Dismantling systemic racism, as an ally

Story by Robin Chenoweth


In this age of reckoning with racism, true allyship is not easy. It means listening, and recognizing privilege.

Jesse Fernandez, a fifth-year exercise science student and a white-presenting Latino, can’t speak to the plight of Black people in America.  “It’s nothing that I can ever understand,” he said.

But he has learned what it means to be an ally. In May, as president of Ohio State’s co-ed Latinx fraternity Alpha Psi Lambda, he began working with friends in the National Panhellenic Council, which includes historically Black fraternities and sororities. They were responding to the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans.

Many Latinx people are also Black, Fernandez said. “There’s no separation there.”

“We can’t just ignore everything that’s going on with the injustices Black Americans are facing, and then a few months later start asking people to march with us regarding immigration issues and oppression of non-black Latinx individuals,” he said. “This fight is our fight, too, and whatever we have to do to help, we should be doing it.”

And so a group gathered around a whiteboard and drew up plans for a rally at the university’s Hale Hall. The focus was squarely on Black students, but Fernandez and other Latinx students made a statement of solidarity. And then they marched together in protest.

Fernandez recognizes that racism is deeply embedded in American systems, which for centuries intentionally and unintentionally have held back people of color.  And so, he has attacked anti-blackness where he can by amplifying Black voices.

“I’m listening to my friends and seeing what they think should be done,” he said. “And then I say, ‘Now what can I do on my end to meet in the middle and get that done?'”

As a fraternity president, he has worked with Black, Latinx and white fraternities to examine the Greek system at Ohio State for implicit and explicit racism.

“We have a group chat with all four of the Greek councils … calling out racist policies and micro-aggressions” that occur within the system, he said. When they discovered that both the Panhellenic Association and Inter-Fraternity Council don’t have bylaws regarding the use of hate speech, they exhorted the organizations to amend their rules.

All the councils since have banned hate speech and imagery and updated punishments to reflect the seriousness of the offense.

“We continue to have conversations around establishing a better community,” Fernandez said.

The challenge is to sustain the momentum and to not let complacency about racism and implicit bias take hold.

Perhaps, Fernandez said, we need to take stock of the university’s past to shape our future.

Most people don’t know, for example, that part of the Ohio Union is shaped like a lantern, and the student newspaper is named after one, because the Underground Railroad ran through campus. The path snaked through Neil Run Stream — now Mirror Lake — past the South Oval to where the Union stands today.

“We’re never taught that unless you hear it from somebody else,” Fernandez said. “That’s literally erasure, right in front of you on campus.”

That critical aspect of our past should be taught during orientation, he said. “There’s a history here on this campus, and you should be aware of it.”

Because being an ally means never forgetting, holding that lantern aloft for others and moving toward a more equitable future