Ellie Gunderson (COL ’10) was one of the most vocal people on campus this week. As president of Georgetown’s chapter of the NAACP, Gunderson was instrumental in organizing a rally and a vigil Thursday in Red Square in support of the Jena Six, a group of six black male students who were charged with attempted murder after attacking a white student in response to racially charged events in Jena, La.
In a sit-down with THE HOYA, Gunderson describes the nation’s reaction to the events, as well as her experiences and vision as the head of the NAACP.
The Jena Six incident seemed to shock people. How did you perceive the public’s reaction to the incident?
It was shocking. But I think that there are different perspectives of the North and South. I am from Detroit, so it was more shocking for me, but the people I have talked to from the South are a lot less shocked. It is kind of a given that the justice system works like this in many parts of the country, which I wasn’t exposed to.
So do you think that the Jena Six incident woke people up to the fact that these issues still exist?
Like you said, a lot of people were shocked. That goes to show how much trust people put in the government to work these things out and prevent discrimination. And I think it was eye-opening for a lot of people to see that something so blatantly racist could occur. The week before this fight, there was the direct opposite. It was a group of white kids beating up a black kid, and the kids got something small, like probation or something. And a few days later it was black kids, and they were charged with attempted murder. I think that it was so obvious. I think we see racism all the time but can’t call it racism because there are other factors involved. But something like this where it is so obvious, you have to stop and think about it.
What do you think this event says about current racial tensions in America?
I think that it has opened a lot of people’s eyes who think racism is something of the past. A lot of people have said, ever since the ’60s, ever since the civil rights movement, the government isn’t discriminating. I think this has definitely shown that that is not the case. Our system is not yet free from racism.
What do you hope people learn from the Jena Six incident?
I think people try to box issues into different categories, like, `This is a black issue. We don’t have to worry about it.’ We have to realize that issues like this affect the entire country. If you look at the injustice, that could happen to anybody, for any reason. People need to know how important it is that we defend these boys because you never know who will be next, in regards to discrimination.
How did you become president?
Last year I was an active member and speaking out and making suggestions. At the end of the year they nominated me for president, so I ran. I wanted to run for a lower position to get my feet wet. I was only a freshman. People were looking for someone who could get a lot done and make the chapter more active. People ask if I should be president since I am white, but I was nominated.
What’s it like being a white president of the NAACP?
It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for me; I grew up in Detroit, in a black neighborhood, and always went to black schools. It was more awkward for other people. There are people who disagree with it. When NAACP was founded in 1909, fifty percent of the founders were white. We are fighting for civil rights. Anyone can fight for civil rights.
Do you think your presidency is helping to increase racial diversity in the organization?
Yes – at the SAC fair, just having me tabling, so many non-black people came to the table that I feel wouldn’t have been comfortable otherwise. People are seeing that the civil rights movement is not just about black or white, it is about making our entire society better.
Have you had experiences in your own life when you felt discriminated against?
Definitely, but on a personal basis, though, not as a racial minority. All the time in school. Getting picked for teams in elementary school, nobody wanted to be on the white girl’s team. It was mostly in a social situation.
What do you think about the racial climate at Georgetown?
I have only gone to majority-black schools. I had no clue what it would be like going to a majority-white institution. I thought all the white kids would hang out together and all the black kids would hang out together, and that is partially true. The minority community is very accepting if you are open to them. If you don’t have stuff in common, then I guess that is where the segregation comes from, but even if you have something in common with someone of another racial group you might not come into contact with them. People don’t really go out of their way to meet people who are different. Some do, but the majority doesn’t.
How do you think this climate can be improved?
We want to have a discussion and invite everybody and every organization head to discuss why we are so segregated. Why there are so many incidents of racism on campus. Last year the anti-human trafficking group had a sign up saying, “Slavery is bad, Chocolate is good” and somebody had changed it to, “Slavery is good, chocolate is bad.” We just want to discuss why we don’t branch off to other people. The civil rights movement can’t just be led by one group. You need allies.
What is biggest racial issue you have ever personally faced?
The biggest challenge right now is being the president of the NAACP and being white. I have heard that people have a problem with it, but they won’t say it to my face. But I am sincere and care about the civil rights issues. There are certain things I will never be able to relate to, but at the same time, I think that I should be taken seriously as a civil rights activist.
How do you want to incorporate your involvement in the NAACP into your future endeavors?
I want to go to law school and study civil rights law. I want to work with the NAACP or with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
– Interview by Jimmy Wade