Content warning: first-hand account of racism and ableism.
In the wake of rising racial tensions throughout the nation, an individual decided to Zoom bomb a UC San Diego Associated Student meeting, yelling racial slurs targeted at black students. In their tirade, the individual had interrupted third year undergraduate student Syreeta L. Nolan from sharing her experience as a disabled African American student.
Nolan recently reached out to the UCSD Guardian to finish that conversation. The following transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity.
Andrew Ha: So let me begin by thanking you for coming here. It’s very brave of you to be able to speak out and share about your experiences. In this interview, we want to give you the space to share any and all of your experiences and your tribulations throughout your time thus far at UC San Diego and the things you foresee in the future.
If you could just begin with a brief introduction about who you are and why you decided to speak out, that’d be great. Whenever you’re ready.
Syreeta Nolan: My name is Syreeta Nolan and I am a junior at UCSD majoring in psychology with a specialization in human health. And I’m an African American student, but I also am a student with invisible disabilities. I don’t have a wheelchair, crutches or things like that that would visually show my disabilities. I literally have to be vulnerable enough to share it for someone to know that I’m experiencing it. I’ve been diagnosed since 2015 [with Fibromyalgia] so it’s still one of those things that I’m learning to be comfortable with.
That Sunday morning I saw that there was this meeting for African American students to voice ways that the faculty could support us more. It was so important to me and even though I was at a nine out of 10 on the pain scale, I went. And I did it because it’s important not only for black students to be heard, but also for students with disabilities to be heard.
A lot of people think that it’s wrong that we’re two percent of the campus population. But what percentage of the campus population is disabled either visibly or invisibly? All the other resource centers transitioned to Zoom meetings and have events. Because we don’t have a Disabled Student Resource Center, there’s never been any events for us to connect over the course of the pandemic.
It’s been a lot harder for a lot of us. I know for myself, my clinic closed in March at the beginning of the pandemic. I went for months without my normal treatments and I just got back yesterday. So Sunday [on the day of the AS Conversation], everything was worse than normal. It was at 12 pm and the meeting started and there were waves of 10 out of 10 pain. There’d be times where I’d have to turn away from the camera to almost wince and cry and do a modified fetal position in a chair.
There were black students that noted that it had been 10 minutes and we only heard from non black students of color. If this space was created for African American, we should speak.
I was the first student to speak and as I was speaking, I mentioned how it’s already been a very difficult quarter for all of us who identify with disabilities. For those of us who are black and disabled, it’s even more difficult and it’d be valuable if the faculty could reach out to us and check on us. It would be so important for them to reach out rather than a student continuing to put out energy during a very traumatizing time to reach out to them.
And that’s when the Zoom bombers happened saying a collection of racial slurs combined with expletives, and the N-word was thrown out. My ancestors have been called the N-word, my relatives have been called the N-word. We just had that anniversary of Black Winter earlier last quarter. And I’m like, okay, so we’re evolved. I’m in research here. I lead two research teams. I don’t feel like this will affect me.
That might have been a version of false comfort but in that moment when they called me those words, I wasn’t going to give them the benefit of seeing that they hurt me. All I said to them was that I reject what you say. I rejected that statement and I muted myself because this space immediately turned. You can see [A.S. Vice President of Academic Affairs Adarsh Parthasarathy’s] face drop into his hands, almost in tears after what happened. You could hear other students unmute and verbally engage the zoom bombers and it felt like the longest couple of minutes until [Parthasarathy] ended the zoom call to enhance the security settings.
I feel like as a black student, the Black Resource Center and the Black Student Union are spaces you go to when you are proud to be black and it’s just not a part of my identity. I’ve always struggled with being black from being bullied as a kid for not being black enough, not speaking with enough ghetto terms or not cursing. I am really disconnected from my African American roots and it wasn’t until getting to my community college and learning about Umoja that I started to engage that aspect of me.
I’ve always been passionate about helping other students with disabilities. And I actually won the 2020 Warren College BEARL for Resolving Conflict Constructively and for developing two programs to build support and community between able-bodied and disabled students.
Andrew Ha: Could you explain for some of the readers what Umoja is?
Syreeta Nolan: Umoja for African American students is to explore what community means and it looks at different African community ideals. My community college had allowed me to stay connected and just to learn more about what it means to be proud of myself as a black person and what community could look like. That wasn’t just being surrounded by African American culture not like R&B music, not things like that. It was more academically driven. It’s a lot different from a space like the Black Resource Center or the Black Student Union.
It was my honor earlier this quarter to actually represent UCSD through an invitation from my mentor Roberta Camarena in the Welcome to the Family, a seminar for transfer students. I was able to speak of the support that I have [at UCSD] and as a chance as an associate scholars student. I’m also a part of the psychology honors cohorts and I lead two research teams. Anything is possible here. It’s just amazing what happens when you create your opportunities and it’s really beautiful.
I’ve always felt loved and supported until that one moment [on the AS Conversation] when I didn’t feel like I was accepted. There was this almost immediate outpouring of messages of people asking “are you okay?” I’m like, I don’t know. I will be.
As I was saying earlier, I was awarded the 2020 BEARL for Resolving Conflict Constructively for the two programs I developed; the first was for personalized emergency planning. I couldn’t participate in fire drills because I live on the 11th floor and fibromyalgia is not going to let me run down 11 stories and up another 3 stories. The OSD Housing Liaison advised that I just don’t go to the fire drill. I hung up.
I wanted to have a more comprehensive emergency plan that addressed different types of emergencies that could happen, like if there was a fire in your lecture hall. What do you do, where do you go? Let’s say you’re in a lecture hall on the third story of Center… Where is your area of refuge?
The second program I developed was called JADE, which stands for justice, awareness, and disability education which creates safe spaces for students to learn more about what it’s like having an invisible disability and having a visible disability and creating a space where it’s okay to talk about these concerns. I am still in the process of it being realized as a club in a co-curricular program with volunteer opportunities for able bodied students to help disabled students. It could even evolve into part time and offer part time job opportunities.
And I was thinking about those connections that I built in developing those programs. So, immediately after the Zoom bombing occurred, I emailed the Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, and the Dean of Student Affairs for Warren College. I told them about what just happened on the call, and how much pain I was in. What happened was just horrendous. They replied in under an hour to set up a meeting that same day on Sunday.
The reason the investigation opened into the two Zoom bombers was by my report. What I love about our associated student government is their presence. You can see how much they care, and they put passion into what they do. Adrash created a meeting to discuss the Zoom bombing that started at 12 pm. The meeting lasted until 4 pm. That level of dedication from Adarsh to listen to our concerns for 4 hours was just remarkable. He’s been openly sharing the report’s progress: there are already the preliminary results of the investigation: one looks like a very organized attack and the other looks like a UC affiliate.
When I was talking to the campus leadership, they also invited Dr. Juarez, the director of CAPS, to join. I realized just how alone I felt in a lot of things, because I didn’t have any ability to connect with other disabled students over the quarter. It’s already been a quarter of nightmares and trying to ask for accommodation after accommodation for assignments. Luckily I had them approved, but it still doesn’t make it easy to ask for help. And I think that’s one of the strengths of disabled students: that we are resilient. We’re strong and we fight through whatever disability. We have to be here at UCSD.
And to not know and to not be able to support each other, I feel like it’s a great disservice. Hopefully we can create the disabled student Resource Center in the future. And I joined a task force with AS to be able to pursue some of these goals as well as a part of this Task Force. It’s actually quite shocking that they don’t have statistics or support for students with disabilities, because we’re going through [quarantine] with medical conditions. The quarter system is already difficult as a student in general, but when you add your physical health not being there for you, it becomes worse.
Because I’ve already been building these connections with disabled students, I know it’s not a large community on campus. I don’t know if that’s due to lack of knowledge or due to the lack of us here on campus. We go to the Office of Students with Disabilities can get services, and that’s it. That’s the support we have which is quite ludicrous and sad. I know that I’m probably not the first person to apply for grad school with disabilities. It’s just been hard to connect with alumni to talk about having disabilities and overcoming them to achieve their career goals. I find that to be really sad.
And I feel like with the zoom bomber, all they’ve done is given me a platform to share about why disabled students need to be heard. I think a lot of us aren’t out there publicly because we’re just trying to be there for ourselves, which can be very hard.
We need our voice, especially students of color with disabilities because you can look around, like the Black Student Resource Center, the other resource centers on campus, and you don’t know who can relate, except for if it’s a visibly disabled person. We should be able to come together and recognize our intersectionality between our disabilities or racial background or our gender, like being a black disabled woman. We are not just one thing. It just being one thing is easier to get used to. Everyone would relate to you completely, but there is no way that that is what’s true for any student.
That’s why I actually proposed to EDI VC Petitt about 2 new DEI courses I want to be added to our structure, like one for Disabilities and Higher Education because I know that black students struggle to get the same caliber of education is white students, for example, but was there a similar struggle with students with disabilities? Could it be that they initially couldn’t come to college because the office of students with disabilities didn’t exist? How did the American with Disabilities Act come to exist? We’d never know. These are questions that I feel needs to be addressed and need to be taught, so that we’re more sensitive to each other and that we have safe spaces to talk about disabilities.
And the second course that I recommended was Intersectionality, Diversity, and your Identity. When you look at the DEI requirements page, there are 10 different facets of diversity, from racial background, gender background, sexual orientation, to disability status. Like I said like, I’m not proud of being black. I identify as bisexual. It’s hard with a Christian family and being Christian to identifying as bisexual. It’s hard saying it, but it’s my truth.
If I find a man I fall in love with, I’ll do that. If I find a woman I fall in love with, I’ll do that. And I’ll cross those bridges when I need to, but I feel like we need those spaces that don’t assume that we’re comfortable with our racial background.
We should get into this class to explore what each one of those dimensions means and where we are in that dimension if we relate to having a minority racial background, having a disability, whether it’s mental or physical, whether it’s an invisible physical disability or visible disability. We deserve that space to be able to explore to be uncomfortable.
And the thing that the VC mentions to me is that both of those courses would need professors who are passionate about teaching them. So if you are a professor and you’re thinking, hey, those courses sound interesting, one contact me contact me please. I know that students would be so grateful for you to teach this course.
Andrew Ha: So I heard you mentioned earlier that you were not proud of being black. Can you elaborate a little bit more about why you feel that way?
Syreeta Nolan: I was bullied as a kid. I wasn’t black enough for others. I wasn’t speaking in ghetto terms. I was too proper. I didn’t curse. I didn’t listen to rap or R&B. I loved Gothic things: I liked to be all black. I think I may have even done things like dark brown or black lipstick from time to time and black nail polish.
I just wasn’t what they expected of a black person and I just have never really had close friends that were African American before so I wasn’t comfortable with that aspect. When I admitted this on the Zoom call with VC Petitt, VC Satterlund, Dr. Juarez, and Dean Kafele, I saw VC Petitt break up into tears. She said it made her sad to hear that I wasn’t proud to be black and she offered to meet with me one on one to talk more. So many things have happened in our culture where black people are seen as lesser or that we’re targets of police brutality. We’re targets of so many racial stereotypes.
If my life is going to be harder by identifying boldly as black, what’s the point? On documents like financial aid forms, I struggle to [check the box for] my race. But I know that it’s probably the only thing [administrators] will see when they first see me, so I check the box. I’ve actually on occasion when I didn’t feel like it really mattered as much, I do one or more races. I might refuse to respond on occasions, because I also do have Native American roots as well.
I have a dysphoria in regards to who I am racially and that’s why I think intersectionality, diversity, and your identity would be so valuable to be able to have a space where it’s okay to explore why I don’t feel proud or why I don’t feel connected.
You know how in LGBTQ, [some use the ‘Q’ to represent ‘Questioning’]? Like I’m questioning if this is really who I am. It’s assumed I am black, because this is what’s on the outside. I don’t know if everyone is ready to be instantly proud of that aspect of who they are and just having a safe space to explore is important.
It’s been hard feeling like I don’t have that space to question without shocking people. I know that it’s not the common dialogue. I’ve seen people say “I’m proudly for Black Lives Matter.” I stand for all of that, just personally, it’s hard for me to identify.
Andrew Ha: Thank you very much. Is there anything else you’d like to add in conclusion?
Syreeta Nolan: As I work with student government to make the Disabled Student Resource Center a reality and to make JADE a reality, I need people to reach out to me and be right beside me. If you have that intersectionality about being disabled and black, being disabled and Latino, being disabled and LGBTQ, let’s make conversation and see how we could collaborate.
I feel like it’s almost like we don’t feel comfortable asking someone what it is like being a student with invisible disabilities; what is it like being a student with visible disabilities; what is it like being a student who was born with a disability; or what is it like being a student who’s just got a diagnosis.
Is there a student advocate that I could talk to for the Office of Students with Disabilities, because if you have never applied for accommodations, it can be hard. You might have to go back to your doctor multiple times to get the paperwork right. We need these spaces to support each other in these difficult areas of our lives and to be able to support students who are newly diagnosed with chronic disorders or help when someone is close to die.
I think silence is what weakens us. It’s not like we’re out here intentionally dividing, having this divide between able-bodied students and disabled students. It’s already an unspoken divide. We don’t know how to speak to it. There are no real spaces for what it is like being a disabled student at UCSD. I feel like with how innovative and how world class we are, we could really use our influence to create world renowned support and community.
Nolan has requested to have her contact information be included in the article. If you would like to learn more, please email her at [email protected].
Although the Q in LGBTQ was referred to as Questioning in the interview, it is more commonly referred to as Queer. The acronym stated was also a shorthand for the longer initialism, LGBTQIA+.
Photo courtesy of Yui Kita for the UCSD Guardian.