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Celebrating Diversity in Student Organizations Like AALIGN

By Shun McGhee
Student Affairs Liaison

Most colleges and universities have student organizations devoted to various student and alumni interests. Some student organizations are honor societies, while others are based around certain industries, the military or volunteering work.

Still other student organizations such as the African American Learning, Inclusion and Guidance Network (AALIGN) are based on individual culture. I am a member of AALIGN, and I am passionate about this student organization due to my past experiences with racism.

My African American Experience

The high school I attended in Manassas, Virginia, now known by a different name, was formerly named after a Confederate general. When I went there, some of the students were Black, Latino, and Asian (including students of Middle Eastern, East Indian, and East Asian origins). The majority of the student body was Caucasian.

Since I was born in DC and lived in Southeast DC and Southern Prince Georges County, I consider myself a Southside native and a Northern Virginia nomad. But that title is confusing to some people and debatable to others. I have lived in Northern Virginia for the overwhelming majority of my life, but I don’t consider it home.

Feeling Unwelcome in the Local Community

Part of the reason that I don’t consider Northern Virginia to truly be my home is due to some of my past experiences with racism. For instance, in the neighborhood where I lived, my friends and I played basketball Sunday through Thursday. On weekdays after school, we’d set our books down, grab something to eat and then hit the court.

One particular day, we got home, ready to engage in our usual ritual, only to find the basketball backboards had been flipped backwards 180 degrees. There was also a lock on the support pole that prevented us from righting the rims.

My friend and I walked up to the clubhouse, which was the administration office for the community, to explain what we’d found. The response to our inquiry was that from now on to play on the court, we would need a key to unlock the rims. The key could only be obtained from a resident with a community pass or from someone who could verify he or she lived in the neighborhood.

When a game was finished, the rims had to be locked and the key returned to the clubhouse. Another of the rules that stood out to me was that only community residents were invited to play on the court.

In an instant, my friends and I went from having a potentially premier court right in our neighborhood to almost the polar opposite. When we unlocked the rims, there was a host of community rules posted on the backboard.

Also, the locks and the new rims installed to accommodate them left the rims unsturdy, which changed our games. As a result, the number of good players who regularly visited the court drastically decreased because playing on the court was not good anymore and the community felt overtly unwelcoming.

Years later, I talked with someone from the local homeowners’ association. She told me that some of the local white homeowners had indicated their displeasure at finding the basketball court already occupied at times when they wanted to play, which was a factor in why the changes were made to the court.

It’s also important to note that my friends and I, with the exception of one person, were Black. The young people who previously came to play with and against us were mostly Black, too.

That experience taught us a lesson about a lack of belonging. If we were going to stay in that neighborhood, we would have to do so as guests.

Experiencing Racism in High School Football

As a high school freshman, I played varsity football. I backed up the senior starting quarterback that year.

My coaches thought it was a good idea to have some of the second-string guys play junior varsity as well. It was during one junior varsity game members from the opposing team referred to the Black players on my team using racial epithets.

Those players didn’t just use those names once; they did it the entire game. It wasn’t just the dreaded “N” word being used, but we were peppered with an assortment of racial slurs intended to hurt and demoralize us.

During many of the times I was tackled that night, I remember having dirt put in my face and fingers inside my face mask. After the game was over, my Black teammates and I didn’t speak much in the locker room.

There was not much to say with our mouths; we planned on saying everything with our fists and got dressed quickly. Before we could get out of the door, however, our head coach informed us that anyone who left that locker room and got in a fight with the opposing team would be kicked off the team.

In retrospect, I suppose the coach had gotten wind of what happened on the field and what we planned to do in retaliation. The next week in practice, nothing was said about what happened. In addition, that experience was not addressed at all during the season. It felt as though we were supposed to just move on.

The way the incident was handled by the coaching staff bothered me. I walked away feeling like a drastic consequence was offered to us if we brawled with the opposing team, but I never heard about any punishment being offered to our opponents.

It would have been nice if the coaching staff had made a statement to our team, letting us know the racist language used against us by the other team would not be tolerated and that they would contact the coaches and the athletic departments of our rivals to let them know what happened. Those actions would have made me feel supported by my own coaching staff.

In an ironic twist of events during my senior year, I was pulled aside after practice by the varsity head coach (a different person than the junior varsity head coach during my freshman year). He said that he had heard another player and I were in the locker room using the “N”-word and that he would not tolerate the use of that word.

I vehemently denied the allegations because they were false. When I asked him who brought the claim to his attention, he refused to tell me.

I told him it was interesting that he was having a conversation with me on the strength of someone else’s word, but that I had been called all manner of names during my tenure on the team and nothing was ever done. The coach said he was unaware of those past incidents and again doubled down on how such language would not be permitted.

Perhaps I could have taken his commitment keeping the locker room free from hate speech if he would have addressed the team in its entirety, especially after I shared with him that I had been called the N-word by white members of my own team. The coaching staff’s unwillingness to address this issue with any kind of intentionality and fairness failed the entire team. It added to the reason why I still feel like an outsider in Northern Virginia to this day.

Related link: The Value of Culturally Based Student Organizations

Gaining Understanding, Education and Support from AALIGN

I graduated from The Morgan State University, an Historically Black College or University (also known as an HBCU) in Baltimore, Maryland. I transferred there from West Virginia State University (also an HBCU) after completing my freshman year.

My past experiences with racism have greatly fueled my desire to ensure that folks feel welcome when they join physical and virtual communities such as our student organizations. Ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion is why I am so passionate about AALIGN. AALIGN was built with the goal of providing a safe haven for members of the African diaspora to have conversations, express ideas, and serve as resources for one another.

Perhaps if there had been an “AALIGN” available to me when I was growing up, I would have had a sounding board for the internal rage brought on by the racism I experienced. Someone in the group may have suggested that I reach out to the Washington Post, local television news stations or the Prince William County Chapter of the NAACP to voice my discontent. AALIGN is not a place where you can get formal counseling, but through conversations and the sharing resources, you are supported by others who have had similar experiences.  

Also, members of the Black diaspora are celebrated in AALIGN, not just tolerated. It is not a place where everybody agrees all of the time about every topic; in that way, it is a venue where members can find balance.

In this kind of student organization, you feel included. AALIGN has members from all parts of the diaspora; members come from all over and from various religions and socioeconomic backgrounds

AALIGN is a place where you can find guidance and resources when you request them. Also, it offers members an opportunity to broaden their community by engaging with other people.

AALIGN is a place where you can learn. For example, Gabriel Hamilton, one of our members, did a presentation on “100 Black Women in Black History.”

Before the pandemic, Gabriel Hamilton also set up a field trip to Washington, D.C. The trip was a guided bus tour of the footsteps of famed African American educator Mary McCleod Bethune. I attended that outing and met people I would not have otherwise encountered. In addition, I went to local places I had never visited before, despite being a native of the metro DC area.

I invite you to join AALIGN so we can be made stronger and broaden our horizons together.   

Related link: Putting the ‘Extra’ in Extracurricular Student Organizations

Shun McGhee is a graduate of Morgan State University and has a B.A. in business management. For the last 14 years, he has been a Student Advisor, Career Coach and Student Liaison at the University. His current position as a liaison focuses on working with cultural and faith-based student organizations and ensuring that students’ campus experience is as positive as possible.

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