The university's first Black female student government leader talks about race, religion, gender policing and the willful mispronunciation of Kamala Harris' name.

On Oct. 16, Georgia Sen. David Perdue mocked vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris’ name at a Trump rally, an act that many deemed racist. Those comments follow widespread scrutiny of Harris’ facial expressions during the Oct. 7 vice-presidential debate—reserved reactions that illustrated how even Black women in power limit themselves in fear of fulfilling race and gender stereotypes. 

Roaya Higazi understands that fear all too well. As the first Black female president of Ohio State University’s student government, she represents nearly 50,000 undergraduates at the Columbus campus. But Higazi, a 21-year-old senior from Pickerington, says that while she strives to advocate for the just over 6 percent of Black students on campus, she’s also felt pressure to bring less of her perspective as a Black Muslim woman to the student government floor. Recently, she shared how she feels her identity affects the ways she carries herself in office and how university administrators and her student-government colleagues treat her. (This story has been edited for length and clarity.)

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What did you think of the Oct. 7 vice presidential debate?
The whole world was able to witness how men have continuously spoken over women, specifically Black women, in that space. Just the way that people gave criticisms to that debate was very apparent of the ways in which we treat and uphold women, especially Black women, to different standards. So I think that it was really interesting because people who have not had those experiences had to witness that on the national stage.

How do you think your identity as a Black Muslim woman affects the way others interact with and perceive you, especially in these professional or esteemed places?
People see me as a Black Muslim woman before they see me as anything else. Before they listen to the words that come out of my mouth, before they read my mannerisms, before anything, they see a hijab, they see Black skin, and that's what they interpret. That affects everything that I say. I know that anything that I say and anything that I do gets perceived entirely differently from what my intentions actually are, and usually, in a lot of ways, that makes my life harder. I recognize that, in a lot of the spaces that I'm in, when I am being straightforward, and when I'm being opinionated people see that as me being aggressive, or being too emotional. And it affects me professionally because people use that as an excuse to essentially degrade what I have to say and why I'm saying it. It makes people think that they have the room to question my intentions. 

How do you navigate those pressures to limit how you act and speak in the positions of power that you hold?
It's definitely not easy. But [I’ve] found a lot of support in other Black women who have been in this experience, who have been student body presidents, other students of color who've been student body presidents. Just being able to connect with them and find solace—that is something that I draw a lot of support and inspiration from. But also reminding myself that I also have a duty to show up as my most authentic self for other students of color, who are going to follow in my position.

Could you elaborate a little bit more on that?
It's very much the mentality of lift as you climb, so trying to connect with others—student leaders of color—and supporting them in the issues that they're experiencing, and then the way that they are supporting me, even other Black students or organizations. We connect very frequently just to support each other because, at the end of the day, we're all going through these similar experiences just with different faces and names attached to them. We're really trying to collectively find our place at this university. So it's not even a student government thing. It's trying to uplift and prioritize the needs of Black students around campus, and that's only something that could happen collectively.

Harris’ tagline for the evening of the debate was “I’m speaking,” which she said after Vice President Pence interrupted her. Have you ever had an “I’m speaking” moment during your time as student body president?
I think I have that moment every day to be honest. It's a very regular moment. It's not always that you feel safe enough or comfortable enough to say, "I'm speaking," because that in itself is pushing back in a lot of ways. But I think I've definitely learned how to push back and demand respect in those spaces because yeah, my identity definitely plays a big role in how people respond to me even with something as simple as mannerisms in a meeting. Sometimes it'll be me and [Vice President Caleb Hineman]—and my VP’s a white-passing man—sometimes they'll assume that he's president, and that I'm VP right off the bat. Or they'll spend the whole meeting only directing and speaking towards him and not at me.

Recently, Georgia Sen. David Perdue made what many called racist comments about Kamala Harris's name. As a person with a name that reflects your ethnic identity, what does hearing comments like that mean to you?
If someone can't, at the very least, respect your name, how do you expect them to respect any other piece of you? That happens to me all the time. People butcher my name or don't even try to pronounce it right or think that mispronouncing it is funny and cute. It's just so deeply disrespectful in so many ways. I don't even know how to describe it, but I feel like that experience and just that quote in itself is something that so many other people experience and that I experience literally every single day, and I make it a point to pronounce my name correctly—and when I say correctly, [I mean] not just correctly in a way that English speakers can pronounce it but in a way like “this is how my parents named me”—as a means of demanding respect and showing up as my most authentic self in spaces where people expect me to do just the opposite of that.

I saw a Spectrum News Voices for Change video where you were talking about being Muslim and having holidays and religious observations that were not included on academic calendars. You said in the video that you were coming up with different ways to advocate for students in a similar position to yours. How has that process been going for you?
That one specific project was actually super successful and very [well-received] by administrators and other people around the university. Something that I've come to learn is that a lot of people, not everyone, but a lot of people don't have malintent. It's just the fact that they don't know that these issues exist because, for a lot of them, they've never had to work with a Muslim student leader. A lot of them don't work with that many students, and when they do, it's usually student government. Usually student government does not have a Muslim student, a Black student in a leadership position, so the issues don't come to the forefront ever. With me bringing that to the table, they were like, “This is kind of a serious issue, and it's also a very easy fix.” They just didn't even know the issue existed to begin with. So for me, it's really just about being as loud as possible, and I have this mentality that no matter what battles I lose or win, as long as I said what I had to say that's important enough. 

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