Q&A with pro-Black activist Tia Schaffer ’20

The Manitou Messenger recently interviewed pro-Black activist Tia Schaffer ’20. Schaffer played a significant role in the anti-racist protests of last spring, and has made efforts to uplift Black individuals both on and off campus. Schaffer possesses many nuanced viewpoints about pro-Blackness and activism, and like many other thinkers in today’s political landscape, her viewpoints have ruffled some feathers. Part of Schaffer’s interview has been printed below.

Manitou Messenger: You have described yourself as pro-Black in every facet of your life and you’ve said that Blackness is your religion. Could you describe your conception of pro-Blackness and the strategies you have already used and still want to use in your pro-Black efforts?

Tia Schaffer: I am immensely passionate about my Blackness and the plight which manifests through it. Consequently, my conception of pro-Blackness, as I have grown to understand it, is quite contentious. I define it as contentious because I see my Blackness as absolute, as in it is its own entity existing in relation to nothing else. My gender, sexuality and/or spirituality is of no regard to the color of my skin. Why? Because no matter what, the world will always only see a Black body. None of the other factors matter to them. Of course, I am aware of intersectionality.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, no other fight takes precedence over the one which Black bodies face every day. Therefore, to that extent, my devotion to my identity as a Black person is like people’s practice of religion.

Although I am not religious, I do believe that one of its functions is to provide cohesion in one’s life. Ultimately, for that cohesion to happen, one’s faith must be a part of every facet of one’s life. At least, that is the function of my Blackness. It determines the choices I make and the actions I take. I have and will always try to be as open-minded and compassionate as possible while also being true to myself and what I believe in. I have just recently come to the realization that it is okay to disagree with others regarding the subject of race, gender, sexuality, politics and religion. That is my strategy. Be open minded enough to agree to disagree on things. Because the fact of the matter is that you will never be able to convince the entire world to believe in the exact same things as you. So, I won’t even waste my time. I would rather be non-judgmental enough to hear your ideologies and empathic enough to not hate or disrespect you because of them.

Manitou Messenger: Please describe your pro-Black efforts both on and off campus. Do you feel as if your pro-Black efforts on campus are especially different to your efforts off campus? Why or why not?

Tia Schaffer: I take every opportunity that I can to assist, inspire and/or uplift Black individuals of my communities. I believe I have attempted to do such things through protests that I have led on this campus, programs that I have piloted back home in Chicago and relationships that I have built along the way. My efforts did not start with St. Olaf and they won’t end here either. So far, I have been blessed with wonderful opportunities that allow me to create windows for others. I have been blessed with a voice loud enough to speak for those who are unheard. I plan on continuing to do what I do best … loving, fighting, uplifting and inspiring … all in the name of Blackness!

I would say my efforts on campus differ from those off campus. A St. Olaf education is almost $60,000 per year. I am blessed to be here on a full-tuition scholarship. Sure, I have been subjected to racism and microaggressions, but I am here… that is more than I can say for some people back home who are stuck in an unfortunate predicament because their socioeconomic circumstances will not allow for a college education. Here, my efforts have been made to make this space welcoming for everyone. Out there, my efforts are made to create opportunities for other young people to have a chance at getting to a St. Olaf. That is the best way I can describe the difference.

Manitou Messenger: Looking back, do you feel as if the protests of last spring have inspired beneficial change on campus? Is there anything that you would do differently? How should we proceed in trying to fight against racism at St. Olaf? 

Tia Schaffer: I would say the protests last spring brought some good and bad. Although it left many people confused and misled, it inspired a lot of conversations and working groups on campus that were long overdue. I am a true believer in the idea that things happen for a reason. But if I could do it all over, I would not have gotten involved and just continued to do my own thing. Change, respect, equity and equality are things I would love to see here at Olaf and beyond, but not at the expense of lies and deceit.

We should proceed by just enjoying this space together, honestly. We are so divided. For us Oles to move forward we must develop a trust and mutual respect amongst one another, and we can only do that by living, laughing, and loving together … despite our differences. Until we can do that, we will always have issues.

Manitou Messenger: There was some outrage from many students, some of whom were prominent figures during the protests of last spring, about you sharing an interview of psychologist Dr. Umar Johnson. What about the video made you share it, and why, from what you could tell, did it upset so many people?

Tia Schaffer: Well, the video’s title was certainly clickbait. I don’t remember the title, but it was something about homosexuality. Nevertheless, he only spoke on homosexuality for about 60 seconds of the entire video. The things that stood out to me were his comments on preserving Black culture for Black people and creating institutions for Black youth … Institutions that would enable them to be independent and thrive in society designed for them to perish. However, people only heard Dr. Umar’s remarks about how he does not accept homosexuality and that it’s weird way of living for him. He went on to say that he has patients who are homosexuals, so he does not disrespect or dislike homosexuals, he just does not agree with homosexuality. I guess that really ruffled people’s feathers. And I could not understand why … he does not have to agree with it. That is when I felt like people made the first mistake, imposing their expectations on to other individuals. No one has to agree with your beliefs, the only thing that matters is that they do not disrespect your or discriminate against you because them!

Manitou Messenger: Are you still associated with official groups fighting racism on campus? Why or why not? Was this moment your first conflict with fellow activists on campus, or have there been other clashes?

Tia Schaffer: No! Simply because I don’t feel like we have the same agenda and/or goals. I want to develop respect, trust and compassion through personal and social interactions, others just want people to see things the way that they see them. I have come to terms with the fact that people contextualize things differently. Life is too short, and time is too precious to spend it trying to convince a stubborn person that what they believe is not right!
No, this is the first conflict. I saw it coming, though. With the hoax last year, I sort of felt betrayed. So, the tension has been building up. But it was not until black students allowed white students to address me about MY BLACKNESS and my credibility as a pro-black person when I finally exploded… it was disrespectful! That is my pet peeve, do not check a fellow black person in the presence of white people because you are essentially giving them the “okay” to do the same. I will engage in almost any debate with a white person, but a debate about how pro-black I am will never be one. That is one privilege a white person will NEVER HAVE! It is not their place to do judge me on my commitment to MY people. As far as I am concerned, everybody was out of line.

Manitou Messenger: One of the racist notes last spring turned out to be fabricated. In a Facebook status you asked how the progressive movements created last spring can be continued if the movements have not addressed People of Color lying about hate crimes. Was there much strife within the movements regarding the fake note? If so, can you describe it? Have these movements failed in any way? Why or why not?

Tia Schaffer: Yes, I said that. And I should have said “a person of color” instead of lumping everyone together as perpetrators. But as far as the strife, I am not sure, I checked out after a while. When things started to seem suspicious I left all group chats and removed myself from all movements before it all came to an end. I could no longer stand by something that I did not have confidence in. I need to be confident and trust what I am doing before I step out there as a leader. So yeah, by that time, I had removed myself from aliases, google doc, and chats … after that I knew of nothing that went on within the movements. I would not say they failed entirely, but the work was de-legitimized by the fabricated note.

Tia Schaffer ’20 (schaff3@stolaf.edu) is from Chicago, Ill. She majors in history and race and ethnic studies. 

Iain Carlos ’20 (irwin2@stolaf.edu) is from Chicago, Ill. He majors in music. 

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