Racial distinctions are, biologically speaking, arbitrary. But this in no way loosens their grip on our society. If you are born with white skin, you are regularly reminded that you may find success in a variety of ways. Take, for example, your daily dose of media: from the white anchor delivering the news, to the white professionals on whom the stories often focus, the media reinforces white privileges. But if you are born with black or brown skin, the same program may portray a very different reality for your future.
Tracy Keza ’17 was born in Kenya to a Rwandan mother and an Ethiopian father. She later moved to South Africa, where she lived for 12 years before settling in Rwanda. After high school, Tracy participated in a gap year program that would match her to a private, liberal-arts college in Hartford, Connecticut. She came to the United States in 2013 to attend Trinity College.
“It’s been an interesting ride,” the graduating senior revealed of her time at Trinity. An international student, Tracy disclosed how “it’s kind of like you’re invisible, or you’re only visible when it’s like, oh, you’re some diversity quota.” Her words resonated deeply, reminding me of my own experiences with Trinity: beginning with a “multi-cultural” overnight-stay on the campus, where I was flown, free of charge, as a prospective Student-of-Color. This was in high school, before being officially categorized under this label; before I was even fully conscious of my potential to meet the institution’s need for these types of students.
Reflecting on her time at Trinity, Tracy explained how “[Trinity] definitely made [her] more open and aware of some of the issues…like, if you’re just looking at certain media and just watching certain TV shows, there’s this image of who’s a criminal and who does the bad stuff, who goes to jail.” Tracy looked at me confidently with large round eyes, and in her stare swirled the painful memories of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, and so many others like them, profiled by their skin color and doomed for eternity because of it. In her time in the U.S. and at Trinity, she has seen “how [the media is] just like a fabricated story…and it’s kind of like, the representative: you’re all like this.”
Last Spring it felt to Tracy as if with each new day came another new tragedy: young black males were being shot by white police officers. Tracy was in her junior year, enrolled in a class entitled Art & Activism. It was in this class that she could fully explore some of the issues that were going on at the time. Initially focusing on Islamophobia for her final project, Tracy explained to me how “there was just, like, a lot of bad stuff going on…the three-year-old Syrian boy found on the coast; there were a lot of police brutality cases going on – consecutively, and I ended up making it bigger, just looking at anti-blackness, and the intersection between that and Islamophobia.”
Her project was simple: a photographer, Tracy took portraits of self-identifying Muslim students, wearing Hijabs, as well as black male students, wearing hoodies. She projected her photographs onto the outer wall of the Trinity College Chapel, playing them on a loop for anyone walking by, student or not. She entitled her project: Hoodies and Hijabs.
“Trayvon Martin was really the person who brought […] ‘wearing-the-hoodie’ to light,” Tracy explained to me. She located her artistic inspiration “from a lived experience,” describing how her own heritage, even those of her parents, have combined to make her “more empathetic to the people that are underrepresented and marginalized.” While she herself is not specifically African-American or Muslim, Tracy explained to me that “just because I’m not part of these specific communities, I’m still black…. [And] we shouldn’t have to fight for issues that just affect us.”
Her project did not go unnoticed. The visiting professor who was teaching Tracy’s Art & Activism class posted about it online, and a representative of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center saw this. Her Hijabs & Hoodies project was transported to the nation’s capital in 2016 for the Smithsonian APA’s event: “Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality.” Tracy smiled as she explained how “it was a super lucky opportunity.”
Tracy’s plan is to transport her project across the United States, to cities with high rates of racial profiling and hate-crimes against Muslims. Her debut was at Trinity, but since then she has brought her work to DC and, in collaboration with the visiting professor from her Art & Activism class, to Philadelphia; her plans for the project’s future include taking it to Oakland, New York and Seattle.