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Promoting civility: Online posts prompt discussion about race and inclusiveness at WCU

coverIt started with a poster. Or, more accurately, with a collection of posters in the window of Western Carolina University’s Department of Intercultural Affairs. February is African-American History Month, and the display aimed to draw attention to the issue of police brutality, especially as it relates to race. 

Some students took offense. In particular, a Facebook post by WCU student and campus EMS Chief Dalton Barrett went the Western North Carolina version of viral, drawing 81 shares and 58 comments.

“As a public service professional which has the biggest love for my brothers and sisters in law enforcement, it pains me to see such lies … My struggle with this organization is that instead of uniting cultures, they often times divide them by catering events/exhibits to only one specific culture,” Barrett wrote.

It seems that the lie to which Barrett referred was inclusion of Trayvon Martin in the police brutality display. The 17-year-old was shot in Florida in 2012 by George Zimmerman, who was a neighborhood watch volunteer but not a police officer. Zimmerman, who argued that he fired the shot in self-defense, was later acquitted of criminal responsibility. 

Barrett’s post made no mention of race, and though he declined an interview for this story he said in an email that he wasn’t trying to get into a discussion about race — the conversation “did go a different way than I had intended,” he wrote.

The post drew a variety of reactions, from “Amen for saying what everybody was thinking” to “White people like you with your mindset are killing young black people.”

Ultimately, the ensuing discussion inspired the students at Intercultural Affairs to “decorate” the sidewalk around the fountain near the A.K. Hinds University Center with statements, written in chalk, aiming to reflect pride in their various cultures and ethnicities with phrases such as “my blackness is beautiful.”

“Some people were just wanting to display proudness within their race,” explained D’Myia Gause, a black student at WCU who’s in her junior year studying Spanish and speech pathology.  

The chalk, which was on full display as WCU’s open house weekend came around on March 12, received a powerful backlash on Yik Yak, a smartphone app that allows users to post anonymous notes that appear on the feeds of other users in the local area. 

Some of the posts espoused blatant racism. 

“If it wasn’t for white people, all the black lives matter people would still be hunting lions with spears. Or drinking from the chocolate rivers in Africa,” said one post. 

“When you act like a bunch of monkeys you get treated like a bunch of monkeys,” said another. 

“Well if blacks can show their pride. I’m showing off my German pride with a nice big Nazi flag,” said a third.

In response to the postings, the Student Social Work Association organized a Black Lives Matter protest on Monday, April 4, drawing about 50 people of various ethnicities ranging in age from 4 to 70. 

 

The day-to-day of racism

For some black students at Western, the situation has been jarring, at best. 

“It’s a great atmosphere here, but ever since the stuff that’s going on Yik Yak, I question myself,” said Cody Pearsall, a junior studying math education. “Why is Western doing this?” 

Pearsall said his experience at WCU has been great thus far, and he hasn’t fielded any derogatory comments due to the color of his skin. But seeing what people were willing to say behind the safety of their keyboards with no names attached has given him pause. How many people who seem nice enough in person are harboring these kinds of racist beliefs in their hearts? 

“People are hiding inside a shell to say stuff, mean stuff, then they don’t say it around you,” he said. 

For senior Cheniqua Arthur, dealing with racism on Western’s campus isn’t anything new. 

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions about everything is that things are just now starting to get bad,” she said. “And they’re not. They’ve been like this since before we got here.” 

Before she even started classes as a freshman, Arthur recalls, an older student who was in the marching band with her bestowed some sage advice: “You just have to keep your head down until you graduate.” 

It didn’t quite work out. One day in April 2014, she said, she was walking from her apartment when a car full of guys drew near, slowing down as it approached her. 

“Hey bud, watch this,” the driver called to his friends, Arthur recalled. Then he yelled “I f***ing hate you” and swerved the car toward her. 

“If I wouldn’t have moved out of the way, the truck probably would have hit me,” she said. She filed a police report, but nothing ever came of it. 

That’s not the only time in the last four years racism has flown in her face. A friend of hers was harassed by a group of guys who threw rocks and used the “n” word. She said she’s had people tell her that they came to Western to “get away from you people.”

She’s still a WCU student, she said, because it’s too late to transfer and she feels like she has “an obligation to the students who are coming after me.” 

 

Micro-aggression and point of view

There’s no denying that Western’s student body is predominately white — 79 percent white, in fact, according to the university’s 2015 student body profile. Of the remainder, 6.4 percent are black, 5.6 percent are Hispanic, 3.7 percent are multi-racial, 3.1 percent are unknown or international, 0.7 percent are American Indian and 0.1 percent are Pacific Islanders. 

Those numbers make self-segregation easy, said junior social work major Joanna Woodson, and maybe that’s part of the problem. 

“I think most of the white students only hang out with the white students, and sometimes when I start a dialogue with someone, the answer is ‘I’ve never seen anything,’” said Woodson, who is white. “You don’t open yourself to seeing anything. There is overt as well as covert racism.”

Some of the Yik Yak posts reflected that. 

“Why do black people think they’re more important than us?” read one. 

“All this is doing is promoting the separation between white and black and creating racism, the only way to stop racism is to stop talking about it,” said another. 

Enrique Gomez, a WCU economics professor who is also chairman of Jackson County’s chapter of the NAACP, disputed that logic. What may come across to some as oversensitivity is in fact often a response to built-up “micro-aggressions,” small interactions that combine to create something insidious, he said. 

“We’re talking about thousands and thousands of tiny interactions that over time add up to a sense that they (minority students) might not be welcome,” Gomez said. 

So, as opposed to the Yik Yak user’s comment that the only way to stop racism is to stop talking about it, Gomez said, the thing to do is to address it head-on — expose its reality to show people how they can help combat it. 

“We are a majority white campus,” he said. “In order to deal with events like that we’re talking about the need for a cultural change, and one of the hallmarks of that cultural change would be bystander behavior. More and more white people would need to identify themselves as allies and be able to challenge the speech.” 

 

The administration’s response

The original Facebook post was written on March 7, with administration becoming aware of the Yik Yak posts March 9 into March 10. Seeing what was happening, Dean of Students Kevin Koett invited students from Intercultural Affairs for dinner alongside some of the students who had posted negative comments on the Facebook thread. The evening went well, Koett said. 

“It was a great conversation,” he said. “It was a very in-depth conversation. It was very impactful.” 

But he couldn’t do the same with the students posting on Yik Yak, because that app is anonymous. 

By March 16, the week before spring break began and a week after the original posts, Chancellor David Belcher had sent out separate emails to staff and students, updating them on what was happening and outlining his stance on the issue. 

He called the Yik Yak posts “racist, hurtful, offensive and frightening” in both emails, and in the letter to students he reminded them of the responsibility that goes along with the right to free speech. 

“When we disagree, we must do so with respect for one another,” he wrote. “While we value our right to freedom of speech at WCU, we also value its responsible use … WCU will investigate any allegations of unlawful harassment.”

But some students are saying the administration’s response has not been strong enough. 

“I think if we could get the university and the administration on our side about it, talk about it instead of a generic cute little email, that will be one of the most important things we can do right now,” Arnold said. 

“If there’s no action behind it,” she added, “it’s useless.” 

Koett says he appreciates the frustration but doesn’t think the assessment is completely fair. There’s a lot more going on than email writing, he said, and the problem is knotty enough it’s not going to have an immediate fix. 

“We can’t just wave the wand and fix some of these social injustices that are part of our society,” he said. “We have been very public and vocal to say that this is not something we’re going to do for the month of April and send you all home and say let’s forget that happened.”

 

Working toward inclusivity

There’s actually a lot going on to promote diversity and inclusivity at WCU, Koett said, and some of that started before this whole situation began.

For instance, this academic year Intercultural Affairs moved to a new, highly visible location on the main floor of the A.K. Hinds University Center. The week that the Yik Yak posts began, close to 400 students participated in a program called Tunnel of Oppression, during which small groups of 20 to 30 were put through an assortment of four different scenarios designed to teach them how to handle everyday situations in which prejudice might come into play. And last year, WCU began the process of hiring a chief diversity officer. On March 30, the university announced it had hired Ricardo Nazario-Colon, who currently serves as director of student activities, inclusion and leadership at Morehead State University in Kentucky. He starts on June 1. 

“Hopefully he’ll be able to help us with some of the student campus culture issues that we’re talking about and dialoguing about now as well as helping us be more effective in recruiting a more diverse faculty and staff,” said Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs. 

The leadership doesn’t plan to wait until June to start moving forward, Koett said. They’re not trying to hide the issue — during open house, Koett said, “We didn’t try to wash it (the chalk messages) away. We didn’t try to hide it.” They’re working with the Academic Affairs office to talk about how to bring the issue into the classroom and get students talking about it early. 

“I think that the institution itself could probably do better in terms of first-year seminars or establishing a more direct conversation with issues of race for incoming freshmen,” said Munene Mwaniki, a sociology professor at WCU whose research focuses on race and racism. 

Universities can be something like melting pots, where students with different beliefs and life experiences and worldviews all of a sudden find themselves inhabiting the same space. While most of Western’s recruitment comes from urban areas like Wake and Mecklenburg counties, it also draws quite a few students from the more rural — and often less racially diverse — reaches of the state.

“It’s quite surprising to hear some of them talk about how diverse the college campus is when this is a rural school. It tends to be less diverse than other universities,” said Mwaniki, who grew up in Jackson County but has only recently returned as an adult. 

Students who haven’t had those personal relationships with people of other ethnicities growing up can be more prone to racism. They can also be less attuned to the challenges that minority students face. 

“Some students are completely oblivious to what’s been going on,” Mwaniki said. “All of a sudden this chalk just shows up and it seems shocking to them. It feels out of nowhere to them.”  

“I think that that’s why protest, why social movements are so important,” he added,  “because sometimes whether it’s a community or the institution, they kind of take for granted or don’t really realize how different groups are experiencing their presence at these places.” 

Koett says that this particular social movement won’t go by the wayside. 

“I think students will see as we move forward that we are absolutely 100 percent committed to this issue,” he said. “We are committed to making a difference.” 

The Intercultural Diversity students said they hope that’s true. But they expressed their optimism cautiously. 

“It feels like walking in an avalanche,” Woodson said. “It’s almost the end of the year, and when we come back next semester everybody’s going to have all of this washed away.”

 

 

Report discrimination

While free speech — even hurtful speech — is protected under the First Amendment, discrimination is not. Western Carolina University encourages students who feel they’ve been illegally discriminated against to report incidents to Kevin Koett, dean of students. 

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Civil discourse and the digital world

When it comes to Yik Yak, Facebook and Western Carolina University’s recent bout with racial tension, racism is one side of the issue. The art of civil debate is another. 

“I think part of the challenge is we’re also dealing with a generation of students who don’t know how to communicate with each other,” said Kevin Koett, dean of students at WCU. “We’ve got a student population who doesn’t have the skillset to have face-to-face conversations where there might be some controversy.” 

They’re “digital natives” Koett said, people able to integrate technology seamlessly into their lives but who sometimes lack the “face-to-face people skills to deal with differences and to discuss issues.” 

The issue began on Facebook, where students could comment through a computer screen but had to put their names to their words. However, the posts that Chancellor David Belcher deemed “racist, hurtful, offensive and frightening” were made on Yik Yak, an app that lets users post anonymously. 

“The essential part from our perspective is to instill civil discourse,” said Enrique Gomez, an economics professor at WCU and chairman of Jackson County’s NAACP chapter. “What this phenomenon shows is students are not being exposed to the idea of responsible dialogue.” 

The First Amendment allows for freedom of speech. But just because it’s legal to say, Belcher wrote in his email to students, doesn’t mean it’s good or helpful or right. 

“Free speech is an important value of our community,” Belcher wrote. “While freedom of speech may, in some cases, protect words that are offensive or even hurtful, such language can be at odds with our community values of civility and respect.”

“We are in the process of just thinking about what we can do to shift campus culture,” Gomez said. 

A lot of it will begin with reaching incoming students early and getting them to interact with their classmates from different backgrounds, said Munene Mwaniki, a sociology professor at WCU whose research focuses on race and racism. 

“We aren’t, through our elementary and high school education, taught very well about how race operates in society, so a lot of people don’t really understand how race operates or how they’re privileged due to race,” he said. “I think the earlier that you can begin breaking these things down before these students begin self-segregating into these different clubs and organizations … it will hopefully help at least a little bit.”

The university has recently sponsored multiple opportunities for students to have these sorts of face-to-face experiences, including a scenario-based program on March 10 and a series of six discussion groups between April 5 and April 12 — two with faculty and staff and four with students. In all, more than 100 people attended the meetings.

“This is a caring community,” Belcher wrote in an email to faculty and staff, “and it is heartening that we are collectively working to have a higher level of discourse.”

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