College Students Are Making It Tougher to Ignore Racism on Campus

Activists demand mandatory education about race relations, but administrators don’t think it would be effective.

Students gather at American University in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 3, 2014, to protest against the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Oct 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

It’s a school that takes pride in the “diversity, global perspective, [and] political activism” of its students. But now a prominent group of students at American University, a small liberal arts school in Washington, D.C., is turning the spotlight on what it says is the school’s failure to address racism.

This week, members of a student-run activism group, The Darkening, ramped up “The Real AU,” a campaign aimed at spurring the school to counteract comments being posted on Yik Yak, a social media app. Since its creation in 2013, the app has provided an anonymous forum for racist, misogynistic, and homophobic comments. AU students have posted comments such as “First you bring Ebola here, then you start riots and destroy our cities.… Go back to Africa” and “If the blacks spent more time fixing their people instead of fixing their hair we wouldn’t be in this situation. #rugs #thugs #drugs,” The Washington Post reports.

Members of The Darkening decided to raise awareness about the problem by sharing screenshots of the comments on Twitter and Facebook and plastering printouts of them across the school’s public gates.

“The goal of posting and spreading awareness…is to force people to address the issue of race itself,” Tatiana Laing, a senior at American University and cofounder of The Darkening, wrote in an email to TakePart.

Liang and the other members of the group want compulsory training classes for all students about institutional racism, but administrators don’t think this is the solution.

“We don’t believe a mandatory course will effect change, as some students have suggested,” Fanta Aw, assistant vice president of campus life, wrote in a statement addressing the unrest and obtained by the Post. Aw confirmed the university’s dedication to an inclusive learning environment and pointed to the school’s prior efforts, including a diversity center and sensitivity training for resident assistants.

Racial tensions aren’t a new development on college campuses in the U.S., but Yik Yak has proved problematic for multiple universities. It’s difficult for school officials to find the individuals posting offensive comments, as the app’s privacy laws require a subpoena or a police warrant to track down users. A school can ban the app on its wireless network, but students can access Yik Yak on their mobile networks.

Liang doesn’t believe banning the app is the answer.

“The point of our campaign was not to focus on Yik Yak, but to focus on the experience of black students on campus and the inaction of the university to ensure that our experience is equal to that of white students,” Liang wrote. She is one of five black women who started The Darkening in January after she saw how students were treated during campus demonstrations against the grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“These students of color were literally called the N-word to their faces,” wrote Liang of those protests. Since then, race relations on campus haven’t improved. Along with online aggression, Liang wrote that just a few weeks ago students wrote racial slurs on dorm room doors.

Liang maintains that a university’s role is to educate its students. “If AU continues to let the masses remain ignorant to the complex history of this country with black and brown people and how that affects every facet of life today, then how can I expect my peers to even know they are being offensive?” she wrote. “If the administration maintains that they are against mandatory education, then they are against providing a safe and welcoming campus for black students.”