Kaleb Comer, left, and Cassandra Sam, right, reflect on their experiences as black University of Georgia students. (Photos/Courtesy)

When University of Georgia student and avid runner Kaleb Comer tweeted asking whether or not he should take a late night run on May 1, someone replied, “Go to bed,” and “You’re black living in Athens and it’s 2 in the morning.”

A week later on May 5, a video showing Ahmaud Arbery’s death was released by Georgia defense attorney Alan Tucker. Arbery was shot and killed in February while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. The video led to two white men being arrested and charged with his murder months after the incident. The man who recorded the video was arrested and charged with felony murder and criminal intent to commit false imprisonment.

The video of Arbery’s death changed Comer’s approach to one of his routine activities. He now takes more precautions such as sending his friends his location and running in public areas. But even with precautions, Comer said the thought that he could go for a run and never come home weighs on his mind.

“I shouldn’t be fearful to leave my house on a run, but when I heard about Arbery’s death, that was my first thought,” said Comer, a senior human development and family sciences major and UGA cheerleader.

On May 25, a video showed George Floyd, a black man, pinned to the ground with a white police officer’s knee on his neck. Floyd told the officer he couldn’t breathe and later died. The officer involved was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter four days later.

These deaths have provoked protests across the country, including in Atlanta and Athens, calling for justice for the deaths of Arbery, Floyd and so many more in the black community.

Actions for survival

At a young age, Comer was taught how to act, where to be, what to wear and how to talk in order to avoid being targeted because of his race.

If Comer and his group of friends go to downtown Athens, they leave and arrive separately to prevent drawing attention to a large group of black men. If he’s on campus at night, Comer parks in a well-lit and public area and avoids walking alone. On campus, he said he’ll opt for a pair of Chubbies shorts and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, leaving his Nike Jordans at home, to “fit the mold.”

“Everything we do is thought out,” Comer said. “We were told we have to be careful. We can’t do this in order to make it home safely.”

Growing up, Cassandra Sam’s parents also gave her these lessons, teaching her code-switching as a form of survival. Minorities practice code-switching to change their appearance and behavior to fit in with the majority to not be targeted for their race.

She described it as the difference between how she speaks to her family or other members of the African American community compared to her white counterparts at UGA. So when she receives stares, racist remarks or sits on the bus alone because no one chooses to sit by her, she “lets it go.” Sam said she would rather do that and get home safely.

“We have been taught to be silenced in a way to protect ourselves in a way that I don’t think several other demographics would have to teach their children,” said Sam, a junior political science and psychology major.

As a black undergraduate student at Auburn University, Shawntell Pace said one of her English professors said the N-word while reciting a poem. Pace almost dropped out of the university due to this experience, but she said the black staff and professors helped her heal from the experience. Now through her support group for black women, she aims to do the same.

Pace, now a second-year counseling and psychology graduate student at UGA, founded a 10-week support group on campus called The Healing Circle. The group, formed last summer, aims to provide a communal space and offer access to mental health services.

After working with the support group members, Pace said it’s important to acknowledge the emotional and physical toll microaggressions have on the black community due to racial trauma.

She said the “covert side of racism” and microaggressions can lead to race-related stress. This stress can cause physical symptoms, such as a headache, increased heartbeat, anxiety and more.

In The Healing Circle, Pace said acknowledging the damage of racial trauma allows students to no longer feel “crazy” because of their emotions. This is the first of many steps to healing for the students, Pace said.

‘Watch your back’

Despite changing their lifestyles to fit in, these students still encounter instances where they feel targeted because of their race.

One night while driving with friends in Athens, Comer was pulled over by a police officer who said his car was reported for reckless driving. Comer said the officer then accused him and his friends of being drunk and told Comer to “put your freedom on the line” and take a breathalyzer test.

The officer conducted a search of his car, saw Comer’s UGA Athletics bookbag and asked the boys if they were students. Comer said the officer immediately changed to a friendlier demeanor.

After passing the breathalyzer test, the officer told Comer it was actually another car that was reported for reckless driving. However, the reported car was of a different make and model, Comer said.

On another occasion, Comer was leaving his friend’s dorm on campus at night and a police officer pulled him over. The officer asked if he was a student on campus and asked for his student ID after already viewing his driver’s license. Although the officer eventually let him drive home, Comer said he wonders if he would have been pulled over if he were white.

“We grew up watching these black deaths. Now it’s instilled in our minds that you have to watch your back,” Comer said. “Everytime I interact with a police officer I think, ‘Okay, is this going to be the last time I interact with anybody, ever?’”

Since his time in Athens, he said he’s been stopped or pulled over by a police officer between 12 to 15 times.

In light of recent protests against racially-motivated police violence across the country, Sam said the protests are a visual representation of the “internal pain and anger building up inside black people.”

She said her community is rising up against the systematic constraints placed on them and wants to see the creation of a council or cabinet of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People representatives from each state that focuses on listening and mending the issues within the black community.

As for the UGA community’s response, Comer appreciated the support from some of his non-black friends but said the silence from many in the UGA community is telling. He wants to see more in the community ask how they can be educated, listen and take action.

“I always ask this question, if it was me, somebody you knew, would you be silent?” Comer said. “What will it take?”

This article is the first installment of the “Minority Report” series, where The Red & Black documents minority voices and the experiences that affect their community. To be a part of this series or to send a tip, reach out to Gabriela Miranda at gmiranda@randb.com.