijani decided to learn Spanish at the age of 14, so she would be able to communicate with one of her close friend’s mothers, an undocumented Mexican immigrant. Spanish is now the third language that Tijani is close to fluent in, in addition to her native Nigerian language, Yoruba, and English.  “Something that is a huge core tenet in Islam is the sense of justice and fighting for what’s right,” Tijani said. “The way that the religion was taught to me was that we’re not the only people on Earth. We don’t share the Earth with just ourselves or our families, and it’s absolutely important and imperative that we try to help uplift oppressed people everywhere and free them from their oppressors.” In its statement of solidarity with Tijani published Aug. 13, BSA reiterated the reasoning behind the impeachment process, denouncing President Carol Folt for conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, ignoring the anti-Black behavior that led to the calls for removal and failing to uplift and protect Black and Palestinian students.  As someone who has also been thrust into the public eye from the attention her activism efforts have received, Tijani said she is also navigating how to effectively leverage the weight of her words and have a more intentional form of empathy by driving action to a particular cause in a productive and sustainable way. Although these conversations may make people uncomfortable, she said she believes they are necessary to enact change within institutions such as USC and society at large. Ramata Franklin, a senior studying global health, NGOs and social change while pursuing a master’s in public health,  and Tijani’s friend, in a post Aug. 8 called on the University to release a public statement in support of Tijani, stating that its misconstruction of the events leading to Fritz and Ritch’s removal resulted in undue harm to Tijani and marginalized students. Applying in December, she earned a full-tuition merit scholarship — a circumstance she described as fate and the best possible outcome she could have received.  “I would like to reiterate, once again, that the allegations underlying my calls for impeachment primarily implicated the microaggressions perpetrated by our former president against some of his [Black and Indigenous constituents and constituents of color], as evidenced by the accounts shared anonymously on the @black_at_usc Instagram page,” Tijani wrote in the Aug. 6 statement reaffirming her thought process behind her calls for impeachment. “I also called for the impeachment of our vice president, citing her failure to defend or take action in support of [Black and Indigenous students and students of color] at USC as evidence of her complicity in the president’s racially insensitive conduct. There is a difference between quiet compliance and explicit endorsement and I took great care to avoid accusing Rose of the latter.”  Although universities nationwide have begun to enact small changes on their campuses, institutions like USC must address their complicity in anti-Black racism, Tijani said. She also said it is currently profitable for institutions to care about Black people because of the surge in popularity in the Black LIves Matter protests, adding a component of commercialization to the movement in order to have basic empathy for people.  “There’s a lot of people that have always subconsciously thought ‘[I] don’t discriminate’ but people are starting to really learn and understand and try to recognize all the different faces that discrimination can take,” Tijani said. “And because of that I think that people have been revamping the spaces that they occupy on campus.” “In this vision of USC, we vigilantly protect students like Rose who have been persecuted for their beliefs and identities, while also diligently incorporating nuance and empathy into our understandings of one another and our calls for change, leaving no need for such students to be wrongfully scapegoated and left to fend for themselves,” Tijani wrote. “At the same time, if Rose had spoken out in support of the Black community at USC with the conviction and zeal with which she was so quick to defend herself and her own community, one can only imagine how differently this situation might have played out.” For Tijani, the most worthwhile aspect of attending the University has been the friends that she’s made. As one of the student leaders calling for systemic change on campus, Tijani said the process has made her uncomfortable and could hurt her chances at some job opportunities or graduate schools. While pushing for accountability within USG and its leadership and informing others on anti-Black racism, the biggest struggle she has faced is balancing her mental health.  For students contemplating and looking to make a difference on campus, Tijani said she is proud of them choosing to because taking action takes bravery and courage. She encourages students to believe in their cause, even if they don’t receive immediate support.   “I always told myself that ‘I’m going to be able to learn this language that way to communicate with [her] and make [her] feel comfortable,’” Tijani said. “I empathize fully with feeling like you can’t express yourself properly in a different language and wanting to be able to and wanting to reach out to this other person.”  “People should understand that we can’t count on a few people to carry the brunt of everything. Eventually, these people are going to be exhausted and want to tap out because everyone’s human,” Tijani said. “So it’s just kind of figuring out where can I contribute? And how can I use my own talents and skills in order to either carry the legacy of this work or start my own thing?” During her efforts calling for the removal of Fritz and Ritch, Tijani consulted with Jaya Hinton, co-executive director of the Black Student Assembly, to understand USG bylaws regarding the impeachment process since BSA is an organization under the umbrella of student government. Serving as an informal adviser to Tijani, Hinton spoke to her a few times a day to assist her in understanding USG culture and structure. Hinton said she admires Tijani’s determination and leadership in tackling issues she cares about and was impressed with what Tijani has accomplished.  “I don’t think that anything good comes easy,” she said, “And I don’t think that anything that will actually dismantle the deeply ingrained systems of racism that are at our University and beyond in the actual real world will be done from doing work that we think is easier or comes at comfort to us.” Tijani said her efforts have led people to think of her as a “face of activism at USC,” and look to her for direction. However, she said she and other leaders on campus and across the nation should not be the only people communities look to for guidance and encourages others to get involved.  “If you are in a club and you reposted your club statement about Black Lives Matter, or if you personally think that you believe in Black Lives Matter, you need to sit down with yourself and understand the gravity of your words, and understand that Black Lives Matter is not conditional, and it should not come through your ease and your comfort,” Tijani said. “Right? Like there’s going to be a lot of privileges that will have to be sacrificed in order to be truly anti-racist. If you find yourself saying Black Lives Matter, but only [acting upon it] in circumstances where you’re absolutely comfortable, I don’t think you understand the weight of what you’re promising.” Now a senior majoring in global health, Tijani said her college experience — although filled with friends and personal growth — cannot match up to the cliché of the college experience seen in the movies. However, Tijani believes the way she’s grown would not have been the same had she attended another university.  In her final year as an undergraduate, Tijani said her focus isn’t to enact change for herself, but for the incoming students that look like her.  “I’m seeing the fledglings of that new USC, but there’s a long road ahead of us before that new USC can actually come to fruition,” Tijani said. “However, that USC is one where anti-racism is a core tenet in every facet of student, faculty, administrative life. It’s a non-negotiable for how we think, how we interact with each other and how we hold each other accountable.” In addition to multiple videos from Tijani calling for change, she has also been using social media to educate her followers to commit to an anti-racist life by sharing infographics and resources, as well as speaking at panels and sharing her writings through IGTV. Through her calls to impeach or remove former Undergraduate Student Government President Truman Fritz and Vice President Rose Ritch, Tijani became a more prominent student leader on campus. Two days after Ritch’s resignation, Tijani’s social media messages were flooded with harassment from Zionist accounts accusing her of antisemitism because of her efforts in Ritch’s impeachment process. Although she did not call for Ritch’s impeachment based on her Jewish and Zionist identity, Tijani issued an apology to pro-Israel students for any harm she may have caused by focusing on Palestinian concerns and condemned antisemitic attacks against Ritch in an Instagram statement on June 27. Additionally, she posted an IGTV July 7, the same day of Fritz’s resignation, urging students to focus their energy on learning from the claims of racism and microaggressions against him rather than resorting to “bullying.” “If you feel this is truth and this is justice, that’s all you absolutely need in order to start and … if your cause is good and your work is good, people will start to validate that,” Tijani said. “Eventually, people will come and support you. And you’ll realize that you don’t have to do everything alone. But sometimes, like, you just have to be the one to start it … doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be the one to finish it.” At the time of publication, Ritch has not made a public comment addressing the doxing and attacks by pro-Israel publications that Tijani has received.  “We have to step outside of what we feel is comfortable in order to do what is absolutely right,” Tijani said. “I was kind of tired of hearing the question ‘Why does this keep happening?’ or ‘I don’t understand how racism still exists in 2020’ — it’s definitely still alive and well and in our faces. We have to move that question from ‘Why does this keep happening?’ to ‘What can I do about it?’” “I know a lot of Black people were [looking to her] for direction to what they thought their next move was going to be,” said Hinton, a rising junior majoring in business administration. “She wasn’t cocky about it … She genuinely wanted to make the school better.”  Since the start of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, Tijani said the movement has exposed systemic faults that have not been addressed by individuals and institutions, such as racist histories and ideologies. She also said the movement has included holding those in power, such as student leaders and campuses, accountable if they are not following the standards of excellence an anti-racist society must have. Tijani hopes that people continue to exercise their right to protest and petition to call on those in leadership positions to take action. last_img

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