by Rebecca Rivas
Special to the NNPA from the St. Louis American
Aggressive supporters of the Washington University fraternity pledges involved in the racial incident last week bombarded social media after the Association of Black Students released a statement requesting that the administration take “unequivocal action in resolving this issue of ignorance and racism.”
“It is our expectation that the administration will suspend both the primary students directly involved in the incident and those that specifically gave the directive for the task of concern,” ABS leaders stated.
On Feb. 26, some Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity pledges offended a group of African-American students eating dinner in the dining hall when one of the pledges read rap lyrics with the N-word in front of them, as part of a scavenger hunt.
The racial incident made national news, and the fraternity’s national leaders ordered a “cease and desist” of all the chapter’s activities until it completes an investigation of the incident. On Feb. 27, Vice Chancellor for Students Sharon Stahl emailed the Washington community saying, “It is unacceptable when any member of our community is a victim of discrimination, ignorance or hatred.”
The story first broke in the campus’ Student Life newspaper, where the online story has received hundreds of anonymous comments dismissing the racial incident.
“It was the pledges who were unfairly maligned here,” one commenter stated. “Let the lawsuits begin.”
Some stated they were donors who would pull their funding if the pledges were punished. One Wash. U. freshman wrote a letter to the editor stating that the comments on student newspaper’s site and Facebook will deter prospective students.
“If I were a prospective student and I read some of the comments on that article, I would never even consider attending Washington University, and many of my friends feel the same way,” stated freshman Schuyler Atkins.
African-American students make up six percent of undergraduates, according to the university’s website. Senior Jason Parks wrote that the anonymous online format allows students to hide behind their insensitivity, and it breeds fear on campus among minorities and the entire community.
“Imagine walking through campus thinking that any one of your fellow students can be racist or cares very little about your suffering,” Parks stated.
After monitoring the comments, the Student Life editorial staff stated in an online letter that they have seen dozens of community members attempt to “minimize emotions of hurt as overreactions.”
“Shaming students for feeling hurt by a racial slur devalues the actual pain that such a word can inflict,” they stated.
David Yang, chair of the Diversity Affairs Council, said that council members met for five hours on Feb. 27 before releasing a statement that called for a “collective response” and a safe space to discuss the campus climate.
University administrators, led by Stahl, have been meeting with student groups continuously, Yang said. However, they have not volunteered to host a campus-wide forum.
On Tuesday night, the Diversity Affairs Council held and facilitated a forum for Wash. U. students at the Karl D. Umrath Hall at 5 p.m., which was closed to the public. Spring break starts next week.
“Our goal following spring break is to continue the discussion and formulate a plan of action,” Yang said. “This will be aimed at improving the structure of our community so we can prevent situations like this.”
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton released a letter to students Tuesday night applauding their efforts to build dialogue. “I encourage more of it,” he stated.
Facts of the incident, photos of the pledges and a copy of the pledge’s scavenger hunt list hit social media quickly. A group of black students were eating dinner at Bear’s Den Tuesday night and were approached by a group of SAE fraternity pledges on a scavenger hunt, who took a picture of a pledge brother standing behind them. Then, one pledge began reading the lyrics to Dr. Dre’s “B—— Ain’t S—,” and some of the black students got up to leave.
Student Life posted a copy of the scavenger hunt instructions, which showed the pledge could also have chosen Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz’s “Get Low.” Both songs contain multiple uses of the N-word.
In regards to the fraternity members’ discipline, Joe Craig, a junior and Interfraternity Council president, issued a statement distancing the students’ actions from the council and chapter of SAE.
“The actions of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledges are not consistent with our values, or the values of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and we are confident that the responsible parties will be disciplined accordingly,” Craig wrote.
Disciplining the fraternity members is just one part of multiple strategies students are working on to address the issue, said Jamala Rogers, longtime social-justice activist and chair emeritus of the Organization for Black Struggle. Students have organized a “Dear Chancellor Mark Wrighton” video campaign on Facebook, where students can voice their opinions.
OBS supports the Association of Black Students’ request to suspend those involved in the incident.
“At minimum that needs to happen to send a message that this behavior won’t be tolerated,” Rogers said. “It’s an opportunity for the chancellor to show how you address an incident like this.”
The anonymous aggressive comments are all part of this becoming a teachable moment, she said.
“You really get to see where the people are,” she said. “And now you know what kind of work you have to.”
This week, Oberlin College in Ohio also responded to racial incidents. On Monday, Oberlin canceled classes and convened a “day of solidarity” after a person wearing a robe and hood appeared near its Afrikan Heritage House early Monday morning. In a statement, Marvin Krislov, Oberlin’s president, said that the recent series of hate-related incidents on campus called for a series of discussions.
A campus-wide gathering of solidarity would be helpful on Washington University’s campus as well, said Shanti Parikh, associate professor of sociocultural anthropology and African and African-American studies.
“This isn’t about blaming people,” she said. “It’s about understanding what our actions can do, whether intentional or not. Coming together would be very useful.”
Sharon Stahl said things are happening on a micro level, and administrators are partnering with students on action plans. She said she didn’t want to say what prospective plans have been discussed and how soon they would be put in place. The university’s investigation into the incident is still in process.