Student-led discussions open conversation on campus
About 400 students and faculty members gathered on Nov. 18 in Farinon atrium for an open forum discussion. The focus of the forum, according to Dean of Intercultural Development John McKnight, was two words: race and racism.
Following recent incidents of racism at University of Missouri (Mizzou), Yale University, Ithaca College and Claremont McKenna College, an unaffiliated group of Lafayette students who referred to themselves as “concerned students” facilitated a discussion about the implications at Lafayette.
Protests at Mizzou gained national recognition after a group of primarily black students, called Concerned Students of 1950, began protesting to combat racist acts on campus, such as the use of derogatory language and a swastika written in feces on a bathroom wall.
The protests sparked controversy on the Mizzou campus, inciting death threats on Yik Yak, an anonymous posting app. These threats were eventually traced back to two individuals who were arrested on Nov. 11. Neither were students of Mizzou.
“At one point it got really scary with all of the threats on Yik Yak,” said Mizzou student Anna Haberdash ‘19 in a phone interview. “Pretty much everybody was scared to go to class.”
Racist comments posted on Yik Yak around College Hill similarly brought concerns to campus. One post, which was screenshotted and posted on Facebook, read, “Fuck Mizzou. White lives matter. Welcome to the Hill #TheKlan.”
The Yik Yak post was brought up in a meeting of the Bias Response Team as an example of the climate on campus, according to College Chaplain Alex Hendrickson. The Bias Response Team, according to an email sent by President Alison Byerly, is a coalition of students, faculty and administrators to provide a mechanism to respond to instances of perceived bias and resolve conflicts in a spirit of civil discourse and mutual accountability.
Byerly said in her email that she would be meeting with the team to discuss the recent incidents at Mizzou, Yale and Ithaca, but their meeting was kept private, and as of deadline recommendations from the response team to the administration were not public. Members of the team did comment on the meeting.
Because of the severity of the incidents across the nation, Lafayette students took it upon themselves to address the issues in Wednesday’s forum. Students presented a slideshow providing context for the incidents at Mizzou. The audience then divided into small groups of about 15 students, faculty and staff.
Students tackled many issues in these groups, but one prevalent issue was questioning how involved the administration should be when it comes to racism on campus. This questioning follows the national dialog, as administrators at Mizzou, Yale and Ithaca were recently asked to step down for ignoring incidences of racial injustice on these campuses.
President Byerly attended and spoke at the student-led forum.
“I think it is important for a college president to support students in their own capacity to talk openly and honestly with each other about issues that are difficult.” Byerly said.
However, for some students, the administration is not doing enough to address racism at Lafayette.
“I think the administration needs to step up and say something,” Fayola Fair ‘19 said. “There are things going on at campus that impact people of color, but the administration does not do anything about it.”
Other students disagreed.
“Every time someone says something offensive to you, you should not expect the school to say ‘sorry,’” one student said, and the comment opened a further discussion about race and privilege on campus.
“There is a system that is set up to help white males in this country and it is also fostered in institutions of education,” Natasha Harris ‘18 said. “[For a] person who sits in that position, it might be hard for [them] to see how it is not as simple as ‘somebody has offended me, I need to shake it off.’ It’s this constant system just being perpetuated in an institution where we’re supposed to be learning and growing from each other.”
Fair, an African-American female, also spoke of the system of privilege and how it has worked against her personally at Lafayette in the past as a Posse Scholar.
“Everyone to some extent has some sort of privilege,” Fair said. “It doesn’t mean your life is easier, it makes your life smoother. I’m a Posse Scholar and a lot of people will say, ‘You got that just because you’re black and they need diversity.’ Another kid in my class is white and when he walks into a classroom, he’s not going to get, ‘Oh, you’re here because of affirmative action,’ it’s just assumed as a white male he worked to get here and he’s here because of his own self-determination, not because of the color of his skin.”
Topics also touched on the methods of specific protest sat Mizzou.
“I support the purpose of their protest, but not how they protest,” Haberdash said. “Racism isn’t a thing a college can fix. A white American will never understand what it’s like to be a black American.”
Participants made suggestions for the administration at Lafayette to fix the problem of miscommunication and racism, such as offering a mandatory diversity class for all students.
“The course selection about these types of issues is limited,” said Richard Mallon ’19. “There’s something the administration can do to make sure students have background in diversity and multiculturalism.”
When it comes down to it, however, many of the problems associated with race need to be discussed through an open dialogue and not on anonymous social media apps, Nikki Bauer ‘16 said.
“There is an accountability for what you say,” Bauer said. “You have free speech, but you’re not free of your own speech.”