“It’ll be like Biden and Harris”: A Black Woman’s Conundrum in Collegiate Student Government | Brown, Goodman


In this case study, Sasha grapples with issues of systemic racism she faces while serving as student government (SG) vice president, specifically when the SG president is a white man at a predominately white institution. After experiencing several microaggressions by white administrators, tensions between students, and finding her personal values incongruent with those of SG, Sasha needs to decide whether to stay in SG and work within the organization to change the system or resign and push for systemic change from the outside.

Keywords: student government, Black Women, leadership, identity, campus racial climate

Primary Characters

Colby (she/her/hers) is the Student Government Advisor at Southern University and has been in her role for just over one year. Colby has a student affairs background, and just before this role, graduated from a student affairs graduate program at a predominately white institution in the Midwest. She has a student-centered approach to advising and believes in the power of both student government and student leadership. Colby identifies as multiracial, and outside of her role at Southern University, she volunteers with several community-based organizations and efforts related to racial justice. She met Sasha through community organizing.

Sasha (Say-shuh) (she/her/hers) is the newly elected student body vice president in Southern University’s student government. She is a Black woman who has been encouraging students and administrators to be more intentional in centering inclusivity and equity on campus; including student government, as they pass legislation, develop bills, and interact with constituents. Sasha is the first Black woman elected to a student body-wide executive role in over ten years. Centering inclusion and equity was a pillar of her campaign platform.

Preston (he/him/his) is a white man, and the newly elected student body president after having served in multiple student government positions before this election. He and Sasha ran on a ticket together, after Preston approached her to be his running mate. Preston is a member of a historically and predominately white fraternity, one with a lot of social capital on campus; he comes from a family with a deep legacy status at his institution and knew from his first year on campus that he wanted to be a student body president.

President Craig Zilker (he/him/his) has been the University President of Southern University for nearly six years, after previously serving as Dean of the College of Engineering for 22 years. President Zilker is a white man, very active in his church, and has four children who went to Southern University. President Zilker has been known by students to perpetuate a “good old boys” club on campus by visiting only historically and predominately white fraternity meetings, hiring white students to work as aids in his office, and hiring/appointing white men to campus administrative leadership roles. President Zilker has never made a comment on the campus racial climate and has not issued statements of support to students in the wake of national incidents of violence against Black and Brown people. President Zilker says he refrains from doing these things because he is not “a political president.”

Context and Case

Southern University (SU) is a large public research university in the southern region of the United States. Students of Color make up 26% of SU’s undergraduate population, of which only 4% are Black students. The university President’s cabinet is composed of twelve administrators, of which ten are men, two are white women, and three identify as People of Color, including one man who identifies as Latino and two men who identify as Asian.

Recently, there has been racial unrest affecting the student body, on- and off-campus. Students of Color, specifically, have shared with administrators and stakeholders the many macro- and microaggressions faced on campus, including racist incidents between students and faculty members. When George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, SU did not make a public statement. Instead, student leaders and activists on campus held space for community support and processing, primarily used by Students and Staff of Color.

Student government (SG) at SU is a significant leadership space where students have access to university administrators and key campus decision-making. Over the years, SG has been led primarily by white men who had large political backing on- and off-campus. After student organizing efforts, Sasha knew she wanted to run for an executive SG position to use her leadership at a different level. When Preston heard Sasha was interested in running, he asked if she would be interested in being his running mate. Preston pitched his campaign to Sasha and was receptive to her ideas. “It’ll be like Biden and Harris. This will be great,” Preston assured Sasha. While Sasha did not feel comfortable being compared to Vice President Kamala Harris, she appreciated having a large student backing to support her candidacy. Preston and Sasha won the election by a wide margin and were sworn in a few weeks later.

When the new school year began, Preston and Sasha started meeting with university administrators and community leaders. These intimate meetings were new to Sasha who had more experience with town halls, open forums, and a sit-in she participated in when the local city council failed to pass legislation funding from police to social programs.

Knowing the tensions related to the lack of campus and community responses to racial incidents, Sasha wanted to bring up SU’s lack of response to George Floyd’s murder. Before meeting with the Provost, Preston told Sasha, “Please don’t bring up anything about racism in this meeting. We need to plant seeds and don’t want to come off like that in these early meetings.” Sasha was taken aback but hesitantly trusted Preston. When they met with the Provost and his team, it was clear Preston already knew these administrators, while Sasha felt like she was invisible. The Provost only made eye contact with her two times. She felt the conversation was directed solely at Preston.

After this meeting, Sasha met with her advisor, Colby, who could see that Sasha was upset. Colby helped Sasha identify a few examples to bring up with Preston in a meeting later that day. That evening, Sasha called Colby saying Preston was “incredibly defensive.” He told Sasha, “This is just the way it is. It’s politics.” Colby helped Sasha process her emotions, but after the call, Sasha began to reconsider her VP position. She understood how important it was for a Black woman to be in this role but was unsure how much she could take.

Sasha and Preston’s next meeting was with the university President. “You’re the girl who doesn’t like me very much aren’t you?” the President said to her, laughing, as he shook her hand aggressively. Sasha, taken aback, looked at Preston who indicated she should play along. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that” she replied nervously. President Zilker then greeted Preston with a warm hug, saying, “Preston, it’s wonderful to see you! You look so much like your dad!” Preston said, “Oh, stop! Great to see you, Dr. Zilker.” Their exchange made Sasha even more uncomfortable.

Dr. Zilker gestured for Sasha and Preston to sit down. He looked at the agenda Sasha created and noticed the first item was, “Iota Omega Upsilon Party.” At the party two weeks earlier, the theme was “Rapper’s Paradise.” Several members donned blackface as they wore basketball jerseys, cornrow hairstyles, and fake tattoos. Pictures from the party went viral on social media and Black students on campus felt even more isolated and frustrated due to this party. Black students, including Sasha, met to develop a list of grievances and calls to action to address their concerns.

Sasha began, “Well, I think of the concerns you may know about is the Iota Omega Upsilon party—” “Yes, Sasha (Saw-shuh),” President Zilker interrupted, “The situation has been brought to my attention and we’ll defer to Student Conduct to adjudicate.” Sasha ignored the mispronunciation of her name and responded, “With all due respect, sir, students are still waiting for some type of response from the university that this is not tolerated. Black students feel uncomfortable on campus and since there hasn’t been a response from your—” This time, Preston cut her off saying, “Sasha, I have to agree with President Zilker here, this is up to Student Conduct.” Sasha remained quiet for the rest of the meeting, and afterward, she and Preston went separate ways without speaking.

The following week, SG hosted an open forum for non-SG members to hear about recently passed legislation and learn about the structure of SG. Sasha and Preston had not spoken since they met with President Zilker. A group of Black student leaders began protesting the President’s office two days before the open forum. Members of the Black Student Alliance (BSA) attend the open meeting and acknowledged Sasha as SG began their meeting.

Toward the end of the meeting, Sasha and Preston open up to the floor to allow non-SG members to ask questions. One of the Black student leaders says, “Thank you for allowing us to be here. We noticed that there was no discussion around the fraternity party that happened a few weeks ago. As a leader of BSA, we are curious if SG will be releasing a statement of solidarity?” Sasha and Preston looked at each other, but before Sasha could respond, Preston said, “Thanks for your question, but SG does not believe it is our responsibility to respond to that issue. It is the responsibility of the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life.” Sasha made brief eye contact with Preston as he quickly adjourned the meeting. The murmuring in the room began as Preston exited, leaving Sasha at the front to respond to additional questions from BSA members.

Later that evening, Sasha called Colby and told her that BSA friends said they were worried about Sasha’s values since joining SG. Sasha added that Preston has not been a supportive colleague. She feels strongly that SG should make a statement about the recent party, even if Preston is not willing to do so. Sasha is considering resigning from her vice president position. She feels she may be able to make a greater impact outside of SG. Sasha is conflicted because she has access to those spaces of power to create change for underrepresented students while increasing visibility and financial support for Students of Color. Sasha added that the pressure and stress of SG have pulled her away from schoolwork and friends, and she just does not know if it’s worth it anymore. They agree to meet in-person the next day.

Discussion Questions

  1. What role do SG organizational history, student advocacy, and activism play in SG particularly related to Students of Color?
  2. How might Colby advise and support Sasha through this decision as it relates to Sasha’s desire to be an activist/advocate and how her peers are questioning her work?
  3. How can Colby support Sasha and Preston in their relationship and individually as student leaders?
  4. How might climate, male-dominated spaces, and gendered notions of leadership affect Sasha and other women and Women of Color in student government roles?
  5. What pressures exist for underrepresented students who pursue high-profile leadership positions on their campuses? Further, what can and should institutions do to make sure all students get the support they need, both pursuing positions and while serving in office?


Demick, S. (2022, April 12). Feature: Kasiyah Tatem, the university’s first Black student government association president. The Review. https://udreview.com/feature-kasiyah-tatem-the-universitys-first-black-student-government-association-president/

Workman, J. L., Hull, K., Hartsell, T., & Weimann, T. (2020). A chilly climate: Experiences of women student government association presidents. The Journal of Campus Activities Practice and Scholarship, 2(2), 39-54.

Author Bios

Shawntal Z. Brown (she/her/hers), M.A., is a Senior Outreach Program Coordinator in Inclusive Campus Support, Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. Her practitioner work primarily focuses on campus climate assessment and initiatives. As a part-time second-year doctoral student in the Program in Higher Education Leadership, Shawntal’s research focuses on analyzing the diversity, equity, and inclusion practices and policies implemented by universities.

Michael A. Goodman (he, him, his), Ph.D.,  is an Assistant Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin, and Co-Coordinator of the Program in Higher Education Leadership. Goodman’s research focuses on college student governance and involvement, and in particular, students’ experiences in collegiate student government, the student body presidency, and sorority/fraternity life. Goodman is the Research Coordinator for the NASPA Student Government Knowledge Community and is a member of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Research Community.