Political and racial discussions continue at WCU
Sidewalk chalk was all anyone was talking about as campus woke up Thursday morning (April 21) at Western Carolina University. The chalk was everywhere, its biggest explosion around the fountain behind the A.K. Hinds University Center, colorful dust spelling out phrases running the gamut from “Build that wall” and “concealed carry saves” to “Hillary for prison,” and “blue lives matter.”
Students walked slowly through the plaza, reading the messages and clustering in groups to discuss them.
“Colleges are usually mostly liberal, and Western Carolina is definitely one of them,” said political science junior Kimmy Hammond, who organized the chalking. “A lot of conservative people on campus feel like they have to hide their beliefs ... conservative people have voices too.”
Expressing that voice was the purpose behind the chalking, said Hammond, who is vice president of the WCU College Republicans and president of the Network of Enlightened Women. Given all the political discussion that’s been going around campus lately, conservative students wanted to get their message across, too.
So, around 9 p.m. on Wednesday, April 20, about 50 students met at the fountain, armed with chalk, and spread around writing messages on the sidewalks. Some people did notice what was happening and called the police, who came by to take a look but told the chalk-wielding students that they weren’t breaking any rules, Hammond said. Chalking is allowed on campus as long as it’s in places where the rain can wash it away. Everything had wrapped up by midnight.
Responses and reactions
The chalking was a response to a series of chalkings earlier this spring promoting the Black Lives Matter movement. Following a March Facebook post that questioned a display about police brutality in the window of the school’s Department of Intercultural Affairs, some students had taken to the anonymous app Yik Yak to post blatantly racist comments related to the discussion. That’s what prompted some student groups to band together to organize pro-diversity chalkings and even a protest.
“They’ve done their chalking, so we decided we wanted to do ours and see how the campus reacted, and they reacted exactly how we thought they would,” Hammond said. “We’ve had a lot of backlash at the fountain that we’re racists or that it’s offensive and people felt threatened because we were just voicing our opinion. It’s sad.”
Kevin Koett, dean of student affairs at WCU, affirmed that he did hear from several students who were upset by some of the messaging, particularly the line about building a wall, presumably along the country’s border with Mexico.
“That seemed to cause students quite a bit of concern,” he said.
Travis Lunsford, a senior music major, was one of those who took issue with the message as he passed by.
“It’s really embarrassing. If I were a Mexican-American, I would not feel comfortable here,” he said, referring to the “build the wall” message, and observing with surprise that “somebody actually ‘hearts’ Trump.”
“I thought we were smarter than that here,” he said. “It makes me lose faith in my fellow students.”
Anthony Davis, a junior majoring in psychology and sociology, said the display was “ignorant, honestly,” and that messages like “abortion is murder” and “real women are conservative” made him uncomfortable.
“We’re trying to make Western more diverse, but it’s hard when you say stuff like that,” said Davis, who is black.
“At this point they’re not trying to promote a viewpoint,” said Bradford Johnson, a senior African-American student majoring in criminal justice. “They’re just trying to react to things they don’t like.”
Ben Snedegar, president of the WCU College Republicans, disagrees with those statements. He feels that the conservative viewpoint is a legitimate one, and that it’s not racist. Take “Build the wall,” for instance.
“We have a system of immigration in this country. Should it maybe not be so difficult for people from South America and Latin America to come to the United States?” he said. “I could get behind that. But we have laws and we have rules. We need to follow them.”
That was the point of that particular message, he said. The point wasn’t to target Mexicans or any other nationality.
Contrary to what Johnson said, promoting the viewpoint was indeed the goal, Hammond said.
“We just wanted to have a good discussion,” she said.
Debating the method
But if that’s the case, asked senior music major Marc Lewis, why come out after dark to chalk the messages, not even leaving any names attached to them?
Lewis, who says he doesn’t identify as Republican or Democrat, bought some chalk of his own that morning to write responses to the slogans written by the conservative students. The goal of his messages, he said, was to “raise the level of political discourse besides slogans.” For example, under “taxation is theft” he wrote, “Then how will you fund our road work? Schools? Trade?” Beside “Hillary for prison” he commented, “Actually maybe if there is evidence to convict. Nobody should be above the law.”
“I came out here in the middle of the day because I wanted people to see it was me saying what I was saying,” Lewis said.
Hammond has an answer for that criticism. She scheduled the chalking for nighttime, she said, because she figured that way the students would be able to finish writing out their messages before people began coming behind to stop them or scrawl over them. The display was clearly marked as coming from the WCU College Republicans, and she made it a point to hang around the fountain area wearing a Trump shirt for hours on Thursday, identifying herself as the organizer and encouraging anyone who had questions about the opinions expressed to ask them. When contacted by The Smoky Mountains News, she responded to a request for interview almost immediately.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Who did this?’ and they were upset people were hiding behind the chalk, so I sat beside the fountain and said that I led it and if anyone has questions about my beliefs, they’re welcome to ask it,” Hammond said.
Hammond found plenty of takers on that offer. One of them was Tyler Jones, a sophomore majoring in English and film. He approached the fountain area with a few other more liberal students to talk with the conservative students. The students split up into smaller groups to talk it out, he said. Most of the conversations were civil and constructive, though some did resort to yelling. For example, one criminal justice major could be heard yelling “this is why this is white privilege,” Jones said.
“We had also a girl who was going around pouring water around all of our chalk,” Hammond said. “She was screaming.”
But for the most part, Jones said, it was a positive experience.
“The big dividing point is the social part,” he said. “We actually did agree on a lot of things.”
It should be more like this, more of the time, Jones said, rather than “having hate speech from both sides, because there has been hate speech on both sides.” Trump supporters get called “hateful” and “racist,” he said, while Bernie supporters get called “ignorant hippies.”
Hammond said she came away with a similar feeling. It felt good to be able to talk about contentious issues, face-to-face, with people who disagree.
“People were actually living for something today, whether it was for us or against us or whatever,” she said. “The best thing to do is speak your mind.”
Koett said outcomes like that were encouraging.
“I was pleased to see these conversations of let’s take our attention away from the chalking and talk to each other,” he said.
The university’s administration has been trying to get that to happen for a while. With a world of digital tools available to say whatever you want to say, often anonymously, getting today’s students to have a responsible, face-to-face conversation is difficult, Koett said.
Take the original Yik Yak comments related to Black Lives Matter, for example. Some of them were downright nasty, with posts such as “If it wasn’t for white people, all the black lives matter people would still be hunting lions with spears.”
In response, some black students at Western began to tell their own stories about encounters with racism, such as senior Cheniqua Arthur’s tale of a car full of guys purposefully swerving at her as she walked along the road to her apartment. Others said the posts had caused them to second-guess their otherwise positive experience at Western.
“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, when interviewed about Black Lives Matter earlier this month. “Why is Western doing this?”
While the conservative chalking did allude to Black Lives Matter through messages such as “White lives matter, too” and “Blue lives matter,” both Hammond and Snedegar said they’re not disputing the experience of Western’s minority students, per say. Hammond said she’s skeptical of the larger Black Lives Matter movement because “When a movement gets so big you don’t know what you really believe in… every one of you has a different story.”
Snedegar allowed that, “Because I’m Caucasian it’s different for me. I don’t see things that maybe an African-American student would see. I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist. But the time I’ve been here I’ve not seen a single student treated unfairly because of race.”
Snedegar said he doesn’t actually see Black Lives Matter as being conservative or liberal at all — “We all want everyone to be treated equally,” he said — but that political messages had been intertwined with race-related messages along the way.
“People will put things out like “Bernie 2016” or “Feel the Bern,” Snedegar said. “We just wanted to say we’re here too.”
The conservative students aren’t the only ones who feel like they’re having trouble being heard.
“Liberal people, you always get a harsher title when you try to stand up for yourself,” said Karma Mason, a senior studying sociology and psychology.
“All these people who came to the (Facebook) group and show interest are afraid to come out because of the negative backlash they’ll receive,” said Fiona Buchanan, a freshman involved with Intercultural Affairs, of getting students involved in diversity conversations. “I don’t understand it, but I think it’s just that fear of speaking out is what kind of looms.”
But when it comes to the conservative chalk messages, Lewis said, “I know why they did it. They didn’t feel like they had a voice in this liberal college area.”
“We just wanted to speak our mind and show people we have a voice,” Snedegar said.
Since the Black Lives Matter conversation erupted on campus, WCU has been trying to teach students how to use their voices constructively, holding a slate of seven listening sessions designed to get students of diverse beliefs and backgrounds talking. Further sessions are now being planned for the summer and fall, with dates soon available through the Department of Intercultural Affairs.
“What I’m excited to see is they’re now taking those (ideas about civil discourse) into those conversations with their friends, with their peers, which is exactly what we want to happen,” Koett said. “We want these listening sessions that we’re scheduling to transfer into conversations with your roommate, conversations with your classmates.”
And, on the flip side, not onto sites like Yik Yak.
“Whether it’s related to the racial issues that are going on or whether it’s related to who’s trying to hook up with who, there’s always something that’s controversial (on Yik Yak) that’s going to cause people concern,” Koett said.
“You’re going to see the nastiest things on the world on Yik Yak, and you can’t get offended by it because you can’t do anything about it,” Hammond agreed.
If students want to do something concrete to keep the conversations positive, Koett said, the best thing they can do is to help take away the power that anonymous sites like Yik Yak wield.
“What I share with students on a regular basis is the only reason Yik Yak has the impact that it has is because it has an audience,” he said. “If people simply took the application off their phone, its power would go away.”