What a time to be a college student. Every day, it seems, I read news that another college campus is embroiled in pro- tests over insensitivity, racism or undesirable policies.
Of course, St. Olaf is no exception. The SGA poster scandal and its fiery after- math represents a dark cloud looming over our campus. And we’ve dealt with it before, which means we will most like- ly have to deal with it again.
It is true that an SGA can- didate’s poster was vandalized, and I as a fellow student can’t pretend to support that action; it’s downright disrespectful, to say the least. But the reaction by students was unacceptable.
This incident eerily resem- bles the January event in which a display for MLK Day was torn up and left sagging in the chapel hallway. In both, a violent action set off a bat- tery of emails and Yik Yaks, accusing an invisible-yet-char- acterizable domestic white stu- dent of an ignorance-incited hate crime. Students decried the quiet racism on campus. In the January incident, stu- dents of color felt threatened; in March, it was asserted via campus-wide email that inter- national students are brought to campus as a novelty at which domestic students are meant to gawk, excitedly marveling at their exoticness. Students were quick to line up in solidarity with the victims, and were glorified for doing so. Administration and stu- dents alike shook their heads in disbelief and wrung their hands in shame, wondering how something like this could happen in our futuristic world of 2016.
Then doubts began to pop up: maybe it wasn’t a purely race-incited hate crime. We don’t have enough informa- tion. We’re sorry that we jumped to conclusions, but hey, it doesn’t mean St. Olaf College isn’t bombarded daily with racist actions. We acted out of turn, hastily, even, but not unjustifiably. In January, the perpetrator revealed their motives; in March, rumors appeared that the vandalism may not have been purely racism-incited. In both, the anonymous white student was exonerated, campus shrugged its shoulders and we moved on with our academic lives, save for a few final blips on the social media radar that finally faded.
What does it say about our campus that twice this year we saw an incident and imme- diately classified it as a “hate
crime?” Students came out of the woodwork to support the victims and were held in high esteem by their fellow students, only to have the incident swept under the rug? Did we learn nothing the first time?
I’m not trying to argue that racism never happens on campus. We are a private lib- eral arts college in the upper Midwest; it would be naive to suggest an institution in that position would have no issues with race. However, hate crime is an extremely serious accusa- tion, especially when made in connection with a mysterious incident in which there is little evidence to support a motive of that or any other kind besides hearsay. To use such an accusation is to place the burden of proof on yourself; and in both cases, this burden was left unsupported.
Furthermore, the hail of accusations and assertions that flew off of this original idea also carried heavy impli- cations. The many Yaks and emails – especially via the St. Olaf Extra alias – asserted a variety of claims which seemed to appear from nowhere and based solely on the single inci- dent and which carried no evi- dence to support themselves.
The solution to these prob- lems will not be found using electronic media. Complaining online does not make one an “internet activist.” Instead, we ought to use the resources at our disposal to ensure that no one is excluded from these conversations, and that these discussions are held civilly and respectfully, not behind the anonymity of a screen. Otherwise, we risk falling into the same derision that alleg- edly led us to this point in the first place.
I’m not trying to assert that racism never occurs on our hallowed Hill. I’m simply expressing that we ought not use accusations of something as serious as a “hate crime” lightly. If nothing else, it cheapens the phrase, dulling the full force of what a hate crime actually is. We ought to treat incidences like those we have already experienced seriously, but also skeptically, taking time to examine the evidence, both what we know and what we don’t, before we so brazenly accuse our fellow Oles and begin a witch-hunt for a racist in our midst.
Griffin Edwards ’17 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Encinitas, Cali. He majors in Russian and international development.