Racist Graffiti Ignites Campus-Wide Reaction

 

 

Alexandra Wolter

Not 48 hours had passed since the election of Barack Obama when students across campus were jarred by an e-mail from Vice President and Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson and Vice President and Dean of Diversity Keenan Grenell. In response to epithets hurled from passing cars and dorm room windows, to messages scrawled on bathroom stalls, their message was clear: Colgate University will not tolerate racism or intimidation. In the face of such “loathsome” acts, Johnson and Grenell urged that the campus “follow the wisdom of our nation’s leaders who, after a long and difficult campaign, have vowed to work together to bridge differences and bring about unity,” alluding to the special grace under pressure of candidates for the presidency.

According to Johnson and Grenell, the administration kicked into high gear once the situation was brought to their attention.

“A custodian came forward with information to Campus Safety, who then alerted the administration,” Johnson said.

In an interview with The Maroon-News, Johnson and Grenell spoke passionately, with Grenell referencing his young son as he explained the different facets of a coalition that has come together in the face of hatred anonymously demonstrated and universally condemned. In addition to drawing upon the strength of ideas presented to him by Colgate staff and students, Grenell discussed his personal mindset.

“I thought about my son and what I hoped would be the response at the school he attends,” Grenell said.

At the same time both expressed anger and disappointment, Grenell and Johnson made their message one of resolve and positive action going forward.

“If we get caught up in what happened or ‘what should the response have been?’ or pointing fingers, that person, those people who wrote those things — we have let them win,” Johnson said. “We [will] not … give them that power.”

In the days ahead, inboxes across campus would fill up with notices of events of solidarity. Student organizations came together like never before in support of a better Colgate than the one represented by shadowy bathroom scribbling. The Black Student Union (BSU) was the first student group to react, partnering with the African, Latin, Asian and Native American (ALANA) Cultural Center to hold an emergency meeting at 5 p.m. last Friday, November 7 and responding not only with events of their own but also with a campus-wide e-mail to inform students of the various events taking place all across campus.

BSU was far from the only group taking action. Director of the Center for Leadership and Student Involvement Greg Victory wants to be clear that the response on Colgate’s campus is coming not just from those perennially dedicated students he referred to admiringly as “the usual faces.”

“The response has been encouraging,” Victory said. “I have had so many students come to me to ask how they can get involved and how they can help … and I’m doing the same thing. How can I help? I want to do more.”

Just a quick look at the campus calendar makes it obvious that echoes of Victory’s statement have been heard loud and clear. At an open Senate meeting held at ALANA at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 11, which was attended by over 100 people, members and visitors alike voiced both concerns and ideas for moving forward.

“I’m not sure everyone on campus knows that we have a problem,” Student Government Association (SGA) and Chair of SGA Student Affairs Committee senior Alana Newhook said.

Among those present, the message was clear that this could not stay the case for long.

“You have such a dedicated group of students who want to get this out,” SGA’s Liason to Student Groups sophomore Benae Beamon said.

First-year Noah Goldberg was one such student who came armed with ideas. His plan for the Unity March was picked up immediately by Newhook’s committee, which congregated after Senate to work out the details. Not three hours later, the event was planned and Facebook-official (Meet at the Village Green this Saturday, November 15, at noon wearing Colgate colors and comfortable shoes).

“Be creative,” SGA President senior David Kusnetz said. “Understand this is a broad issue … [We need to] bring people together from all different parts of campus to tackle this issue and keep the Colgate community focused on it.”

That night at the Saperstein Jewish Center, BSU and the Colgate Jewish Union held a conversation with the American Jewish Committee about historic and contemporary relations between black and Jewish communities.

Earlier that same day, approximately 250 students attended and participated in the Speak-Out on the steps of Colgate Memorial Chapel. The event was organized by BSU and provided an open forum where attendees expressed passionately and candidly their frustration, hope, anger, confusion, disappointment, betrayal, anticipation and, above all, ideas for moving forward.

With the unprecedented support of administrators and students alike, solidarity events have cropped up all over campus, in some cases with organization outpacing the distribution of event calendars. WRCU has disregarded its usual schedule with the announcement of dedicated hours of programming to the topic of racial prejudice, and the Student Lecture Forum executed a similar shift in conversation, asking participants to debate the appropriate role of the University relative to overt acts of racism.

The capstone of the Colgate administration’s public response was a chapel meeting scheduled for noon on Wednesday, November 12. It was titled, simply, “Solidarity,” and space was filled to overflowing with attendees spilling out of the Chapel all the way to the grass of the Academic Quad. Speaking were Dean Johnson, Brothers President senior Michael Walden, Provost, Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Physics Lyle Roelofs, Kusnetz, Dean Grenell and, finally, President of the University and Professor of Religion and Philosophy Rebecca Chopp.

Johnson began by identifying three Campus Safety officers present at the event, charging students to report incidents of hate and intimidation and assuring them that officers were ready, able and, most significantly, they were willing to investigate those reports, something on which students, including senior Jaleith Gary in her comments at the quad Speak-Out, had cast doubt in events past. As a testament to the gravity of this chapter in Colgate’s history, safety unfortunately weighed all too heavy on people’s minds, with Walden giving voice to the incident’s many facets.

“This has everything to do with our safety. This has everything to do with our solidarity,” Walden said.

The beginning of Walden’s speech was marked by front rows of students and faculty standing with him in sync as he took to his feet to address the room. By the end, Walden’s call to action had moved the chapel together, standing upright with heads high and fists raised.

“The essence of education,” Chopp said, “is the removal of prejudice, the eradication of evil and ignorance, the support so that everyone of you, everyone of us, can flourish. There’s no room here for racist acts, intolerance and ignorance. Such acts violate each one of us and all of us together. We denounce it for how it feels, for what it means, for violating our foundations, for violating our purpose.”

After admitting deep disappointment in the Colgate community and in herself, Chopp firmly delivered a final charge.

“Dr. Grenell may be our orchestra director, but the symphony of openness and tolerance will not occur unless each one of us participates,” she said. “Let the whole campus be the classroom for diversity and inclusivity.”