The outrage that has stemmed from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain and so many more persons of color in recent years and months has magnified a cry for change that has been echoing since the founding of this country. Blanche Hughes, Vice President for Student Affairs at Colorado State University, has felt this echo in her bones since childhood. Now, she says, it is time for everyone to take heed.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself. How did your path lead you to CSU?
A: I was born in Lexington, Ky., in 1956 as the youngest of three children. I was born into legal segregation and grew up in poverty in a government housing project. I attended segregated elementary and junior high schools and was bussed to a white high school about 10 miles from my home.
My father was a horse trainer and jockey for 30 years. He was a jockey in the early 1900s when horse racing was not as profitable. Once horse racing became more popular, the black jockeys were replaced by white jockeys and he was moved to training racehorses. He had to quit school in the 5th grade when his mother died in childbirth to find work to bring income to the family. Without a formal education, he taught himself how to bartend and wait tables, became a janitor, handyman and chauffeur, and was a great father and husband. My mother graduated from high school and chose to be a stay-at-home mom. She would do part-time nannying and ironing for wealthy white families.
I spend time talking about my parents because they are the foundation to my values and where I find inspiration. Even though we were poor, they never made me feel poor. They gave me a happy childhood. And the segregated world that I lived in also provided support and community.
I came to CSU in 1982 to attend graduate school and stayed. I have worked at CSU for 35 years in different roles, with the last 13 years as the Vice President for Student Affairs. I also earned my doctorate degree in sociology while working full-time.
I have been married for 44 years to my husband, Wayne. We met and were married in college. We have four adult children and five granddaughters.
Q: So much light has been shed on racial inequality in the U.S. in recent weeks. However, this is something you lived with all your life. Give us an idea of your personal experience throughout the years.
A: Even though I grew up in segregation, my parents worked for wealthy white families. Most of my parents’ friends were also domestic workers and knew these families very well. They often talked about the fact that although these people were wealthy and white, they still had problems. I was also taught that just because the world was prejudiced against black people, white people were not better than me.
My parents and my community stressed education, and my father would tell me that if I received an education, I could help change the world. They were positive and protected me from many of the horrors and biases that they had to deal with every day. We rarely talked about politics or race relations. I now understand that they did not want us to be discouraged by how the world was but wanted us to have hope and vision for how the world could be.
I have so many memories growing up experiencing segregation, forced integration, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. I remember the riots across the country and the Black Power Movement. I remember when I was in junior high school, I started wearing an afro and preparing for the race revolution. I was warned by my black friends that I shouldn’t have any white friends because when the revolution came black and white people would be enemies and fight each other. It was a very scary time and at the same time empowering. We thought that for sure, racism was going to go away. When legal segregation was over, black people would finally have an equal seat at the table. Indeed, some doors opened, while other doors stayed shut. But systemic change did not happen.
I chose to attend a predominantly white small liberal arts college in Indiana. This is where I found my voice, my career passion, got married and had my first child. For the first time, I had the opportunity to take black history courses and participated in workshops and seminars that helped me to better understand my history and myself. I graduated, worked there for four years, and then we loaded up the kids and decided to come to Colorado State to pursue my master’s degree in student affairs.
Q: In your open letter entitled, “I Don’t Have the Luxury of Giving Up,” you talk about how your optimism has been tested due to recent events. What makes this point in time different?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I have lived through some very important eras in this country. I was young during the Civil Rights Movement and did not really understand what was going on. I remember seeing people who looked like me getting attacked by dogs and police. I was older when Dr. King was killed, and the sadness and anger in our communities across the country was intense. Again, legislation changed to make discrimination unlawful, but racism still existed, and the changes did not last long. That was frustrating and yet I always went back to my parents and the community that raised me and believed that with education, racism could be eliminated.
It is disheartening that in 2020 you continue to see overt systemic racism to the point where a police officer thinks it is okay to kill a man on camera. And then you start to see all the killings and bias and violence that continues to exist, and finally it seems like it is not just the people of color and their allies that are appalled by this, it appears that now other people are seeing this bias and violence that has existed since white people landed in this country. The difference now is that more people seem to be saying, “This has to stop.” I feel like we are at a very pivotal point in our society and the majority of people know that it is time for us to go in a different direction, a direction that values the diversity that has always existed in our country.
Q: How can we enact the change you call for in your letter? What actions need to happen on both a systemic level and in our own individual responsibility?
A: Start with personal reflection. It is so easy to judge other people. It is much harder to first take a hard look at yourself. What are your biases and where do they come from? What things do you need to learn and unlearn? Educate yourself. Find people who will challenge you to look at other perspectives.
If you are white, work on ways to deal with your guilt if this is an issue for you. What can you do to make a difference? Attending a protest is one approach, but what do you do when you leave the protest? How are you educating yourself and the people in your life?
As a black woman, I do not need you to speak for me. I can speak for myself. As much as you read and talk and try to experience what it is like to be someone who has lived as a marginalized person in this society, you have not actually lived that life. You can empathize but you cannot ever really “know” what it is like.
Make a difference in your world of influence. Speak up when your friends say something inappropriate or racist. Challenge the systemic racism in your employment, family, neighborhoods and boards or organizations that you sit on. Look around the room and see who is at the table. Do they all look alike? Do they have the same life experiences? Who do you hire and promote, and why?
Pay attention! I am glad that my life as a black person matters to so many people now. Standing on corners with signs that say Black Lives Matter is a nice gesture, but I need you to do more. I know my life matters! I am glad that you now believe that, too, but what does that exactly mean for you? How does that help me and other marginalized people?
Do not be afraid to have uncomfortable conversations. I have had to have these uncomfortable conversations most of my life. It is through these conversations that we grow and learn. Please vote in local, state and federal elections. Civic engagement is critical.
Q: What part does higher education have in effecting change?
A: Higher education has a huge role to impact change. This is where ideas should be challenged, and knowledge discovered. But understand that higher education is also part of a system that was created as racist, classist, sexist and homophobic. Higher education was not originally designed for the common person. So much of our history left out the experiences, knowledge and contributions of marginalized people who helped to build this country and this world. We are starting to understand, learn about and include these stories and contributions now. There is so much to uncover, and universities and colleges ought to be the center of this ignored knowledge and critical scholarship.
Q: Have you been able to regain that lost optimism?
A: Yes, most days I remain optimistic. When I see the passion and the anger of our younger people who are demanding a better world, it gives me hope. When I look into the eyes of my granddaughters and hear them talk about the future and how they want to contribute, it gives me hope. When my white colleagues and friends show their support and pledge to be more active and vocal in their professional and personal lives, it gives me hope.
When I think about all the sacrifices that my parents and grandparents made, and those brave and hopeful people that struggled, died and suffered so that I can be here today, I know I have to have hope. I owe it to my ancestors, and I owe it to my grandchildren and great grandchildren. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get tired sometimes, but I ultimately believe in the goodness of people. I lost that for a while and I still sometimes question it, but at the end of the day, I want to believe that we are going to be better as a society. If the historically marginalized folks that came before us gave up, where would we be right now? So yes, I go to bed every night hoping that the world is going to be better in the morning and knowing that I have a responsibility to help make that happen. That is what gets me up every morning, and I hope other people feel that same way.