We Are Not Monkeys

Rhea Calhoun, IUP

Tuesday, December 10, 2015, a post was made on a social media platform called Snapchat, containing a photo of a group of African American students. The photo was captioned “Monkeys stay in groups”, and it was uploaded by a white female student who also attends Indiana University of Pennsylvania. This post sparked an immediate and intense response from the student population at IUP. The following day, in response to student protests, a Virtual Penn Summit was held to help higher education administrators, faculty, and students better understand how to respond more effectively to racism on their campuses. They called the topic “Race-Conscious Institutional Leadership,” and the module focused on how to “reflect on one’s own racial identity and prior racial socialization, understand what race-conscious institutional leadership entails, and how to hold each other more accountable for actualizing institutional missions and fostering inclusive campus environments.”

Towards the end of the summit, ideas were exchanged between students of color about what they would like to see happen on campus to address racial tensions and help to foster better racial relationships, at the student and the administrative level. These exchanges included creating a student group called IUP STARS (Students Against Racism) who would actively prevent, address, and combat racism on campus, having a required African American history class, and having a required “minority orientation” where minorities can meet each other and also minority and majority students will be (essentially) forced to interact. Members of black organizations and fraternities/sororities also mentioned the importance of black orgs reaching out to white students. “Black orgs and the programs they host are not only for black students,” one young woman said. “As organizations with a lot of power on campus, black Greek and white Greek should be setting the example and be actively working together, and as groups such as the NAACP and whatnot should also be actively recruiting white members.”

Her point is well made.

Why? Well one thing I noticed was, for a summit designed to begin conversation about improving racial relations, that besides the three white students who had the courage to attend and speak out against racism, the only students in attendance were African Americans. Which made me pose the question: Why don’t white students feel they need to be attending race-based programs? Why does this idea about white not being a race exist at such a level that, even when a white person is the one responsible for racist turmoil, that no feelings of obligation from other whites to improve race relations exist? I’ve attended countless movie nights, game nights, meetings, programs, and panels aimed to educate students about different cultures and bring students of different cultures together to mix and mingle, and the only people there are Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, or in most instances, only black. Typically, race relations between minorities aren’t really the problem as they are between minorities and whites. Since white students don’t seem to want to attend, black orgs are going to have to start taking the initiative to get these students involved.

Dr. Michael Driscoll, the president of IUP, was not in attendance at this summit because he was actually in a meeting with the leaders of multiple student organizations, trying to find solutions to the same problems the students at the summit were. At the conclusion of the summit, students stood together and marched to the meeting where Dr. Driscoll and the student leaders were. Dr. Driscoll spent time with the perturbed students, addressing our concerns individually. I noticed once we got the chance to speak to Dr. Driscoll about our concerns at the University that the Snapchat incident itself became scarcely mentioned. One student asserted that explicit policies be put in place to reprimand racism, hate speech, and hate crimes on and off campus. Another student declared multicultural training procedures for campus police, for he and many other black students have felt specifically targeted by campus police. The segregation of black and white students in regards to housing and by field of study is another issue that has been of big concern to black students.  I wanted answers about the lack of professionals of color as professors and staff, leaving minority students to have no representation in those responsible for their education, and also leaving white student unfamiliar with seeing people of color in positions of authority. Lastly, the mandatory diversity/multicultural credit to graduate was proposed by many different students, raising the argument of: why we are required to take US History and other classes that provide no representation of the black community in its content if white students are not required to do the same?

To me, this speaks to what black students are really experiencing on IUP’s campus. The summit was not just about some prejudice girl who decided to post a racist Snapchat; that was just a small domino leading up to the real domino effect. It is about the entire black experience at a predominantly white university, and how we are being segregated, marginalized, discriminated against, and just generally treated and unrepresented in our day-to-day experiences. Black students are paying the same amount of money as everybody else to attend college and obtain a degree, and our college experience deserves to be just as positive as everybody else’s.

After the entire event, I spoke with different students on their thoughts about the outcome of the summit and the talk with Dr. Driscoll. There were a few noted things that bothered many students, as well as me, immensely:

1.     The girl who posted the Snapchat was removed from campus, and not because of her less then desirable behavior. The University was “concerned about her safety.” Excuse me? You have a student who just publicly posted a hateful, racist comment about black students on social media and you’re worried about her safety? What about the safety of the black community at IUP? Besides, what did you think we were going to do, mob together, storm her dorm room and beat her up? The University’s assumption of violent, black mob mentality is insulting, and shows that administration may not really believe in racial equality as it would like to seem.

2.     Dr. Driscoll’s answers to our questions were vague, and fed around the bush. We wanted answers, talk about real policies, and real solutions. Many students left the meeting with the President feeling ridiculed and unsatisfied. “You would think,” I heard one young man say, “after everything happening at Mizzou and Kean U and all these other colleges that they should have been starting to put policies in place.” Well, my friend, apparently racism on campus doesn’t exist until it actually happens, in the eyes of educational policy.

3.     Lastly, after the meeting had subsided, comments from white students in adjacent areas could be heard. “Oh my god, what’s happening? All I wanted was to get some food from the pod. I don’t know why they all have to be standing here,” and “Is something about to happen? I didn’t even think anything was going on…” As innocent as those comments may sound in isolated conversation, in this instance they revealed an underlying tone of fear and exposed their stereotypes about how any congregation of black people must be a mob of some kind, obviously planning some trouble.  Why isn’t it possible that we could all just be standing and hanging out, just like your white counterparts? And it would also surely benefit you to know what’s happening on campus… white students need to be aware of racist incidences just as much as black or minority students do.

To many, this “Snapchat incident” was just that, a Snapchat. But how much further can we let public expressions of racist speech go unreprimanded? Our campus should never become a campus where students can feel comfortable posting racist remarks. Once individuals feel they can say whatever they want (or in this day in age, post whatever they want), they will start to feel they can do whatever they want. With IUP’s limited amount of blatant race-related incidences, this is the time to be proactive. We can come together as a community to educate each other about different cultures, admit and address individual and societal prejudice, prevent racist acts and hate speech, and begin to improve and promote interactions and friendships among those from different backgrounds. All-in-all, I think the university and the students did an excellent job standing up to make change immediately instead of swiping this incident under the rug, and now with race relations on the radar, we can begin to build a better society from our college campus outward.