By Justin Smith
News Editor Emeritus
I come from a Canisius family. My brother went to Canisius and graduated in ‘14. My father also went to Canisius and graduated in ‘85. It was November 9 when I was talking to my father about the black baby doll that was found hanging in a Frisch dorm room on the day Donald Trump was elected President. When you’re black, hearing that someone lynched a black baby doll isn’t surprising. Someone did something racist? What else is new? And it especially wasn’t surprising for my father, who proceeded to tell me about his own experiences with racism at Canisius. He was walking the tunnels one day after a night class when Public Safety ambushed him with loud yells to get down on the ground. Knowing he did nothing wrong, he wondered if maybe they were talking to the white woman who was walking nearby in the tunnels, but of course they were not. Eventually my father explained that he was a student at Canisius, at which point one of the officers told him, “Watch your mouth.” Luckily nothing further happened, but Public Safety had already done enough to damage their reputation. So three decades later, when a black baby doll is found hanging at Canisius and the Public Safety director says that there was “most likely no ill intent,” of course my father was not surprised.
It was around this time that I started to think even more seriously about how we could end this long tradition of racism, starting at the local level: starting at Canisius.
Let me tell you a little about my own experiences. One of the greatest experiences I got to have at Canisius was being the News Editor for The Griffin. You get to know so much about the school and the students who go to the school. It was such a cool feeling to talk to friends and be able to tell them all these intricate details about some issue at school: the Griffin statue, the parking ramp, the USA Senate elections, et cetera. But it wasn’t an easy road to get there. At the end of my freshman year, I inexplicably didn’t even get an interview to get a position on the paper. At the end of my sophomore year I got an interview, and even got the job of Assistant News Editor, but mysteriously was beat out for the job of Opinion Section Editor by a man who hadn’t even written for the paper before, as far as I could tell.
Finally, by the end of my junior year, I got to be the News Editor–not quite as high as the Editor-in-Chief, but nothing to scoff at either. Still, as I looked around, I noticed that I was the only non-white in the office. And while most of the people in the office are great activists and proponents for social justice, there’s no substitute for diversity (specifically racial diversity in this case, although all forms of diversity are important). For example, I feel confident that none of the people in the office with me ever had their father stopped and racially profiled. So I went through my days wondering how a newspaper staff with no racial diversity would have handled issues such as the baby doll had I not been there. And while I’m not calling into question the journalistic prowess of my colleagues–they’re all very good at their jobs–I know as a black individual that I would not trust an all-white staff to accurately reflect all of my questions and all of my concerns.
But this is not something against The Griffin. I don’t know where I would have ended up in the newspaper if I had been white. Maybe I would have been in the same position, maybe not. At this point, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t about me. This is about you, Black Canisius (and let us not forget #JusticeForBlackCanisius). Because in all the time I spent with the newspaper, I only ever saw one other black individual even attempt to write for the paper, and they wrote for what was then known as the Lifestyle section. (Now you may know it as the Features section, or the section that wants to be as good as News but never will be because News is the best section in the whole paper; come at me). I don’t know this for sure, but I would bet almost anything that in the whole history of the paper, I am the only person of color to ever serve as a section editor. (I implore the staff to correct me if I am wrong). I feel even more confident that I am probably the only person of color to ever be the News Editor.
But I can’t really blame The Griffin if people of color aren’t putting themselves out there to come write. Much love to everyone, but I’m specifically talking to Black Canisius (after all, it was a black doll that was found hanging last semester). You can make your impact however you want to make your impact. If you want to run for student government, that’s cool. If you want to become president of the Honors program, that’s cool too. I’m not saying writing for the paper is the only way to make an impact, but I am urging more black students and students of color to find your way down to the Griffin office and start finding stories to cover.
The school has longstanding issues with race–just ask my father–and I’m telling you sincerely that The Griffin is a key element to getting to the bottom of it. In my final news article last semester, I pointed out how the school had never explained what happened to the people who hung the baby doll. I saw the racial injustice here, but I also felt it on a deeply personal level too, and I wasn’t going to let the issue simply die. The article was published on December 9, and on December 12, President and former Griffin Editor John J. Hurley finally e-mailed the school to reveal the punishments. We’ll never really know the exact impact The Griffin had on the investigation (and I encourage anyway who didn’t get a chance to read the baby doll articles, plural, to go back and read them all), but I do know that I was not going to stop covering it until we got answers.
Now I’m asking for someone to fill my shoes. If you’re a senior and just want to write for a semester, go for it. If you’re a freshman and want to work your way up to Editor-in-Chief, then start today. This is our school just as much as it is anyone else’s, so let’s make it that way, and start by returning some diversity to the greatest club on campus. I may well have been the first black person on the editorial staff of The Griffin, but I don’t want to be remembered as the only one.