Student demonstrations at the University of Missouri after months of protests over racial issues led to the resignations of the university system’s president and the chancellor of the main campus. Those protests and others have provoked a debate over racism and free speech at colleges across the United States.
Last semester a makeshift noose was hung on my campus at the student center. I responded with fellow black students by protesting and participating in die-ins on campus. The result was a large talk given by campus administration and a series of emails reassuring us that measures were being taken on campus to create a “colorblind” university. A student turned him or herself in the following day and said that they did not understand the implications. The student is now back on campus. — Danielle Mayes, Duke University
Halloween weekend, a group of friends and I were hanging out. As Native students, we stuck together. What was originally a fun night out quickly turned sour when I saw a white girl in a “Pocahottie” costume. We had seen plenty of redface costumes before, but we felt an obligation to say something. My friend confronted her and said, “Hey, you know your costume is pretty messed up, right? Especially when you wear it in front of a group of Native Americans.” To which the girl laughed and said: “How. I come in peace.”
The story ended up getting lost in the mix of other racially tense Halloween stories that happened at Harvard. No administrative response, no comment from race relations tutors, no email from the house masters. Racism was left unquestioned, and unaccounted for. — Kapena, Harvard University
Singled Out in Class
I was one of two black students in the class of more than 20 people. We studied William Grant Still, one of the first black composers. The textbook featured a poem he had written sometime in the 1920s, written as a black man from the ’20s spoke (dem instead of them, der instead of there). The Caucasian professor asked me to read the poem aloud, which I did in the way that I usually speak. The professor then said: “No. Do it again. You know how it’s supposed to sound. I can’t read it because that’s not my culture.” — Maya Bird-Murphy, Ball State University
In the 1970s, I was standing with three white guys when the president of the dorm, a white girl who was dating a black guy, came to discuss a dorm party. As she left and was out of earshot, one of the white guys called her a n——r lover. First, it was a brazen display of bigotry, but secondly, what was it about me that made him forget I was black and standing right next to him? — Murray Hough, University of Connecticut
‘Power of Microaggressions’
As a freshman I decided to join a sorority. After a Q. & A. session, parents and guests had the option of asking me or a white student about Greek life on campus. One woman asked her question, I began to answer, and as soon as the other girl finished her conversation, the woman walked away from me without a word, midsentence. No one else on my team seemed to care much or understand why I was hurt.
The situation really opened my eyes to the power of microagressions, and taught me that in an environment that is loving and inclusive, racism is still prominent in everyday life. — Yasmina Taylor, DePaul University
Racism or Something Else?
I never witnessed direct or blatant discrimination at my predominantly white university, but as an Asian-American, I felt subjected to microaggressions daily. White students assumed that I only associated with Asians, asked where I was “from,” and if I was “North or South Korean.” Black students told me I did not count as a student of color and questioned if Asians even had the right to participate in diversity initiatives due to the “model minority” stereotype. Korean international students let me and other Korean-Americans like me know they did not consider us Korean or Asian enough. In short, racial conflict became such an ingrained part of my college experience that it became difficult for me to discern when people were behaving or addressing me in certain ways because of race as opposed to another motive. — Hannah Kang, Georgetown University
Making an Assumption
I am Hispanic. I was out with some friends and we met some guys. One of the guys stated: “You’re not American. Where are you from?” I told him I was indeed American and from New York. I could tell he was uncomfortable after that. — Joanna Carrasco, Pennsylvania State University
A Dormitory Altercation
In 1975, I was moved into a room with a raging racist. She freely used words that were offensive. I pretty much ignored her because it was a short summer session and only one dorm was open. One day a group of black women were blocking the entrance and were engaged in a verbal altercation with my roommate. Several were in tears, and clearly hurt by my roommate. I tried to intervene but was told to butt out, that this wasn’t my fight. Eventually the resident assistant came and broke things up.
Nothing happened. No action was taken by the R.A. She told everyone to not speak to each other. — Linda Warren Seely, University of Memphis
Confronting Racist Attitudes
My African-American roommate brought her friends to our dorm. One of them had been eating a sticky bun and wanted to use our sink to wash his hands. One of our suitemates was doing her hair at their sink. Her mom was there with her. An hour later, we get a rap at the door and it’s the campus police, who told us a mother had called in alarm because she was worried her daughter would get jumped in bed by a gang of black males. That was the last straw for my roommate, who transferred. — E., William Paterson University
Moment of Understanding
As a professor, I have heard the many stories of my students. I am white and privileged not to have experienced racial conflict myself. I address it in class. Most students begin to understand racism by looking through the lens of the other person. It is an “aha” moment for them. Most students “get” the individual racism, but have a more difficult time understanding institutional racism. — Thomas Costello, Ohio University
I was fortunate enough not to experience discrimination at Arizona State University. Both the faculty and student body are very diverse, and I believe that makes a difference to how minorities feel on campus. I love A.S.U., and I was not aware of any incidents involving racial conflicts during my time there. — Eva Martinez, Arizona State University
Black students and allies organized a Blackout Week demonstration. There has been almost no administrative or campuswide response to Blackout Week or the racial issues on campus. We are a predominantly white, male college, and students tend to be complacent toward or complicit in racial issues. — Erin Wade, Union College
Slur Late at Night
One vivid example is being called a chink when walking across a campus quad late at night. I was alone. Normally, I would have yelled back, as I’m very confrontational (as a result of learning to defend myself as a kid being called racial slurs), but there was a large group, and I was busy writing a paper, so I just let it go. — Lee, Pomona College
‘Talk. Promises. No Change.’
A white colleague dismissed my call for a campus affirmative action plan as equivalent to requiring the college to hire an unqualified “Benito Taquito.” A white student asked in class why black students would be upset by hearing the song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” One administrator told a committee on diversity last year that the university would be wasting its time creating an affirmative action plan since “no black people would want to live in Roanoke.”
Students have protested, had a “die in,” attended forums on diversity, circulated fliers. I’ve fought hard for creation of an affirmative action plan on campus to no avail. The result? Talk. Promises. No change. — Susan Thomas, Hollins University
How to Respond
I’m currently the vice president of the student body, and the president and I ran on the same ticket as the first two women of color to serve the organization in our roles. During the campaign, there were several anonymous comments found on Yik Yak and on our newspaper’s online articles regarding our race and gender. I was described as a Chinese nationalist, and a chink. I’ve struggled to respond in a way that creates a learning opportunity. I’m not interested in creating a more hostile campus climate, but I also resent the fact I’ve often stayed quiet in fear that my words aren’t powerful enough to explain what the lesson is, and why it’s significant. — Jane Hong, Syracuse University
A Culture of Silence
At Wesleyan, racial conflict flourished, all in the form of tense silence. After one provocative (and pretty racist) article was published in the school newspaper, I wrote a letter to the editor. I asked for other students to share personal experiences with racism. Not a single person answered the call. No one at all wanted to talk about anything other than how offended they felt. The racial diversity of my college was basically all brochure pictures and no substance. I think that most all of us left with barely any more understanding of each other than we had when we first came to campus. — Galen Sherwood, Wesleyan University
Attended SUNY Plattsburgh in the mid-1960s, one of four people of color. After a minor traffic accident, I was taken to the sheriff’s office and issued a $50 ticket. When he found out I was from the college, he said, “You should have told me earlier,” indicating that the outcome might have been different and more in my favor. He added, “Thought you were one of the boys from the Air Force base outside town.” My experiences in upstate New York were a bit of an eye-opener for me. — Owen Levy, SUNY Plattsburgh
‘Like Nothing Happened’
I graduated in 2012. On campus, there were a lot of racial slurs. More pervasive were the constant microaggressions, even from “liberal” students. For example, the president of the campus environmental nonprofit once said during a board meeting that it was our job to teach the minorities about the environment since they don’t know as much. Most students who witnessed these things would not stand up for you, but would look down and hurry away like nothing happened. — Steve Pan, University of Missouri
On Public Property
A man who refers to himself as “Superman” stood on campus waving his Confederate flag, rode in his car around campus waving his flag and stood across from the dorm that houses international students. Many students felt unsafe, but because he has “freedom of speech” and was “on public property” he was not forced to leave. — Brianna Carey, St. Cloud State University
It was 1980. I’m Latina, and I was walking home from class in the wintertime with a scarf over my head. This was during the Iran hostage crisis. A pickup truck drove by twice, and the second time the people inside tossed cans of beer at me and shouted, “Go back to Iran.” This instance reminded me that no matter where I am in America, my ethnicity makes me “other.” — Tanya Maria Barrientos, University of Missouri
These are Stories From New York Times Readers:
New York Times readers were invited to describe their encounters with discrimination on campus, and tell what happened. Dozens of readers shared their stories.
Following is a selection of responses, which have been condensed and edited. To join the conversation, add your comments here.