Black writers at the University of Iowa describe encounters with racism in Iowa City

Christina Morillo

Content warning: This article includes stories involving racism and mental health issues, including suicidal ideation.

In cities like Minneapolis, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, the myth of Midwest Nice that has allowed white people to ignore systematic racism for decades is being steadily dismantled.

Despite its reputation as a liberal haven, Iowa City — like hundreds of other college towns — is facing its own reckoning. Beyond the police and school reforms demanded by the Iowa Freedom Riders, and those pleading for protection as the University of Iowa prepares to reopen during the COVID-19 crisis, Black UI students, staff, athletes and alumni are speaking out about the racism entrenched in UI and Iowa City culture.

An Instagram account created in late June has worked to spotlight these stories, specifically in UI writing programs. Both the stories and admins behind the Instagram page, @blackatiowawriters, are anonymous.

Several of these unnamed storytellers discussed incidents in which white students used the n-word in essays and aloud, despite Black instructors or classmates making clear they believe such uses are inappropriate or offensive.

“I can’t tell you how many assignments I received where students would use the n-word, out of quotes, for no real reason,” read one post. “[T]he English Department was not at all prepared for Black instructors to teach classroom assignments of almost-all white students. … One assignment I got back from a student included the sentence, ‘The main character Dana is suddenly transported back to the golden age of slavery.’ Imagine that? The golden age of slavery!”

In a different post, a specific faculty member was called out. “Powerful white men like #JamesGalvin, a professor of poetry at @theiowawriterswksp, continue to empower their white students to victimize us. What is the purpose of James Galvin or his white students being able for to say n*gger, besides control and power?”

Another said a white peer repeatedly used the n-word during a workshop. No one in the workshop, including the storyteller’s friends, spoke up. “I still think about that moment constantly. How the heft and loneliness of the silence ended up being much worse than the slur.”

Other stories detail casual (and blatant) racism in downtown Iowa City.

One Black man said he accidentally bumped into a white woman while out at Gabe’s. She called him the n-word and threw a drink in his face. “I was immediately pegged as the aggressor and thrown out of the bar,” he wrote.

Another discussed an incident in Prairie Lights Books. They had introduced a local Black author for a reading to a packed house. Near the end of the reception, students in the writing program were encouraged to take home food — but when the storyteller started to do so, they were loudly accused of “stealing food” by a white barista in the cafe, according to the post.

“All around me, earnest white audience members stared and did Nothing. Hilarious and humiliating — to get in front of 100 white people clapping at a reading, and to hear 100 white people silent while I’m called a thief at the reception.”

Perhaps most disturbing are the stories describing insufficient or even traumatizing experiences in health care settings.

“When I told my white female psychiatrist at the University Student Health Center that my PTSD had gotten so bad I was waking up screaming from nightmares every night and having panic attacks every afternoon, she just said that I was taking too much of my anxiety medication,” one individual shared. “She then implied that I was displaying drug-seeking behavior, and threatened to not prescribe it again. She told me to try going on walks instead. This was the week Ahmaud Arbery was murdered [while on a jog].”

(This story rings particularly troubling in light of the June 1 Zoom town hall on COVID-19 hosted by Steve Goddard, dean of the UI’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, during which he told an instructor of color with an autoimmune disease and anxiety about the prospect of attending in-person classes, “I would advise some mental health counseling to deal with some of the anxiety and understand that. I’d also encourage you to think about trying to manage that because as an underrepresented minority, a woman of color, you have a tremendous impact to students if you can overcome some of that anxiety or fear … as a role model to students.”)

A self-described Black LGBTQ person who has struggled with mental illness and discrimination from doctors and nurses in the past said quarantine brought them to a dark place.

“I was wrestling with terrible suicidal ideation and starting to make plans to end my life. Seeing how serious this was becoming, I reached out to some people (white people and non-Black people of color) who I considered really good friends. I asked for help, to see if I could spend some time at their house.” The individual said they were urged by friends to go to the UI hospital instead.

“It’s no one’s responsibility, per se, to care for a friend in crisis. Especially in a pandemic. But…I’ve told these people all my stories. Do they think I’m lying?” they wrote. “What really hurts, I guess, is how little you would have to see me to think the best care for me would come from a hospital. The best part, then, was watching them post Black Trans Lives Matter all over their social media accounts.”

Admins have made clear the stories are not being shared as entertainment or “trauma porn” for the consumption of white audiences. “Rather, listen to these words, and ask yourself how you have contributed to these experiences. Recognize that our sharing them with you is a gift, and that there is room for self-improvement.”

Along with personal stories that highlight problems in the community, Black Iowa Writers also shares posts with potential solutions, including open letters to faculty members.

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On Saturday July 4 2020, 28 current students across every cohort in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program lifted their collective voices and signed a letter, demanding swift and immediate change. The recipients of the letter include the director #JohnDagata and faculty at their program, the Dean of the @UIOWA Graduate College, the UIowa English Department, the UIowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the UIowa Center for Diversity Equity and Inclusion, and several UIowa Provosts. The letter included descriptions of their experiences as both Black and allied students and writers, and the struggles they have endured in the racist environment that the program fosters. Very importantly, the letter included TEN ACTIONABLE steps the NWP can (and must!) take to improve the culture of its program for ALL of its students. Here, on the #BlackatIowaWriters platform, you can read through abbreviated versions of these action steps. Stand with us. Like, share, comment, engage. Help us hold the Nonfiction Writing Program accountable!

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@blackatiowawriters is far from the only page of its kind. The admins said they were inspired by the pages @blackatpci, @blackatchoateofficial, @blackatharvardlaw, @blackivystories, @blackatcuse, @blackatmichigan and many others. The Iowa writers’ page follows these and dozens of other accounts lifting up the voices of Black academics who’ve encountered everything from microaggressions to hate crimes on college campuses.

The @blackatiowawriters admins announced Wednesday they are “taking a hiatus,” but encourage people to continue submitting stories. Black students, alumni, faculty and staff are welcome to share as many experiences as they’d like to or through this Google form.

Unlike many of their counterparts, @blackatiowawriters encourages storytellers to “use NAMES, so that we may hold people accountable and enact true change.”