In response to a series of racist messages and comments posted anonymously on the social media app Yik Yak that specifically targeted black students on campus, President Raynard Kington sent out a campus-wide email on Monday, Feb. 23 condemning the hostile messages and outlining further ideas to combat racism and discrimination at the College. Kington also met with members of the Concerned Black Students (CBS) association and other groups on campus to collaborate on future steps toward recognizing and empowering students of color and other minority groups on campus.
Over the weekend of Feb. 21-22, a series of messages and comments which identified and racially harassed black students by name, in addition to calling for the dissolution of the CBS, were posted on Yik Yak. Kington released a statement after he was notified about the messages to show support for the victims and condemn the aggressors.
“Hate that hides behind anonymity is cowardice. I deplore these expressions of intolerance,” Kington wrote in the email.
“Many Grinnellians are reaching out to the students who were targeted to make sure they feel welcome and supported. I encourage you all to do the same.”
In that email, Kington described his own experiences dealing with racist and homophobic attacks, and he denounced the anonymous statements as acts of cowardice while encouraging students to “reject the racist comments” and explore constructive responses via the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Concerned Black Students, SGA and the Multicultural Leadership Council.
Members of CBS expressed similar sentiments of disgust and shock at the posted messages, but said that they have endured comparable incidents frequently in the past and were not particularly surprised that this had happened.
“I was offended, but not surprised because I’ve always known that race has been an issue on campus,” said Shaquall Brown ’15. “However, it does hit a little closer to home this time because the CBS had just finished all these great things, like … Dixon [Romeo ’16] putting himself out there running for VPSA.”
“Grinnell is this place that breathes this culture of passive-aggressiveness, so these things stir beneath the surface, but they’re always there,” added Cedric Abdul-Hakeem ’15. “If you are racist and you don’t like what CBS is doing, don’t smile in my face. Don’t post it on Yik Yak. If you’re gonna call me a n****r, say it to my face.”
As part of a coordinated push against these attitudes and what they consider a hostile campus, members of CBS met with Kington on Tuesday afternoon with a list of demands they want to have carried out, including a hate crime/bias motivated incident team, increased diversity training during NSO, a response card for incidents of discrimination similar to those provided for Title IX and a retreat for members of CBS as a constructive space.
“We conveyed that we were upset, something needed to happen institutionally, something needed to happen on the peer to peer level,” said Jacob Washington ’15, a co-leader of CBS. “We just hope that the institution follows through with these demands.”
CBS members also demanded that “faculty as a whole send out an email condemning the incident that occurred” and the creation of a mentorship program with minority alumni, who would also be invited to “come back to Grinnell to talk with students about their experiences,” according to a printed note from the lunch meeting that CBS members had with Kington.
Washington and Abdul-Hakeem expressed that although they are interested in encouraging other students to “think in [their] shoes” as students of color and to coordinate different events that will push issues of race to the forefront of campus discussion, they are skeptical that anything will be done by administration and that the issue of race has been deflected in these conversations.
“I feel that Kington still hasn’t held up to his obligation to condemn racism on campus in full. Even his message was flat, it wasn’t strong, it didn’t convey a message of racial attacks not being tolerated on this campus,” Washington said.
“I want the administration to tell us that they care, that they’re going to do something, not this admin bullshit,” Abdul-Hakeem noted.
In a follow-up email to The S&B, Kington stated that he is working with members of CBS and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to further efforts targeting racism at the College.
“Since we can’t know who the authors are, we are going to focus on providing more educational programming at the front end, awakening all of Grinnell’s students to the importance of diversity,” Kington wrote.
He described his goal of helping to eradicate racism and the targeting of minority students at the College, with the hope that Grinnell as an institution will pioneer a more race-friendly and productive atmosphere.
“Race and other forms of difference matter in this country, and the wisest institutions are the ones that are trying to figure out how to make everyone feel welcome and harness the positive benefits of those differences,” he explained. “We want Grinnell to be among them.”
Kington outlined his administration’s efforts to address issues of diversity at the College in the past, including diversity-themed town halls and added investment in diversity staff and programming. He pinpointed an ongoing process of reviewing the Diversity and Inclusion office as an example of these efforts.
“We are also in the midst of an external review that I commissioned of our Diversity and Inclusion office, which will help us identify the staffing, resources and programming that make the greatest positive difference,” he wrote.
However, Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Dean of the College for Diversity and Inclusion Poonam Arora stated that Kington has not solicited the input of her office in any way in the aftermath of these statements.
“The President has not solicited my input, or that of my office, in addressing the issue,” Arora explained. “His letter to the community speaks for itself.”
Arora added that she felt the President’s efforts to address diversity and to fund ongoing efforts at expanding diversity have been lackluster and stated that in order for anything to get done, discussions of race and racial issues must come out into the open and move into serious issues of collaboration among the entire community.
CBS members met to discuss a plan of action on Wednesday night, with over 70 people attending.
Photo by Jenny Chi,
SGA President Opeyemi Awe ’15 stated on Wednesday after a well-attended discussion hosted by CBS that she believes the discussion must reflect inwards, and allow for Grinnellians to examine who they are.
“Are we as progressive, as forward thinking as we claim to be? This meeting tonight was a good opportunity to do a bit of coalition building. I encourage those who maybe feel passionately about the issue to not respond but to put themselves out there—challenge themselves to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” Awe said.
She said that she believes current collaborations to create meaningful change have been unsatisfying because the conversations have been limited by scope and scale.
“It’s always talk at people, even though those aren’t the people that can help you solve their problem,” she said. “It very quickly can turn into people who agree with you talking at each other. We have a lot to learn from each other.”
Kington wrote that he hopes these dialogues do indeed become more inclusive and will incorporate broader perspectives from all areas of campus, rather than just counting on the work of the administrators to go it alone.
“[In] the aftermath of this event some students turned to me and other College administrators and asked, ‘What are you going to do about this?’ That’s an understandable reaction, but there is no simple or easy solution and response to the fundamental underlying problem,” he said. “Again, we’re going to need to work together, and that process is already underway.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed two quotes to Chief Diversity Officer Poonam Arora. They have been removed.