When I go home on breaks, I usually tell my friends and family that my school is not very diverse, but that we’re working on it. I tell them that people care enough about ignorance to confront it, and that St. Olaf students do not allow racism on campus. Lately, however, I’ve begun to fear that this regular report will have to change. Racial slurs projected during Vic Mensa’s performance of “16 Shots” last spring, neglected sexual assault survivors and all too frequent hate crimes have plagued our campus for the past two years.
During the week of Oct. 3, two incidents of hate speech were reported on campus. The N-word was written in Mohn Hall on a white board. Later that week, the very same word was written on a slip of paper and placed in the St. Olaf Muslim House’s “Ask a Muslim Anything” submission box in Buntrock Commons.
In the context of campus events and the current political atmosphere, I think we, the St. Olaf community, feel as though we are aware of and active in regards to current social issues. We watch the presidential debates and disagree with Trump, and discuss outright racist campus events with professors in our classes. Most of us maintain the position that there is no room for racism or hate on our campus. But despite these efforts to interact with the world as conscientious St. Olaf students, we cannot ignore certain truths about the social climate of our college any longer.
It is natural to feel confused, angry and sad for our community in response to outward racism. It also feels appropriate to place total blame on the anonymous individuals responsible for these acts, attributing the hate currently permeating our campus to the actions of a select few. But by blaming the anonymous few, we also avoid the reality that we are all responsible for our home, we are all responsible for representing St. Olaf and we are all responsible for the safety, well-being and freedom of our peers. As a community, we have a tendency to become so fixated on the nature of the hate acts themselves that we neglect to address the gravity of both their origins and repercussions.
We must acknowledge that the recent actions of several students have directly targeted, marginalized and isolated members of our community. The fact that someone on campus had the audacity to voice their racial prejudice illustrates that there is an underlying tolerance of bigoted behavior among the rest of us. The continued ostracizing of students of color from within the student body demonstrates our unmet responsibility to object to, and effectively prevent, the future marginalization of our peers.
In response to these hate crimes, administration is removing anonymous forums of communication from offices and buildings to prevent future unidentifiable acts of hate. While this is a genuine attempt at preventing similar events from occurring in the future, the removal of anonymous drop boxes only eliminates one platform of racist expression rather than addressing the intentions and attitudes behind these incidents.
As a next step, we must ensure that no member of our community remains under the impression that racism will be tolerated on the Hill. Last year, Madeline Wilson ’16 demanded that the St. Olaf sexual assault policies be reassessed through her “My College is Protecting Rapists” campaign. Wilson’s efforts resulted in the formation of a Title IX working group. Her campaign demonstrated that even at a college many dearly love, sometimes it takes the explicit acknowledgment of a painful reality to begin the process of change.
Tia Schaffer ’20 makes an excellent example of what an active student response to racism on campus should look like. After the first hate crime took place, Schaffer took it upon herself to communicate how hate crimes affect our campus. She did this by enticing people into Buntrock Commons with loud culturally black music and encouraging them to declare solidarity with the black community at St. Olaf. Oftentimes when tensions arise on campus, an email from administration comes and then the event quickly fades from campus-wide discourse. Not only did Schaffer take the initiative to address campus hate crimes beyond President Anderson’s email, but she did so alone and as a first-year student.
The reality is that a large portion of our student body remains uncomfortable in the place we should all be comfortable calling home. Several students reported that Schaffer’s table elicited a feeling of “belonging,” which until that point they had yet to experience at St. Olaf. Though confronting racism can be uncomfortable, it is our job as a student body to work against it. If we continue to consider ourselves a college that is inclusive of all students, faculty and staff, we must fulfill these claims by directly challenging racist and marginalizing acts.
Several weeks ago my classmate said something that struck me as particularly troubling. He described being at an elementary school and having an eight-year-old girl stare directly into his eyes with anger.
She told him “my mom doesn’t like black people, so I don’t like black people.”
“That little girl wasn’t taught to be afraid, she was taught to hate,” my classmate said.
Most of us don’t hesitate to acknowledge that hate is being spread in our country. If we hope to graduate from St. Olaf well-equipped to address prejudiced attitudes and systems, we must stop allowing this very same hate to be literally written on the walls of our own home. For a college that claims to be a 300-acre residential campus populated by social justice warriors, it is about time we take a page or two from Schaffer’s book.
Avery Ellfeldt ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Denver, Colo. She majors in communications, cultural studies and spanish.