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Students of color frustrated with campus climate

Students say racist social media posts and posters on campus have created a culture of exclusion.

Students of color frustrated with campus climate

AU President Neil Kerwin sat down with The Eagle to discuss issues of race on campus. Kerwin published an op-ed in the paper on Nov. 4, pledging to hold discussions on inclusion.

Multicultural student groups are calling for more inclusion at AU after a rash of anonymous social media posts and posters targeting minorities have appeared on and around campus.

Yik Yak is a smartphone application that allows smartphone users to make posts anonymously and view posts made by those within close proximity to them. Racist posts on the platform prompted University forums last year and inspired an Undergraduate Senate discussion about race, the Eagle previously reported. In recent months, users have continued to write discriminatory comments in the the app around campus.

Kiersten Gillette-Pierce, a Class of 2016 senator and Marketing and PR Coordinator for the Black Student Alliance, said she was unsurprised by racist remarks over Yik Yak and has faced racism at AU since she set foot on campus freshman year. She also said the administration is not doing nearly enough to help students of color on campus.

“Right now, we are talking at each other. It could be that maybe we don’t know the avenues to talk, or that the administration doesn’t care,” she said. “Stop ignoring us and make some tangible changes. Stop pushing diversity and not pushing retention.”

In her role as SG Senator, Gillette-Pierce wrote a bill requiring all members of Student Government to undergo cultural and racial sensitivity training, and the bill passed unanimously in the Undergraduate Senate in October. She said her next steps, working with The Darkening, are to mandate the training for all clubs and organizations and eventually the whole campus by 2017.

In an interview with The Eagle, University President Neil Kerwin said racist comments on Yik Yak stunned him, and that the University should have done more to address the posts last academic year.

“I think universities, of all places have the deepest responsibility to confront these issues and deal with them, because if universities can’t get it right, I’m not a hundred percent sure who can,” Kerwin said. “For as long as I have this job, I am going to do everything I can to keep this on the front page. We talk the talk a lot about diversity on this campus, we express a deep commitment on it. Where we need to do much better is on inclusion.”

Devontae Torriente, vice president of BSA, said most racism he experiences on campus is subtle and also said that the environment for minorities is lacking.

“AU likes to pretend it’s a very inclusive community, and they have taken steps in other areas to make it inclusive,” Torriente said. “I feel that AU is very exclusive in the sense that it doesn’t do all that it can to make sure that students of color feel welcome and safe on this campus, so I definitely at times feel like an outsider.” 

Torriente, a senator for the class of 2018 and a committee chair in student movement The Darkening, said he has witnessed subtle microaggressions from students and professors in the classroom. He also mentioned more blatant bigotry, especially through the Yik Yak posts resurfaced in recent weeks.

“When it comes to things like race and culture sensitivity, we’re just not there yet,” Torriente said. 

Roquel Crutcher, the president of AU’s NAACP chapter, has been working to reinstate a campus chapter since last summer, she said. The group was reinstalled Oct. 23.

Crutcher said she wanted to bring a chapter back because she felt more space was needed for people of color on campus. The NAACP was last on campus in 2009.

"Right now, we are organizing, we are taking concerns from students, listening to them, figuring out what we can do, what our main goals will be and how to achieve them, and we want to be very strategic about everything,” she said.

Kerwin said reinstating AU’s chapter of the NAACP is a positive development, and also complemented the work of groups like the Darkening and BSA.

Fanta Aw, the assistant vice president of Campus Life, said she believes in a more multi-faceted approach to combatting bigotry than a mandatory course for all students.Aw also said around 700 faculty members have voluntarily undergone unconscious bias training this semester. 

In addition, the University’s general education program is under review and future changes may include work related to race and multiculturalism, Kerwin said, though he cannot state how curriculum may change.

Kerwin has begun meeting with groups of students on campus and will speak with alumni, faculty and staff about racial climate. At the end of the semester, Kerwin plans to send out a letter to the community summarizing what he has learned through his conversations.

However, Torriente and Gillette-Pierce said multiculturalism on campus requires more than dialogue.

“Discussion is great, but at a certain point, action needs to be taken,” Torriente said.“I think that just having these dialogues can be therapeutic for a lot of people, but it doesn’t really address the grievances of those students. I think we need to focus on training and educating the student body and not just talking about the issues.”

Gillette-Pierce said the school needs to educate the whole population about racial and cultural differences because some students come from communities that do not have diversity and hence face a culture shock when they arrive.

“You cannot have an international school and not teach students about other cultures, both on the domestic and international front,” she said.

“Right now, we are talking at each other. It could be that maybe we don’t know the avenues to talk, or that the administration doesn’t care. Stop ignoring us and make some tangible changes. Stop pushing diversity and not pushing retention.” - Kiersten Gillette-Pierce, SG senator

Islamophobic posters appear on campus 

Aman Abdelhamid, president of the Muslim Student Association and a sophomore in the School of International Service, said she also sees a lack of campus awareness and education about race. She was not completely caught off guard when Islamophobic posters were spotted on campus in early November, she said.

“I don’t think I really was surprised. I’ve seen and I’ve heard of Islamophobic comments in classes and in the area, so I wasn’t surprised, but so disappointed. We pride ourselves on being a liberal campus,” Abdelhamid said. “We come here thinking AU is a progressive campus, and we still feel unsafe.”

The posters were likely not posted by a member of the AU community, according to a statement from the school. Devki Gami, president of the South Asian Student Association, said students need to work together to create a more inclusive campus.

“At the end of the day, students’ perspectives need to change,” Gami said. “We need to talk about how we can make our own students feel inclusive, and if you have a certain group on campus making racist comments, we have to work on changing their perspective. We need to look at ourselves, we need to look at our friends, and see what can we do on the student level.”

Gami encourages all students to attend SASA events and said experiencing other cultures helps create more awareness and acceptance of cultures other than their own.

“When you go to an event, and when you feel a part of the event, there is a change within you. This is the kind of exposure that leads to understanding,” Gami said. “You don’t have to be South Asian to be an active member of SASA. We love having anyone even slightly interested to come to our events. We have a very strong, passionate group, and we want to share South Asian culture with everyone else. We are there for our community but also for the larger AU.”

Alex Garcia, president of the Latino and American Student Organization, said having a more diverse faculty may help create a more comfortable environment for minority students.

“One important step would be hiring more professors of color,” Garcia said. “If students have those leaders to look up to they will have a more welcoming climate as opposed to having a predominantly white faculty.”

Garcia also said the situation cannot improve if blame for campus racism is put on the administration or one group of students.“If we just unite as minorities, but without isolating ourselves from the rest of the campus, we can make this climate better,” he said.

rsarkar@theeagleonline.com