The Ongoing Campus Dialogue on Racial Tension

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Where people respect the tradition of tolerance that is the heritage of this place. That’s a line from the St. Mary’s Way, one of those creeds your RA probably asks if you’re familiar with while administering the beginning of the year survey to each student. I’m afraid I have to admit that in my four years here, I don’t think I’ve ever once looked at those ideas that are meant to represent us, and thought about whether I live up to them or not. I’ve now looked at them for the first time because of President Tuajuanda Jordan. “It might sound really crazy to some people, or stupid, but I really believe in [The St. Mary’s Way]. And I really feel that people who come here should either really believe in it or respect it. And that establishes how we should behave towards one another.”

The reason the St. Mary’s Way has come up in my conversation with Dr. Jordan is because she is telling me that she feels the St. Mary’s Way has not been lived up to in recent months. And the reason for this stems from a rash of tensions that emerged in the wake of a demonstration over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
I knew very little about what was going on at the time of the event. I didn’t have a Yik Yak, I wasn’t on Facebook very much at this time. All I knew was that people were angry, people were talking about it in the privacy of their homes everywhere you went, and then suddenly it was all gone. Everyone went home for Christmas and in the comfort of families and the holidays and the passage of time, the problem seemed to go away. But as I returned and undertook this article, it soon became apparent that we were far from a resolution. This article is an attempt to report the tensions of last semester from as many accounts as possible, and to understand what went wrong.
Where people take individual responsibility for their work and actions. Students returned from Thanksgiving break in the wake of the grand juries’ decisions not to indict policemen for the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, both of whom were young African American men who had been unarmed. Eight days before students returned, twelve-year old Tamir Rice had been shot by police responding to a call that the boy had been armed. It later turned out he had been playing with an airsoft gun. The incidents were receiving national attention as the problems of use of excessive force and racial profiling within the police force came to the forefront, and students on campus were paying attention.
On December 3rd, a candlelight vigil was held in memory of Michael Brown, organized by the Black Student Union. During this time people were encouraged to share thoughts, music and poetry to express themselves. One student told the story of the first time he encountered the rope swing in North Woods. The rope swing, which at the time had been a frayed piece of hemp rope hanging from a tree and looped at the end for a foot to fit through, had strongly resembled a noose to the student, and he felt there was a disturbing association between this image and the history of racially motivated murders of African Americans by lynching. A decision was made between an unknown group of students after the vigil to remove the rope swing to prevent further discomfort for African American students who also made similar associations.
On December 5th, the BSU organized March for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and peaceful demonstration of discontent with the decisions in both rulings and the general problems with the way police approach and use force on African Americans, with a turnout of about forty people. When the protest reached the shoulder of Route 5, they received several jeers from passersby in their cars. When the protest came to the campus center, the demonstrators remained outside. It was at this time that a small number of passing students began making harassing comments towards the demonstration. “We were not going to go inside the Great Room” says Fatima Dainkeh, senior and Vice President of the Black Student Union. “When we were outside quietly chanting…with signs of injustice…a lot of people were rolling their eyes, putting their head down as if people weren’t even standing there. But even more, there was a young gentleman who was walking…and he turned around stuck his middle finger up to the people that we were marching with. And so that was what made people go inside the Great Room. the workers that were working there gave us their permission and said ‘Come on in.”
While sitting at a table, some of the demonstrators were angered by what they perceived to be other students in the Great Room seeing them as a disruption. A chant was briefly heard from some protestors, while some stood on the Great Room tables. The BSU leadership stopped the chant, believing it was counterproductive to what they were trying to accomplish. The protest concluded at Daugherty-Palmer Commons, where a Board of Trustees dinner was being held. Demonstrators were invited inside and giving the opportunity to present letters they had written to their representatives in support of the End Racial Profiling Act to Congressman and Trustee Steny Hoyer.
By the next day, news of the rope swing’s removal elicited commentary from members of the student body, some positive and some negative, and a number of opinions on the subject were posted to social media. According to some who read these discourses, many of the conversations being held online were charged and occasionally accusatory. However, the dialogue turned explicitly threatening and racially insensitive on the social media app Yik Yak, where users can post anonymously. One message, reading “We should hang all those people who cut it down in that same tree. That’s the only way it comes full circle”, was screencapped and posted on Facebook, becoming the most prominent example of explicit, racially charged harassment in the incident. The Yak generated concerns about the safety of black students on campus, and prompted an All Student email from Dean of Students Leonard Brown entitled, “Conversations about the rope swing”. Dean Brown addressed the threatening comment, while also discussing the more general and non-racially motivated discontent at the swing’s removal. ‘We must understand the context’ said Brown in the email, ‘and more importantly, we must believe students when they say it is terrifying to have a noose hanging in the woods next to campus. If we can accept that for some of us, it creates a fearful environment, then as a community we can address it together and even figure out how to evolve our traditions in a manner that acknowledges the experience and context for each member of our community.’ On December 11th, President of the college Dr. Tuajuanda Jordan sent out an All Student email expressing her discontent with the way students had treated each other. “Every member of this community has the right to have her/his voice heard without fear of bodily harm or emotional distress.” Said Jordan in the email. “Likewise, every member has the right to choose not to speak for or against any perceived indignity or inhumanity. Regardless of your position, you must remain respectful of other persons and property.”
Three days before Dr. Jordan’s email, the DeSousa Brent program decided to respond to the racial tensions with a talk entitled ‘DB: Race Matters’, led by professor of history Gary Dennie. The talk converted to an open forum where students were invited to share their thoughts and concerns in a safe, open environment, and went on well into the night. Two days later, ‘Black Lives Matter’ could be seen chalked onto the walls of several buildings around campus. After Dr. Jordan’s email, which received positive response, the conversations about race seemed to quiet as students withdrew in preparation for finals. When students left for holidays, the dialogue abruptly ended, leaving the incidents that had been so impactful for students for a two week period with no clear outcome or decided solution. The talk had gone poorly, and then suddenly gone silent.

Where people contribute to a spirit of caring. Talk had been such a big part of what had happened last semester, and it was the only way to understand what people’s individual feelings had been now were. 10 people in total were interviewed for this story, several more spoke to me off the record, and still more had been reached out to and declined. To hear from the student body, I started with the SGA. It made sense to me to interview students who represented every part of the campus, students who were aware of the facts related to the issue and in touch with the thoughts and concerns of their peers. I sent emails to 27 people and received a handful of replies.
Senior and Student Trustee Taylor Schaefer recalls being aware that the demonstration would happen and feeling positively about it. She started to see the problems arise about the time people were started to take to social media. “I kind of became aware there was a problem when people started talking about Yik Yak a lot,” says Schaefer “and these really hurtful, and just mean-spirited comments posted on Yik Yak. And that’s just where the discourse took a wrong turn.” As the a member of student government and a driver for Safe Ride, Schaefer occasionally hears things that she feels don’t reflect the way people should behave toward each other on campus. “Just little comments that are not on part on what I would expect students to say,” she says in describing her encounters with such remarks. “you know, you expect students to be…so yeah, I do see it.” she remarks later in our interview that this is not representative of most of her interactions with St. Mary’s students, but that the Yik Yak posts are “the worst stuff I’ve ever seen or heard on this campus.”.

For first-year and SGA Senator for Calvert Cody Dorsey, the realization of a divide came even earlier. “It came right after the grand jury found the police officer not guilty in the Mike Brown case. I don’t have Yik Yak, but I did pay attention through social media to what was going on with Yik Yak.” Dorsey’s continues, explaining that he’s perceived the tension mounting for much longer than the incidents with the demonstration and the rope swing. “There’s always been tension on campus. Many people don’t have the opportunity to interact with different people of different cultures and colors before they come to college.” He’s not the only one to tell me something similar. Senior and Treasurer of the BSU Jewel Williams said she feels like she encounters unintentional bias “more inside the classroom, even from professors. “Because we’re so hyper-sensitive to these things”, says Williams, “we’re constantly thinking about these things.” Williams goes onto to give me an example of a time a seemingly innocent comment made by a professor made her feel marginalized. “The comment he made wasn’t just ignorant to something like my race but also my socio-economic background. So a lot of times I see it in the student body as well, but I think a problem is when we have professors sort of initiating these things and not being aware of what’s even going on, and he wasn’t even thinking ‘Oh, I’m isolating her because she’s the only black kid in the class.’. he didn’t think these things through, you know?”

In spite of the problems that exist on campus and within faculty and administration when addressing race, many in the faculty and administration are working hard to improve the way race is talked about on campus. The DeSousa Brent’s program “Race Matters” has been extremely positively received, including Professor Dennie’s role in it. “It was really great.” says Cody Dorsey. “They had SGA members, the student trustee there, it was really an open conversation. And it was really great to hear from the faculty how things have changed over the years, with regards to race here.” “I think that for the most part it was a good conversation because people were able to honestly say what they had on their minds.” said Fatima Dainkeh, who also facilitated the talks. “Those small steps that the discussion made,” says Schaefer, “…that was an extremely positive experience, a very positive atmosphere, a very safe space where people of all backgrounds, races, came together to feel like people did care.”

Leonard Brown, Dean of Students, is also looking to the future with plans to improve the dialogue. When I sat down with him, I asked him about the email he sent out after the rope swing. “I think when those things happen it’s my obligation as the Dean of Students really to give some perspective…the goal of it was just to give some perspective.” As he said in his email, Brown loves diversity, but he recognizes that diversity is something people have to work hard for. “I think people do want to have the dialogue, the challenge is just figuring and understanding what a real dialogue looks like. How do you sit and talk with a person’s who’s different from you in a way where you’re learning what their perspective is.” The Dean of Students and the college have plans for this semester to create forums for change as well, which Taylor Schaefer confirms with her interview. “In discussions with Dr. Jordan and by her direction, there’s going to be some immediate things that happen. The MLK breakfast was one, Friday is Selma ’65 the play, during this semester there are going to be different opportunities for people to gather and to talk”.

While the hope of change starts slowly coming, Taylor Schaefer and Cody Dorsey seem optimistic. “Even if we have lost sight a little bit of the St. Mary’s Way,” says Schaefer, “or have lost sight of who we are with the high tensions of the race talks last semester and sexual assault, for the most part I think we’re still St. Mary’s. “When it comes to race,” says Dorsey, “and this is just my opinion, I really think something…like the DB forum, should occur every year…we should be addressing it every day and every year, and we shouldn’t lose our energy when these type of cases die down.”

Where people foster relationships based on mutual respect. “I feel like sometimes everyone gets so riled up about anything that makes them the least bit uncomfortable.” says Senior Neneh Sillah. “But we’re uncomfortable every day.” When I emailed Fatima Dainkeh to let her know I would be at that evening’s Black Student Union meeting, she invited me to come to Glendening Annex and meet with some of the club members and exec board. Every question I asked yielded detailed and surprising answers from the women there that evening. My interview with them was 21 minutes, and yet what I got from it was so valuable that I ended up transcribing the entire thing from my taping of it. It’s one of those conversations that I get on occassion that makes me want to print the whole thing. But with my space limited, the greatest takeaway from my conversation that I wanted to share is that discomfort is not just a rope swing or unkind remarks, but is something that is always present in our peers’ lives.

Many people I have encountered both in my day-to-day and in the course of this story tell me that they feel uncomfortable talking about race because they feel unqualified to talk about it. But not thinking about race is not a luxury that minority students have. “There’s not a day I can wake up and decide ‘today I choose not to be black.” says Jewel Williams. “Today I choose not to be the only one in my class that’s not white’. Everything is in my face, thinking about my color.” The worst kind of confrontation with this is of course in the form of the kind of explicit material posted on Yik Yak during the events. Fatima Dainkeh feels the Yik Yak quotes and things like it become minimalized. “I think the issue is that even though people may say it’s a small amount of people, I actually don’t think it’s a small amount of people. When people post that kind of thing, there will be like 59 likes. just because you’re not saying it doesn’t mean you don’t feel it.” “It really opened my eyes to the campus.” says Sillah. “Just having that be anonymous on Yik Yak, that really made me feel…suspicious of people around me. I don’t know who’s saying this stuff about me, I don’t know who wants me to go back to Africa, I don’t know who wants to hang me from the rope swing because someone cut it down.”

While organizing the protest and the vigil for Michael Brown, President of the BSU Demara Austin got an email suggesting Michael Brown should be excluded because he was a criminal. “That was the main person we put [in the ads for the vigil]” says Dainkeh,”but it was for anyone who was going through police brutality. It was in solidarity with everyone. Before we even got started, people were already not down with it.” Dainkeh and other members find it frustrating to encounter this from students and still have so my others sit on the sideline. According to the BSU about 40 people showed up for the March, and 80 people for the post-March discussion.”I think the support as been good, but we get the same students showing up to these events.” says Sillah. “There’s a whole population of students that are just missing. You try to tell a friend to tell a friend and bring your friends, but people feel too uncomfortable. That makes me feel a little pessimistic. I know eighty people showed up, but how many students are there on this campus, two or three thousand?” What support they do get is very valued, Sillah adds. “I am very, very grateful for the support we do get because it shows a sign of people just being willing to acknowledge these issues, so that’s a big step.”. “That’s a part of the problem.” agrees Williams “How do you get those students who never show up to show up?”

With regards to the demonstration itself, it seems like those I talked to felt like people within the college failed to fully understand what their experience was like in the wake of the national discourse on police brutality against African Americans. “Outside of all of this last semester,” says Williams, “it was still really hard for us to grasp everything that was going on [nationally]. It had a really big emotional impact, which I personally think wasn’t addressed well besides President Jordan sending out her email.” “I think what surprised me the most was that people were making it seems like this was an isolated event. People at Columbia cancelled exams for this! Law students exams were cancelled.” says Dainkeh. “So I was surprised to see how people were reacting as if we were making a big deal out of it. Meanwhile, exams were being cancelled, schools were being shut down, people were running out high schools and we were doing our own thing on a normal Friday evening. I thought that was very selfish because, like Neneh was saying, this is what we live through everyday. So for you to tell me ‘it’s finals’, how am I supposed to concentrate on my finals when apparently I’m not even allowed to express myself.”

When our talk finishes, I stay for the BSU meeting. After a presentation from Res Life on recruiting new RAs, President Demara Austin has arranged several ice breakers. We run around Glendening Annex looking for back of Skittles, trying to get the most of one color. We play another game where one person is ‘the murderer’ and kills people in the room by winking at them while ‘the detective tries to figure our who the murderer is. My favorite game is one where everyone get on their knees and Demara holds up a sheet. The object of the game is to divide into two teams and for a member of each team to crawl up to the sheet. When the sheet drops, you have to be the first to yell the name of the person on the other side. It’s incredibly funny to watch people shriek in fall back in earnest to be the first. The BSU was a truly enjoyable experience for me, one that was not only fun but welcoming.

Looking to the future, members of the BSU have thoughts on how the dialogue could be improved in a permanent way. “There could be a lot of improvement within the administration and faculty as well, in terms of workshops and how to navigate and even bring up racism in class.” says Williams. “If you’re going to bring it up anywhere why not a classroom?”she adds that she thinks it would be positively impactful to have some kind of mandatory training for how to discuss and handle race. “We can make a talk about how we communicate with each other…I think how we have first year seminars and that’s mandatory, we should have classes on understanding differences. When we make it optional, the same people participate every time.”

Where people are committed to examining and shaping the functional, ethical values of our changing world. “I’ve been on college campuses where there have been some things that I find offensive, and watching the president’s not respond has always been a mistake. I believe that when there are problems from that level, leadership starts from the top. And the president helps to set the tone for the college, and how things will be handled. And I cannot sit silently by and let things like that happen on this campus without letting people know how I feel.” I have never met President Tuajuanda Jordan before, but it’s very apparent to me why the people who have possess a great deal of respect for her. She is not only thoughtful, but her words are impactful. I remember the first time the tensions really caught my attention were after reading her All Student email. She ended the message by saying, “Let us watch out for and take care of each other. If we cannot do these things within this small community that prides itself on the unifying ethos known as the St. Mary’s Way, the world is much worse off than I ever imagined and St. Mary’s College of Maryland is just another small school filled with average, self-centered people doing unspectacular things. We can and must do better.”

“I could tell how people felt about my email by how they responded to me walking across campus.” says Dr. Jordan of the aftermath of her email. “I would say all the students of color that I encountered that day came up to me and said ‘Thank you’, and there were other students who nodded and smiled. And I would say those were the majority of the students I encountered that day. but there were other students that looked away.” I ask Dr. Jordan for her thoughts on the fact that many people I’ve talked to felt uncomfortable talking about race. “I think those kinds of responses are not uncommon.” she tells me. “And that discomfort is what has led to the country still being in this very negative space…I don’t really know of any college campus or any institution that has effectively dealt with this. But we have to get to the point where this college is a safe space to talk about this. People will always judge other people, that’s human nature. But you have to do it civilly and respectfully.” Wit regards to the rope swing, she has this to say. “I’m not a believer in tradition if it’s hurtful for a group of people, I think that’s wrong. Cutting the swing down was important, but it should have been removed and replaced with something else. So the fact that a replacement didn’t happen right away is a problem. The fact the original swing was removed, I don’t have a problem with that.”

Dr. Jordan tells me they will be attempting to start a dialogue in a variety of different groups “Some of those conversations need to be in segregated groups. And I know for a fact that when we have those conversations and we have segregated groups there are going to be people who are going to speak out because of the segregation and not everybody being included, but people need to feel safe.”

I ask Dr. Jordan if she thinks things have changed since the incident. “No, I don’t think so.” she tells me. “People sort of went underground because it was finals time and then people were leaving. There’s not been an opportunity yet to see how we’re going to respond to that. She tells me it might take a very long time for things to change, and that they have a greater hope of reaching students who are incoming.

And with regards to Dr. Jordan’s feelings about St. Mary’s after these incidents? “I just feel let down. And disappointed. Some students are just so adament about their beliefs that they feel like they can do whatever they want without respecting what it does to other groups of people. that is disappointing…I think what it did was put St. Mary’s College back into reality. Because, you know, you go to a place and you have all these great feelings about what it is and what it’s potential is for more greatness. But what that did was make me realize that in the end we’re all human, and we’re still in America, and things are what they are”.

Where people are engaged in an ongoing dialogue Dialogue is the word that has recurred through all my interviews and research, and therein is where I think our biggest problem lies. This article began with the belief that the problem was a matter of people being right or wrong. I now believe the biggest problem we have with the way we address race on this campus, and so many other problems on this campus is talking without listening, without putting ourselves in the place of others. This will not be the last time something divisive comes to our campus, and it will not be the end of this dialogue on the way we treat our peers. Going forward, the best we can do as individuals is to open ourselves to listen to experience life outside of our comfort zone, and when we have nothing good to say to keep it to ourselves. Dr. Jordan believes in the St. Mary’s Way. It’s not long, and the promises in it are based on nothing more complex than compassion. If we can’t live by something so simple, how can we put it forth as our creed?

In the spirit of listening, I invite anyone to give their feedback, thoughts and concerns on this article. You can email me at newseditor@thepointnews.com.

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