Two white men in a passing car yelled racist insults at Michaelle Burbank and her friends as they were on their way to protest President-elect Trump’s election in November.
“They yelled at us, called us the N-word, told us to go back to Africa,” said Burbank, a first-year neuroscience student. “I was so in shock I couldn’t even react.”
Burbank said she thinks her experience on election night and the way Trump addressed the topic of race during his campaign indicate that race relations will worsen during his presidency.
“It was as if we were some sort of trophy or a kind of foreign species. It didn’t seem like he was approaching us (in the campaign) like human beings,” Burbank said.
Burbank said she hopes to fight the increased racism that a Trump presidency may create through empathy and social justice advocacy.
Burbank said racially based discrimination is not new for her. She was the only person of color at her elementary school, and one of two people of color at her middle school.
“(On my first day of kindergarten), we were sitting on this little ABC carpet about to introduce ourselves,” Burbank said. “The other kids were looking at me like they had never seen a black person before … I remember being so nervous to introduce myself, because I knew that no one would be able to pronounce my name.”
Burbank said growing up in a predominantly white community further complicated the role race played in her life.
Sommer Burbank, Michaelle’s sister, said they grew up in a Southern California community rich in diversity of personality and background but lacking racial or ethnic diversity.
“The color of my skin enters the room before I do,” said Michaelle Burbank.
After years of people mispronouncing her name, Burbank altered its spelling to make it more manageable, she said. Burbank began introducing herself as “Mimi.”
“I hate that I did that … I shouldn’t have watered down my name, my culture,” Burbank said.
Burbank said her interest in social justice began when she heard reports of the shooting of Michael Brown, a 2014 incident in which an unarmed, 18-year-old African-American man was fatally shot by a white police officer.
“I had to have a conversation with my little brother, who is 12 but who looks older, about how to interact with security guards or with police … Imagine a world where I don’t have to worry about that,” Burbank said.
Inspired to become more politically active and socially conscious, Burbank started a blog called Humans and Humanity, where she compiles news stories about racism and discrimination with the goal of inspiring empathy.
“I wanted it to be centered on empathy,” Burbank said. “If we look at each other as human beings and recognize that everyone can suffer, that oppression is wrong, we will be a step closer to dismantling racism.”
She added that around the same time as Michael Brown’s death, she began a personal journey towards self-acceptance to deal with the internalized racism she battles.
“I was embarrassed by my own culture because, growing up, I never really saw black culture outside of my home,” Burbank said.
Burbank said the lack of diversity she experienced growing up made her even more excited to join UCLA’s diverse student body. To become more engaged in the community, in summer 2016, Burbank started the “Black Bruins 2020” social media group to unite African-American first-years.
Ian Taylor, a first-year sociology student and one of the friends Burbank met through the “Black Bruins 2020” group, said the group helped students to get to know one another and inspired dialogue in a range of topics covering more than just race relations.
“If you’re a black student at a predominantly white institution, you experience this sort of hyper-invisibility while at the same time being hyper-visible, and people like (Burbank) help you navigate that dynamic,” Taylor said.
In regards to the next four years, Burbank said she looks forward to becoming more politically active and socially conscious by being involved in local politics and advocacy groups on campus.
“It’s hard to say I’ve overcome these stereotypes because they’re things that will always have a negative impact on my life, but I am understanding how to live my life despite these limitations society has placed on me,” Burbank said.
Burbank said she thinks approaching the world with empathy and maintaining self-love are key to addressing racism.
“It’s still hard to be a black person, it’s still hard to be a woman,” Burbank said. “It’s not supposed to be harder, but we have this institutionalized racism and people don’t see that. I don’t think Trump will see that.”