Jamahri Sydnor was my classmate since middle school. Just a few days before she was set to start her first year in college, while driving on Saratoga Avenue in Northeast D.C., she was shot in the head by a bullet that was intended for someone else. Although I didn’t know her well, we often sat in class together, sharing gum and light-hearted jokes. She was always very kind to me.
Since Jamahri’s death, I have thought deeply about gun violence and what type of gun violence gets our attention. Yale students live and study in close proximity to people who experience regular gun violence in their communities. Despite this, many of us have little firsthand familiarity with the extent to which this phenomenon can tear communities apart. As an overwhelmingly privileged student body, many of us have not directly experienced the injustices we attempt to combat though campus activism. Out of respect for those who continue to face injustices in their communities that many of us will never fully comprehend, we need to reflect on what stories are told, by whom and to what end.
Nothing I will say here is anything that people of color have not said before. I decided to speak out because I felt that as an affluent white woman, I am a part of a demographic driving some of the problematic narratives we continue to see in on-campus discourse.
I attended a D.C. public high school that the DC Urban Moms blog referred to as “Yale or jail.” We had metal detectors, but guns got in anyways. Even so, I never felt like I would be the one to get shot. Maybe I had a false sense of security, or maybe I just understood the implications of racial and socioeconomic segregation on violence in my city. The incidents of gun violence at Woodrow Wilson High School were losses felt by the entire school, but they were also losses that did not belong to the upper-middle class white neighborhood where my school was located and stories that were not mine to share. Last year at Yale’s gun violence vigil, I thought of speaking up for Jamahri. However, Jamahri was a black woman of color; as a white woman, her story was never mine to tell.
In the past couple of years, narratives surrounding gun violence have focused primarily on school shootings. After the Parkland shooting, students from around the country expressed their frustration with the state of gun control in America, Yale students included. Many of these responses were along the lines of, “it could have been me.” What Yale students overlooked, however, is that gun violence disproportionately affects minority, low-income communities, which means that innocent statements like these contribute to the erasure of people of color and their stories. Victims of school shootings in affluent communities are granted the full depiction of their humanity that they deserve, yet black victims of gun violence like Jamahri are reported as statistics. At the vigil, Yale students perpetuated this narrative surrounding gun violence, an issue that is rooted in the demographic makeup of our student body.
There is an unspoken acceptance among policymakers that gun violence is an unchangeable reality in black and brown communities. When people fight for gun control legislation, they don’t talk about communities of color. Rather, they use narratives in which gun violence permeates the safest places in affluent communities. It’s only then that they care enough to act. The faces of the nationally recognized March for Our Lives movement are primarily white, while local activists, who are often people of color, remain underappreciated. These activists work tirelessly to create change in their own communities, through programs such as the Baltimore Ceasefire Movement and youth mentor groups in Chicago. These people deserve our attention simply because they are doing important work. In fact, they’ve been doing this work long before March for Our Lives and other activist groups came to be.
The point of this piece is to say that we, as Yale students, need to stop being quite so eager to own injustices that we are unfamiliar with. Instead, we need to create spaces in which people with actual experience around these issues feel comfortable telling their stories if they are willing to. These shouldn’t be spaces that force them to air their trauma in front of a bunch of privileged white people. Rather, they should be places of genuine dialogue and allyship. No More Names, for instance, is a group on campus that is starting important conversations around gun violence, specifically as it relates to police brutality. Groups like this deserve our support and attention. Moving forward, we need to be careful about how we choose to push for gun control. We need to be mindful of the narratives we use to elicit sympathy. We need to consider whose stories these are to tell, and how to amplify their voices instead of drowning them out.
Alexandra Bauman is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .