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Thursday, May 23, 2024
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Man wearing Confederate hoodie in TDR wasn't AU student, university says

Fanta Aw: Episode highlights tension between freedom of speech and inclusion

After administrators announced that they were looking into reports of a man wearing a Confederate flag hoodie in the Terrace Dining Room last week, the University has shared new details about the episode inside the dining hall. 

In a follow-up memo to students on Tuesday afternoon, Fanta Aw, AU’s vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence, said the man who was seen in TDR on Thursday night was the guest of an AU student. 

When the man arrived at TDR, students “expressed concern about his presence” and an AU police officer was called to assess the situation, Aw wrote in the memo. The officer talked with the person who reported the concern as well as the man wearing the hoodie, she added. 

“The officer determined that the man was present at TDR lawfully and was not violating university policies,” Aw wrote. 

Tiana Chichester, a second-year student who saw the man in TDR on Thursday, said she did not see him as threatening other than “the fact of what he was wearing.” She said she would have understood reporting the man to AUPD if he made racist statements or did specific acts other than wear the hoodie. 

Her first reaction to Aw’s memos, Chichester said, was that she didn’t know why the incident was being addressed. 

“I thought AU’s response was definitely a little blown out of proportion,” Chichester, who is black, said. “I didn’t think an incident report needed to be done and I didn’t think that an email needed to be sent out telling the entire school about one guy wearing a Confederate flag hoodie. I thought that was a little dramatic to say the least.” 

Mark Story, an AU spokesperson, said in an email that the University does not always communicate after or before an incident. He cited some of the “guiding factors” that determine whether or not Aw or another administrator will send out a campus-wide memo. 

Those factors, Story wrote, include the need to set the record straight if there is confusion within the AU community; if the persons involved in an event are not affiliated with the University; if there is a direct connection to the community, such as a severe hurricane; if something happens that is close proximity to AU; and if there is a tragedy, such as a death of a student. 

Aw’s original memo, sent Friday afternoon, prompted an article about the incident in The Washington Post that drew parallels to the hanging of Confederate flag posters in several campus buildings in September 2017. 

Chichester, who is from Virginia, added that she is not phased by the Confederate flag because she sees it “all the time,” but can understand how students who have not lived in the South or in rural areas could be shocked and threatened by it. 

“It has to do with where you’re from,” she said. “A lot of people at AU don’t see that every day… so I can understand how people of color felt threatened.”

The incident first gained attention due to a widely shared Facebook post by AU student Francis Hernandez, The Eagle previously reported. Hernandez said they were “tired of being told there is nothing to do by this university” in the face of racist acts on campus.

In her Tuesday memo, Aw said the University recognizes how the symbol of the Confederacy represents much “pain, division and a complex history of slavery of racism.” Several students echoed that pain, including freshman Kelvin Riddick. 

“You have to understand that that symbol puts such a feeling of dread and oppression on people like me and minorities and anyone who’s been oppressed by it,” Riddick, who is black, told The Eagle last week. 

Aw wrote that the brief episode has prompted difficult discussions about the challenges of resolving tensions between “freedom of expression and diversity and inclusion.”

In June 2017, Aw testified at a U.S. Senate hearing about campus free speech, telling committee members that free speech “comes with responsibility and accountability.” 

“Freedom of expression is integral to the mission of higher education,” Aw said during her testimony. “However, protecting it has become increasingly challenging in light of our national climate, changing attitudes of younger Americans about the First Amendment and ever more diverse populations on our campuses bringing diverse perspectives and expectations into constant tension.”

Aw repeated similar sentiments on Tuesday, underscoring that the University is continuing to “grapple with the responsibility that comes from holding values that can come into conflict.” 

“This issue underscores the importance of knowing our history and understanding how the past continues to impact the present,” she wrote. 

Abbie Veitch and Grace George contributed reporting to this story.

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