As an undergraduate at Emerson College, Evan McDonald launched a stand-up comedy series called No Whites Allowed. The 25-year-old from New York City says the goal was to expose Emerson’s limited diversity and highlight Boston’s reputation as being a racist city.
“Being a Yankees fan in Boston is kind of like being a black guy in Boston,” McDonald says in a video from the documentary of the comedy series, eliciting laughs from the mostly white audience at Emerson.
McDonald described the racism he's encountered at Emerson and in Boston in an interview with WGBH News.
“It’s not Jim Crow-David Duke-George Wallace racism, but it’s certainly little things,” McDonald said. “It’s people confusing you for another black person. It’s people touching your hair without asking. It’s people asking ridiculous questions.”
After graduating two years ago with a film degree, McDonald moved to Los Angeles to do stand-up and work as a production coordinator for a brand strategy start-up that went under during the pandemic. Unemployed, he came back to Boston last month to get involved in the police brutality protests.
Local, young, college-age activists and graduates like McDonald are providing much of the energy fueling the growing national movement to fight systemic racism. Stuck in their friends’ apartments and parents’ basements, consuming media online and seeing what’s happening in the world, they’ve taken their struggle for racial justice and police reform off the internet and into the streets.
As they did in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, these young, well-educated people are playing a significant role in the protests following the police killing of George Floyd.
McDonald has been enlisting his friends as well as strangers — black and white and brown — to march, explaining why he thinks silence is a form of violence and why he sees rioting as the natural evolution of protests.
“This is just a part of a long line of fights. It's not an option for me,” McDonald said. “I think it's my survival.”
At the University of Massachusetts Boston, student activists say there’s too much of a police presence on the Dorchester campus. They’re also demanding better support for underrepresented, low-income students and that the public university make black and ethnic studies required courses.
On the other end of the Red Line, the student-run Black Lives Matter chapter at Harvard is asking the world’s wealthiest university to, among other things, match donations to certain anti-racist groups and to provide pro bono legal defense to protesters who are detained.
McDonald said he thinks today’s protests and demands — both on and off campus — feel different because they’re all-consuming.
“Nobody has a job,” he explained. “Nobody is going out to the clubs. There’s nothing really to watch on TV. Netflix is kind of taking over right now, so we not only have the time to protest but there’s nothing else in the news. You can’t hide from the fact that this is happening anymore.”
McDonald says he is inspired by the autobiography of Malcolm X, pop culture like the film "Black Panther" and the decades-long civil rights movement that resulted in concrete laws designed to end racial discrimination. But he thinks today’s protests are about something even more basic.
“The leaders back then, they were asking for civil rights, but in a weird way, I’m just asking for human rights,” McDonald said. “I’m just asking for an opportunity to make it. There’s a problem when I’m with four of my black friends and statistically, one in four of us is going to prison.”
As a black man who attended a predominantly white college, McDonald is also continuing to call out Emerson. Standing near the downtown campus on Newbury Street the day after he and thousands of others marched in Boston demanding racial justice, he pointed out that only 4 percent of Emerson students are black.
“Emerson has a terrible track record with people of color,” he said.
Earlier this month, Emerson President Lee Pelton, who is black, published an open letter to the campus community, calling George Floyd’s killing a “legalized lynching.” He shared his own personal experiences of being racially profiled by the police.
“I wanted to share those [experiences] because I wanted to channel, in a very public way, through a public figure, George Floyd — and all of the other men and women in this country who had to endure that kind of racism,” Pelton told WGBH’s Greater Boston in an interview earlier this month.
McDonald acknowledges that Pelton being black and speaking out helps improve race relations on campus and in Boston, but he says it doesn’t help enough.
“I feel like it’s the Obama effect,” he said. “The world is still crappy, but you have someone to look up to.”
McDonald says Emerson and other colleges should not just issue statements pledging to do better, but commit to making real change that addresses income and racial inequality.
“If they want black students, if they truly believe in having inclusion within their schools, it's their obligation to speak about this,” he said. “There's no more room for silence — no more room for neutrality.”
For now, as he continues to help organize protests in Boston, McDonald says he’s tired and he doesn’t think black activists like him should be responsible for educating white people about racism.
“It’s extremely exhausting,” he said the morning after another downtown demonstration. “I don’t want to have to teach you. At the end of the day, just care.”