In an interview with Managing Editor Kaitlin Joshua, Hidden Dores president Ember Tharpe talks the organization’s new mission to take on white supremacy, organizing for campus dining workers, and how students can get involved.
Why has Hidden Dores decided to focus organizing efforts on dining workers?
We decided to focus on dining staff conditions because of how we felt that the conditions our dining staff operates under is an appallingly evident manifestation of Vanderbilt’s roots in racism. As a business that operates by and supposedly for a 40% minority student body, Vanderbilt’s groundwork in the displacement of Native American tribes from this plot of land, and the subsequent construction of this university by slaves should be a point of shame and accountability that drives our administration to engage in equitable practices today. Quite on the contrary, we see Vanderbilt continuing to profit from the subjugation of a mostly black staff. America’s black population has been made systematically vulnerable through the legacy of slavery, while our white population has continued to realize its benefits. If Vanderbilt was serious about training leaders for a better world, then it should be self-evident that they as an institution would interrupt the perpetuation of this cycle. We chose this focus because it sums up the contradictions we see on campus, and is an actionable item through which we can demand accountability.
How does Hidden Dores’ efforts to organize for dining workers reflect its new mission statement?
Something that people truly fail to understand about white supremacy is that part of the generational effort to maintain its power is by normalizing it. It is not that white supremacy is invisible: we see it every day. But our education system, American popular media, criminal “justice” propaganda do a phenomenal job at making its manifestations seem normal. So, when white students go through a day where all of the professors they encounter are white, and almost all of the dining/custodial staff they encounter are black, there is no thought of how these facts are connected to slavery, Jim Crow, decades upon decades of housing segregation, and more. Based on everything they’ve learned, the thought would be hard to come by.
This campaign aligns with our new mission statement because it takes something we see every day, something that we have been conditioned to believe as natural, and naming it precisely what it is. White supremacy. It is white supremacy because it is a reality created by hundreds of years of violence, subjugation, exclusion, and disenfranchisement. In calling out how the fact of the racial binary between faculty and staff is a part of a centuries-old, menacing, violent thing; and in highlighting how the shameful wages and benefits our administration provides to staff are the gears that keep this American machine running; we hope that students will come to a place where the facts of their own privilege are unavoidable. Moreover, we hope that, as an element of their college experience, this campaign will influence students later in life to challenge similar manifestations as they appear in their work and home environments.
What inspired the development of Hidden Dores’ new mission statement?
As a campus composed of so many minority students, the issues of racism on a national and global level are not lost on us. In fact, we believe that these issues negatively impact students of color, as it is repeatedly made evident that our lives—in all their complexity—are ultimately disposable under the social hierarchies our society has accepted. To see black people gunned down by police on television daily; to see Latinx children left in squalor, separated from their families in an attempt to enter a country of abundance so plentiful it is heinous; to see Muslim concentration camps being operated in the year of 2020—it brings a pain that is close to us because we are black. We are Latinx. We are Muslim. We know that the lives taken from black and brown bodies are complex, delicate, and irreplaceable. We know because these lives are also our own.
We chose to change our mission statement because the taking of lives because of skin color, religion, sexuality, or anything else is sickening and utterly unacceptable. In examining history, we can conclude that this pillage is rooted in the tradition of white supremacy; thus, as an organization created to support the experiences of black and brown members of the Vanderbilt community, white supremacy is our biggest enemy. Looking at how our current political climate is setting out to further normalize its elements, we felt compelled to dedicate ourselves to fighting this enemy from now on. All manifestations of racism and white supremacy contribute to the deaths of people like us in the long run, so all of its manifestations on campus are points of issue for us, which are to be challenged.
Why is the work you’re doing through Hidden Dores meaningful to you?
I’ve spent the past 6 semesters in classes about the construction of race, the historical treatment of blacks, and the ways racism continues to impact black communities and communities of color today. And, in these 6 semesters, I’ve learned two main lessons: first, all of these paradigms of oppression are completely made up. It has only been through generations of their practice that they have come to seem based in nature, and it is the belief that they are natural which have maintained them. However, the second lesson I’ve learned is that, if people made these paradigms up, then people—and only people, not nature or time—can also take them down. We made our systems of beliefs quite literally out of our imaginations; these things are man made. And that means that they are not all-powerful, or divine, or permanent. They were made by man, so they can be broken by man. The work we’re doing is meaningful to me because I feel that it is work in the project of starting new paradigms. Doing this, I feel a power I’ve never felt before; by using my voice and mind I am contributing to the destruction of the my ancestors’ kidnappers’ proudest achievement. Just by presenting facts, I get to reverse a system that has hurt my people, and create one that is better for the generations that follow us. It might be small; I might be one girl on one college campus in one little period of time, but it is something. And that is extremely powerful to me.
How can people get involved?
SHOW UP! SHOW UP! SHOW UP! SHOW UP! This campaign will be made successful by demonstrating that LARGE numbers of students are paying attention to the racist conduct Vanderbilt engages in. So, the main thing we ask is for dedication from its supporters to show up when they see our fliers; show up when they have an opportunity to spread our message; and show up when action is made possible. In a more concrete sense, people can also get involved by joining our engagement committee. This committee will be called upon for consciousness raising tasks such as distributing pamphlets, painting campus, tabling, and systematically spreading the word about our events. In addition, we are operating a coalition of student organizations that meets once monthly, and is tasked with bringing the cause to the agendas of their own organizations. If you’re interested in joining our engagement committee or signing your organization up for the coalition, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!