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Monday, May 20, 2024
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Students protest poor race relations in MGC

A week of responses to racially-charged events culminates in a Friday gathering in MGC

Student protesters gathered in the lobby of Mary Graydon Center on March 20 to respond to recent incidents of racism, including racist posts on Yik Yak and the the violent arrest of University of Virginia student Martese Johnson.

The demonstration was the latest in a series of protests led by students associated with The Darkening, which does not identify as a club but seeks to bring awareness of issues of racial injustice on campus. It attracted the attention of campus administrators and passerby in the dining area, who responded with cheers and calls of support, as well as a few grumbles at the size of the crowd.

Emem Obot, one of the leaders of the protest and a freshman in the School of International Service, implored students and faculty to contact her directly with questions about race issues.

“We have to come to terms with this and educate ourselves,” Obot said. “I know that there are a lot of you who probably have questions, who are too scared to speak out because you don’t want to be called a racist. Because for some reason, being called a racist is worse than being called a ‘nigger.’”

On March 11, Obot tweeted a screenshot of a YikYak post that read, “It’s obviously racist, but I really don’t like 99% of the black people I meet. At least I’m honest.”

It is unclear that the post came from an AU student, as Yik Yak users are anonymous and may include students from other D.C.-area universities. The post received three downvotes. Yik Yak uses a system where users can rate a yak by up or down voting a post.

As of March 20, the tweet garnered 4,600 retweets and 1,859 favorites.

The tweet prompted a campus-wide email from Vice President for Campus Life Gail Hanson on March 16 saying the University is “deeply offended” by the racist posts.

“It cannot be stated strongly enough that these posts stand in stark contrast to American University’s core values of respect for human dignity and appreciation for diverse cultures and viewpoints,” Hanson said in the email.

Demonstrators turned to students sitting in the dining area in MGC at one point to involve them in the dialogue. The students approached by demonstrators did not respond.

Aramark dining workers also stepped out from behind the counter to watch and show support.

After the remarks, the organizers invited students to join hands and show silent solidarity for five minutes. Some students obliged while others stayed back.

The demonstration concluded with a closing statement from Charles Walker, a senior in the School of Public Affairs, who urged students continue the conversation and allow diverse voices to be heard. Organizers invited students to attend an open forum led by the demonstration’s organizers addressing the same issues in Hughes Hall following the demonstration.

In an interview with the Eagle after the demonstration, Walker drew a link between the Yik Yak posts and other national stories like Johnson’s.

“It’s the same issue of an assumption that is held within institutions and in offices of those institutions that are harming and damaging the ability for blacks to thrive,” Walker said.

The University also organized a forum on race on March 19 as a response to the yaks.

Fanta Aw, the assistant vice president of Campus Life and a professor in the School of International Service, facilitated the open discussion. In addition to Hanson and Aw, several other administration and campus officials attended, including:

  • Lisa Leone Boms, special assistant to the VP of campus life
  • Marlena McKnight, assistant director for retention and success at the Center for Diversity and Inclusion
  • Sharon Alston, vice provost for Undergraduate Enrollment
  • Greg Grauman, assistant vice provost for Undergraduate Enrollment
  • Michael O’Heron, staff clinician at the Counseling Center

The crowd of mostly black students shared stories of feeling unwelcome in class or on campus and how racism on Yik Yak has made them more alert and less trusting of their fellow students. Though the forum was held in response to Yik Yak posts, the conversation focused more broadly on the experience of racial minorities on campus. The conversation offered students an opportunity to communicate with administration officials and share experiences with each other.

“I found it helpful and very therapeutic,” Devontae Torriente, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs said after the forum. “I can talk about these things with my friends or people who live on my floor but it’s different to be around people who have experienced what I’ve been through. Other people can empathize but these people feel what I’m feeling.”

Several students during the March 19 forum said they didn’t feel that the University is as diverse or inclusive as it claims to be and advocated for courses on cultural literacy and inclusiveness to be added to orientation or the mandatory curriculum. In response, Aw told students that administration officials are considering curriculum and policy changes but warned that these changes would take time to implement.

Toward the end of the forum, Hanson told students she appreciated their candor and said that the President’s Cabinet is discussing changes to University policies and curriculum. She also acknowledged comments from many students who felt the University isn’t moving fast enough to make these changes.

This isn’t the first time Yik Yak has come under fire at AU. AU students organized a march on Mary Graydon Center after comments on Yik Yak that were negative towards the Black Lives Matter movement, The Eagle previously reported.

At the March 20 protest, Hanson praised the student demonstrators and said the event reached more people because it was in a public space.

“Because of the circumstances of this event, people who didn’t plan to be here became part of the event,” Hanson said. “I think that had the positive outcome of involving a wider circle in the conversation. Getting more people who might not have thought much about this to appreciate what some students are experiencing here.”

With Thursday’s open forum and Friday’s demonstration, Hanson said she hopes the student body will realize its role in creating a more positive environment going forward.

“Unless everybody learns and becomes appreciative of our difference and what we bring to the human enterprise, we’re not going to have a very good world,” Hanson said. “We better get on it.”

Students related to The Darkening already kicked off the semester with some events designed to spur discussion on race. In an earlier response to race relations on campus, some students and faculty have organized a series of teach-ins.

The two-part Teach-In for Justice held a series of panels about white privilege, conflict resolution and social change. Over 200 students, faculty and staff members attended the first teach-in on Jan. 24, The Eagle previously reported.

“It all comes out of ignorance, because some people don’t understand how they’re being racist,” Obot said in an earlier interview with The Eagle. “I think those teach-ins and discussions are important, but that’s why it needs to be mandatory…they aren’t reaching enough people. We need to reach a bigger spectrum of AU students. Eagle Summit would be a great place to start.”

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