Transcribed interview between UC Davis Chancellor Gary May and Beth Ruyak on Capital Public Radio.
Beth Ruyak: You’re listening to Insight on Capital Public Radio, I’m Beth Ruyak. June 18th will mark three months since Stephon Clark was shot by Sacramento Police in his Grandmother’s backyard, though police did not know at the time that’s where they were. Investigations in the case are ongoing, so are the efforts to discuss and confront racism and cultural struggle in the capital city. Because the conversation has expanded across the region, I have invited UC Davis’ Chancellor, Dr. Gary May, to join me. A week after that shooting, he sent a statement to the campus community that read in part, “I was walking in the backyard last night wondering what it would feel like to not feel safe there”. And that’s a good place to start the conversation. Dr. May, I’m glad you’re back on Insight. I’m glad you are here to talk the way we are going to talk today.
Chancellor May: Thanks for having me, Beth.
Ruyak: Will you tell me more about your initial reaction to hearing the news of the shooting.
Chancellor May: Well, it’s difficult. I think in some ways you get sort of numb to these sort of events because there’s been so many of them, but that one just kind of struck me. The young man was in his Grandmother’s backyard and I just took a walk outside myself and thought, “What would it feel like to be unsafe in my backyard?” I felt like I had to write about it and share my feelings with our student community and our faculty and staff community at UC Davis because I think people often have a hard time empathizing with others and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, I think, is an important part of healing.
Ruyak: Say more about the empathy that you thought you might evoke.
Chancellor May: Well I always, as an African American man, there are kind of death by a thousand cuts. There are so many incidents of what are called “microaggressions” that you experience. As I said, sometimes you become numb to them, but then when something happens like this happens to someone else, it kind of brings it all to the forefront in your mind. So, you think about all the times when you were treated in a questionable or different way that you think, you wonder: Is it because I’m a Black man or is just something normal? And you never know because you are in this country and we undergo these kind of situations so often in our everyday lives. What’s the line from James Baldwin? I will paraphrase a bit, James wrote that to be Black in America is to be in a consistent stage of rage and I’ve felt that many times.
I think, you know as an example of a similar situation, when Trayvon Martin was killed, after the trial I remember not being able to sleep after that verdict was rendered and being just shaking in rage because, you know, that could’ve been me walking home to my Dad’s house with my Skittles. It could’ve been me. Tamir Rice could've been me playing cops and robbers with my friends in the park and being run up on and gunned down by a policeman. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that incident was 2 miles from where I grew up in St. Louis. I’ve written and shared on social media how that could've been me if not for the supportive environment I grew up in. All those incidents, I think, could have turned out a little bit differently had people had a different approach and had some empathy for what the other person was thinking or feeling or doing.
Ruyak: Will you talk about the fear that’s in a lot of what you described and that kind of sneaks up and you push back down and then it sneaks up again?
Chancellor May: Well yeah I think whenever you have a traffic stop, for example, you don’t know how it’s going to go, right? We all have had that talk with our parents or our kids, about, we meaning African Americans, about how you should behave and behave as respectfully as possible and keep your hands visible and all those sorts of things that I don’t think White parents I don’t think have to have those discussions necessarily with their children the way we do.
It’s a constant source of stress. I don't have boys, but I have two girls and I worry about them when they go out and who they are with and whether or not they are going to be in a situation where they get confronted or someone says something to them that’s inappropriate and how they are going to react or how their friends or boyfriends are going to react when those kinds of things happen. So, it’s a consistent source of stress and worry.
Ruyak: Tell me how you navigate having the thoughts you’re describing and some fear with the fact that you’re a leader, you’re a community voice and those two things are part of you everyday-- leadership and fear.
Chancellor May: You know what’s interesting is I’m a leader when people know who I am, but when I’m just out doing my daily tasks in the city or on the street no one knows who I am. So, there are circumstances where I’m recognized as a leader of a university and there are circumstances where I’m just another Black man and some of those even intersect. I’ll recall an incident, the last three times when I’ve been promoted to positions of leadership in higher ed and I’ve attended meetings of, in one case the department heads of electrical and computer engineering, which I was one, another case Deans of Engineering, which I was one, and now as a Chancellor of a university, I’ve attended meetings of other peers where the first time I attended the meeting I was asked, “What was I doing there? What was my role?”.
The most recent incident: I was at The Big Sky Athletic Conference Presidents and Chancellors Meeting, which we play football in the Big Sky Conference at UC Davis. So the first meeting I attended, one of the other presidents told, we were introducing each other, “I’m Gary May From UC Davis,” and they introduced themselves, and I won’t out them by giving their names, but the next question was, “What’s your role at UC Davis?”. Well it’s a Presidents and Chancellors meeting, that’s who’s here. So that’s my role, why is that a question? That’s what the meeting is. Why would you have to ask that? So we are constantly faced by these kinds of situations that make you think about your situation and your status in life. Doesn’t mean as much as you might think it does.
Ruyak: What did your parents get right in guiding you for how to navigate these situations? What did they know then that has helped you because I‘m sure there’s been some learning and evolution for you too separate from their experiences.
Chancellor May: Well my parents always stressed being proud of yourself, standing up for yourself, but also being smart and also having compassion and empathy for others. Never backing down, but at the same time doing the right thing, whatever the right thing is. So they grew up in a situation, I always remind my kids that it wasn’t that long ago my parents had to sit at the back of the bus. That’s only one generation, it’s not like these things were all in some Byzantine era.
Ruyak: It’s amazing, isn’t it? How much changed in one generation?
Chancellor May: Things have changed and things have improved, but things are not perfect yet by far.
Ruyak: So back in February, UC Davis posted a video that you and your Mom did and you were talking about racism. How did that video happen?
Chancellor May: My staff wanted to interview my Mother as a consequence of my recent joining of the campus and leadership role and also with regard to Mother’s Day and Black History Month and some other things that were happening concurrently or around the same period of time. My Mother was among the class of students that integrated the University of Missouri, so she had some pretty interesting experiences to share around that. She also talked a little bit about my own childhood and some things that I experienced.
Ruyak: In fact, because of those stories we are going to play about a minute of that video. Your Mom, Gloria, as you said, was part of that integrating of the University of Missouri that was back in 1950. So, we will hear a story from you that follows, but at first this is your Mom clearly remembering some of what happened that first day on campus.
Gloria May: “And I walked into the dorm and of course they called the mothers were house mothers, and things were different. And she was so upset that these two black girls were in her dorm. And she called the housing department and she says, “I’ve got two black girls here and I have no idea where are they going to bathe.” And then we thought: Why is she asking where are we going to bathe? And of course I was a little flippant too, and I thought: The color doesn’t come off.”
Chancellor May: “I think I was in first grade and I was one of very few African American students. One day, we were going to the restroom and the little boy who was next to me in the urinal decided it would be funny or humorous, or whatever he thought, to urinate on me. So he turned himself around, and he actually urinated on me. For whatever reason, he thought that was something he could do and get away with. I think that was my first time sort of realizing, acknowledging, feeling, understanding that I was different from the other kids.”
Chancellor May: Yeah, you know that’s interesting because I had forgotten about that incident until my Mother reminded me. I guess sometimes you repress some of these negative things that happen to you over time. But, she did remind and I did fully recall the young man turning and urinating on me and laughing about and the other kids sort of laughing. What didn’t make it into that particular sound bite, as I said, my parents wanted us to stand up for ourselves, so there was a bit of an altercation after that. That young man caught the wrong end of the altercation, I’m going to just leave it at that.
Ruyak: Some people may be happy to hear the rest of the story. I’ll just leave it at that. Is that an ever present awareness still? That idea of being different?
Chancellor May: It happens sporadically and situationally. I don't know that others ever have to confront the situation where you are one of the only in the room. That happens to me often because of what I do in my position. But, sometimes you take a step back and look around and think about it and yeah, it does happen. Sometimes it's a benign situation and everyone's friendly and you get along fine, but other times you are wary and worry about what might happen next.
Ruyak: Are you still the only African American Chancellor in the UC System? And it probably could be expanded to talking about that on some national level, one in a hand full.
Chancellor May: Sure, there’s a handful. I’m the only one in the UC System and I think the second in the history of the UC System, Mike Drake at UC Irvine was the first, I believe. But, currently the only and in the American Association of Universities or AAU, which is the top 62 research universities in the U.S., there are three of us. So it’s a pretty select group.
Ruyak: How does it make a difference that you are a campus leader and African American?
Chancellor May: Well there’s some responsibility and accountability for me to be a role model, to do things right, to be visible.
Ruyak: In a different way than anyone with that job would have to.
Chancellor May: That’s right, that’s right. Because I said it jokingly, I can't remember the situation in the beginning, I said, “I’m the first, but I’m going to make sure I don’t screw up and I am the last”. I want to make sure I do what I can to pave the way for the next leader or leaders that might be from different backgrounds.
Ruyak: You’re listening to Dr. Gary May. He is the Chancellor of UC Davis. He came to Davis from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he’d been for almost 30 years. In 2015, President Obama honored him with a Presidential Award for Excellence in STEM mentoring. What do you think President Obama did or didn’t do to impact racism in The United States? And that question is intensely debated right now in the era of President Trump.
Chancellor May: Well, I’ll say when President Obama was elected in 2008, it was a joyous feeling for me. I remember waking up my wife, who had fallen asleep during the returns, and hugging her and just being so happy and almost in tears. I remember the next day, I think on The View, Whoopi Goldberg said something that stuck with me. She said she felt like she could put her luggage down, like she could relax and stay, like she was finally comfortable or welcomed or at home. I had that same sort of feeling. I didn't think that we had entered a post racial society or anything, because I know we had a long way to go and we still have a long way to go, but I did feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment through him.
I think you’re right, there is debate about how much his presidency impacted the African American Community in a positive or negative way, but I think people are awfully critical. He wasn’t the President of Black America, he was the President of The United States of America. So, I think it was his first responsibility to do a good job at being President of the entire United States of America, which I believe he did. A lot of the things that he did, saving the economy for example, healthcare, other things, certainly had positive repercussions for African Americans. Just the fact that he was there and that family was there in the White House, and they were such great role models for all of us. The fact that they cared about each other so much, there was not hint of any kind of scandal in his own life. That was powerful for me.
Ruyak: You and I have referenced a change from one generation to the next. Your Mom seems like an amazing person, and we’ll post a link on our website so people can see the conversation that the two of you had. So, what do you see as the generational shift from your life experience to what your daughters are navigating and how their fully grown up lives will be? And I mean that in the terms of racism and cultural differences and struggle.
Chancellor May: I think the pendulum swings a little bit. So, I think that in some ways this era, you mentioned President Trump, in some ways, some of the things that have happened during his presidency and before during his campaign were a pendulum swinging back in response to President Obama. I’m not saying that was the complete story, but I do think that there has been some push back and people are saying and doing things that they may have hidden before, now doing it openly.
My oldest daughter is turning into an activist herself and has some strong opinions and expresses those opinions. As I said, I worry about them from time to time because she might say something in the wrong situation that might get her into trouble. But, I respect the fact that she has those strong opinions. I know there was an incident where her boyfriend was called the n-word at a bar and got into a fight last year. You wonder if those kinds of things are a result of the current environment or just were always there hidden and are now out in the open.
Ruyak: There’s a point in the video when your Mom talks about that word being written on papers and tape to your door when you went to college.
Chancellor May: Yeah you know how when you check into the dorm there’s a name card on the door with you and your roommate and my roommate’s name card had, someone had written in pencil underneath his name, “nigger lover”. So that’s what she was referring to, and that was my first day on campus which was quite an introduction. She was of course, and my Father, they both were very nervous and worried about me staying there. But, again, I joked about it, I said, “Well, I could be the roommate of the person who wrote this as opposed to the person who it was written about, so I’m going to stay”.
Ruyak: You have said, “If a person can learn to be a racist, a person can learn not to be”.
Chancellor May: Yeah, I believe that. I don’t believe anyone is born with bias or prejudice or racism as a part of their makeup. I think those kind of behaviors are learned. Through experiencing people that are different from you in whatever dimension, I think you can unlearn those kinds of attitudes as well. I do believe that.
Ruyak: You had a choice after the Stephon Clark shooting to just continue to be new in your job on campus. To say something or to say a lot, and I look at what you did as a lean in moment that you wanted to be there. Why did you choose that and how does that effort continue on now?
Chancellor May: I’ll be honest with you, I struggled with whether I should say anything. I always wonder if I should stay in my lane and talk about higher education issues or should I say more about what’s going on in the world? In that particular case, I thought it was important for our students and others to realize empathy, that I could identity, that that could have been me. I wanted people to know that I had those kinds of thoughts in my head and that no matter what my title or my station is currently, I’m not immune to what’s happening in the outside world and to what’s happening to African Americans in this country. I wanted to give them a reference point by writing about that. Whether it was effective or not, who knows? Maybe I should have said or done more and I always struggle with how much more I should say or do, again because I’m not the Chancellor of the Black students and faculty at UC Davis, I’m the Chancellor of UC Davis. So, it’s the same kind of conundrum that I expressed about President Obama. I did think it was important that people realize that I related to the situation and was aware of the situation.
Ruyak: Most people say and hear that the best thing to be is real.
Chancellor May: Yeah, and that’s all I can be. I’m only good at being one person and that’s me.
Ruyak: You’re final words in the statement to the community were, “We must change out of despair and anger. I ask that we seek solutions and positive change together”.
Chancellor May: Right, I mean that. I think people have to want things to get better. They have to want to change. They have to want to relate to other human beings in a positive way. It’s a struggle. It’s not easy. It’s not like writing an equation and getting a solution, it’s much more difficult to change human behavior. You have to work at it. I hope that we can have a living laboratory at UC Davis where we do work at it and we become sort of a model culture in society. We are not there, we’ve got a long way to go as well, but that’s one of my ambitions for my term as Chancellor.
Ruyak: Dr. May thank you so much. When we first met, it was a tense time and I challenged you in a really tough conversation. I’m so glad to have you back when we could spend time in the person that you are and the texture of all that you bring to the campus and to the community, so thank you.
Chancellor May: Well thanks Beth for having me back. As I said then, I want to look forward and I still want to look forward. I hope that we can continue to talk about the future.
Ruyak: Dr. Gary May is the Chancellor of UC Davis. You can find my other conversations in this series at capradio.org/insight. This is Insight on Capital Public Radio.