By Marissa Cubbage
As the fall semester began for colleges and universities across the nation, so did literal signs of hatred towards people of color residing at these institutions. Earlier this month, posters promoting an alternative right hate group were hung at the campuses of Millersville University, Elizabethtown College and Penn State University. Signage of racial hatred came to Juniata’s campus on Monday, Sep. 25 when the “N-word” was written anonymously on a white board located on a custodial closet across from a women’s bathroom in Brumbaugh Academic Center. The word had been there since at least the previous Saturday, but no one erased it or brought attention to it until Monday. The word was underlined and had arrows pointing to it.
The following morning, President, Jim Troha sent an email to the entire campus with a clear message: “this word and other pejoratives it invokes that seek to divide and diminish any of us are unacceptable and have no place in our College. In the space of our Juniata community, we will not accept intolerance, we will not provide a home for hate, and we will expect the same from every Juniatian.”
Word spread quickly about the incident, and a student-led discussion was organized for Tuesday night in front of the Unity House. Sitting in circles on the ground, faculty, students and administrators, including Dean of Students, Matthew Damschroder and Troha, shared initial reactions. According to those who saw the racial slur firsthand, some students and Juniata employees passed by the white board and did not erase it or express concern. Other students reacted by shrugging and saying, “It’s just a word.” The lack of concern in some fellow Juniatians concerned many people at this discussion, but it did not surprise them.
One by one, students of color shared stories about a time they felt marginalized or dehumanized on campus before this racial slur appeared in BAC. Multiple students called the college administration to better support people of color on campus and increase awareness about the Unity House. White students at the discussion expressed their obligation to support people of color on campus. In sum, students of color are tired of feeling dehumanized and unsafe on campus, and they are ready to act.
The reaction continued Wednesday, Sep. 27 at the Democracy and Diversity series, which over 100 students and faculty members attended. This series occurs every fourth Wednesday of each month. This month the subject was unpacking the White Supremacist protest of the removal of a confederate statue in Charlottesville, VA, this past August. The speakers on the panel had about 10 minutes to make opening comments that focused on what occurred at the protest, unpacking white supremacy, understanding the right to free speech, and connecting the panel to the racial incident on campus.
During the question and answer section, the discussion moved quickly from discussing the protest at Charlottesville. Juniata student April Wells expressed passionately her dissatisfaction with reacting to racial issues on campus with just emails and talk, and she fervently asked the members of the panel, “What are we going to do?”
Troha rebutted by exclaiming that the college strategic plan includes efforts to increase diversity and inclusion efforts. “…we have tried new things- how we hire, who we hire, introducing inclusive pedagogy etc….” Troha said.
Damschroder commented on this topic by saying that each member of the Juniata community has a responsibility to “do” something. He emphasized that student, administrative, and faculty efforts are all needed to fix racial issues on our campus, but those efforts may not look the same for everyone.
Another student, Uzo Obi, commented on Troha’s and Provost Lauren Bowens’ 10-minute speeches. In response to Troha’s claim that “bad things happen” on many college campuses and across the United States as a whole, Obi said, “This kind of language normalizes behavior; we need to think about our language if we want change on our campus.”
She then concluded her comment by responding to Bowen’s personal story of learning to understand the importance of free speech by stating. “Thank you for the textbook definition, but we can all read a book. I want to hear raw emotions from people who are experiencing hatred, because empathy is what will change people,” Obi said.
One of the final comments made during the question and answer session was by Cynthia Merriwether-de Vries, Associate Professor of Sociology. During her comments, Merriwether-de Vries explained that she was the only black woman faculty member when she was hired 17 years ago, and at that time there were only a few black students, thus emphasizing that change in diversity on campus has occurred. However, she also emphasized that this change needed to be furthered by white students on campus.
“People of color cannot do this; if you are a person of European descent, you need to get upset,” Merriwether- de Vries said.
The following day, Sep. 28, direct action ensued via an open discussion on the quad at 1:15 pm. Many professors stated in class that students who wanted to attend were excused, but many other students left class without an acknowledgment from the professor. About 200 people attended this open discussion on the quad for some period of time. Main themes of the discussion included personal experiences of oppression on campus, reactions to the writing of the racial slur, college climate and how education can help more people understand racial issues on campus.
The main student organizers of the discussion outside the Unity House and the campus-wide discussion out on the quad were Junior Melat Solomon, and Sophomore April Wells. However, they attribute this movement to many of their peers. Solomon and Wells saw a physical, capturable incident that represented racial issues on campus, and they decided to use it as an opportunity to raise awareness. When planning the student-led events, they focused on creating “Brave Spaces.” According to Solomon and Wells a Brave Space is, “a safe space, a space where you can feel comfortable, feel encouraged. Get out what needs to come out, and if something comes out that we need to address, we can do that not in a non-demeaning way.”
The goal of this discussion was to create a community of accountability and spread of knowledge. Umoja is hosting an event on Oct. 18 focused on the history of the “N-word” and possibly other racial slurs later in October.
Administration also has action planned. Damschroder says that listening to students at these events, “inspires urgency- it highlights where we need to be and how we need to get there.” He also admitted that in almost every meeting since Monday, racial tensions and campus climate have been discussed. Some “rough-draft” results from these meetings include plans to create a diversity program for those who are new to conversations about identity/race, faculty development programming, athletic department collaboration with Director of Violence Prevention, Jodi Althaus from the SPoT, and working with the borough concerning borough police and lighting on campus.
Although campus climate the past few days has been full of anger, sadness and a lack of comfort to many, especially those targeted by the racial slur, direct action is occurring and will occur in the future. The initial reaction was strong and poignant, but it will continue, in an effort to change overall campus climate where people of color are supported by both fellow Juniatians and administration.
SOURCES: Keystone Crossroads