As part of our effort to highlight the people who make our campus so unique, The Western Carolinian interviewed Asha, a third-year student who is the president of the Global Black Studies (GBS) club at WCU. Asha relayed powerful messages encouraging individual expression and authenticity, education, and community.
Asha comes from an Afrocentric household where “learning about your Black history is vital.” Afrocentrism is the global history and culture of people from African descent. In fact, Asha was the only person in her family without a given last name. Asha’s dad realized last names are not needed in America, so he gave Asha, the last of five children, a name more connected to African roots.
This naming comes from some African traditions where, as Asha explained, your lineage is tied more to your name and your individuality is wrapped up in what your name is without need for last names. ‘Asha’ means life in Swahili.
Exposure to Afrocentrism and Black thought helped shape Asha, leading to a soul who is passionate about education, Black expression, open dialogue, solidarity, community building and genuine individuality.
Asha is a fan of pop-culture, anime, art, the outdoors, cooking and Black expression. They love raw, weird, vulnerable conversations. As a psychology major, Asha loves seeing what’s rattling around in people’s brains and is an advocate for mental health. She’s also an advocate for authentic vulnerability.
“Authenticity is really hard. It’s a form of vulnerability in and of itself,” Asha explained. “There really is no one like you ever, ever in life. You’re human. Humans do what humans do.” We make mistakes and we all have our own flaws. We are all just doing our best as souls navigating the universe around us.
Black expression can take many different forms with each individual bringing their own perceptions and points of view to the multifaceted Black experience. No two people are the same and each one brings their own uniqueness to experience.
“We are not a monolith. Do not put Black people in boxes and categories. We are people like everybody else. We express ourselves, we love ourselves, we do all these things for ourselves, not for the gaze of other people,” Asha stated. Black individuals may restrict self-expression out of fear of judgement, preconceived stereotypes and notions surrounding ‘Blackness’, and generational trauma.
Asha encourages expression so long as it doesn’t hurt others, whether that be natural Black hair, facial piercings, being in nature, or use of language. “We owe it to ourselves. We shouldn’t be afraid to live how we want just because of our race.”
Asha grew up in Long Island, New York, but moved to North Carolina in high school. Asha decided to come to Western, with the body farm and NC Promise helping guide her interest in forensics, but Asha eventually changed their major and decided to study psychology with a minor in Global Black Studies.
The Global Black Studies program is relatively new to campus. Following the civil unrest and racial injustice in 2020, national calls for Black educators became more and more vocal. Listening to the calls for more equal representation in higher education, Western brought on Dr. David Walton, a history professor and director of the Global Black Studies program.
Asha heard about WCU bringing Dr. Walton on board and felt a need to engage with the GBS program. Asha was one of the first GBS members. She became inspired by movements of Black students across other campuses and wanted to create a club based on Black studies in the early 1970s.
After taking about a year to get set up as a recognized student organization, the GBS club strives to “teach history and concepts from an Afrocentric lens,” Asha explained. It looks at Black thought, scholars, and literature to get a better understanding of the world from an African perspective.
GBS hopes to build community, unity, and solidarity through open conversation and difficult dialogue. GBS is founded on key principles including empathy communication, solidarity with other races and minority groups, collaboration, and education.
“We’re trying to build a space for people to just come as they are,” Asha said.
Asha understands community can be hard to find or (re) build following the pandemic. Asha, along with GBS, hopes to reignite the compassion people had for each other.
“We’re a community. We need to help each other out,” Asha said after describing the GBS principles. “We need people. People need people.”
GBS aims to reignite that compassion by talking about community-related concepts, like womanism, which aims to promote equality for and uplift women and female-presenting individuals universally, whereas feminism may often only focus on middle-class white women. Look at early women’s suffrage movements that largely left Black women out of the discussion for equality. Equality still has ways to go in terms of inclusive equality.
“People often say ‘We need equality for all’ but don’t really know what ‘equality for all’ means,” Asha said. “They don’t understand how hard we have to fight for equality and how many structures there are to bring down with it. There are so many structures in the way of minorities…”
A major cultural change needs to happen for “equality for all” to be fulfilled. Asha expressed that nobody is listening to calls for real change, so it isn’t happening. We are in the same place, although we are still sliding backwards in the fight for equality. “People hear you talk, but nobody is listening,” Asha put it, while sounding tired of talking about the same issues many Black people and other minorities, including POC and women, have been voicing for decades upon decades.
“Black people are tired of having to be the voice of reason, concern, and liberation to raise calls for change. There’s a level of exhaustion and burnout that comes from having to explain yourself over and over again.”
Asha described it as a current “cultural rehash” happening, not a cultural change. We are often packaging the same biases in newer, fancier language to make the bias “sound a little bit less racist.”
Black Americans have fought for cultural issues like voting rights, police violence, schools’ abilities to teach Black American history, and marriage equality for years to gain progress, only to now see that progress starting to reverse with many states introducing bills and laws aimed to restrict the teaching of “critical race theory” or restrict certain voting rights and abilities.
Take Mississippi H.B. 1020, for instance, that would allow currently white public officials to appoint five judges and expand police presence in Hinds County, instead of allowing citizens to elect their own officials. Hinds County encompasses Jackson, Mississippi, ‘the Blackest city in America.’
Jackson is 80 percent Black. Opponents of H.B. 1020 say it is an attempt to strip power from Jackson residents and that the bill implies Black leadership is incapable of governance, according to Mississippi Today. Jacksonians have criticized Mississippi Capitol Police for several recent shootings committed with little accountability. Proponents of the bill argue it can result in a safer Jackson.
To help with this cultural change, Asha encourages students to be there for each other and explore other cultures. “I think that’s a great first step, the exploration of culture that is beyond your own.”
There is often a misconception that allyship requires one hundred percent involvement. While people need to put in the work, they also need to educate themselves. Asha wants people to put in the same work Black individuals have put in daily.
“Read a f——- book,” Asha emphasized. This goes for everybody. Learn about other cultures and research them. While some Black books and thought are more tailored for Black individuals, other races can still get insights into the Black experience.
Asha wants Black students especially to cultivate a community at WCU. Asha wants to see all students working together. They encourage students to talk to Black professors, be outside, and “literally live on this campus and express themselves.”
Along with seeing more Black souls on campus working and being together, Asha wants them to stay. “There is something here for you, I promise. Build it yourself if you feel like it isn’t built for you… You can be the maker of your own change.”