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Black students say American University isn’t listening to them

Students of color say the “banana incident” is reflective of larger campus culture.

American Univesity CREDIT: NELL HAYNES
American Univesity CREDIT: NELL HAYNES

American University students want the administration to do more to improve the campus climate for students of color — and say that school officials aren’t taking their concerns seriously enough.

On Monday, hundreds of people — including American University students, American University alumni, and students from other Washington, D.C. universities — gathered to protest what they called the administration’s inaction after recent reports of incidences of racially motivated harassment.

In one recent incident, a student left a rotting banana by a black student’s dorm room door, along with drawings of penises on her whiteboard. In another, a banana was thrown at a black female student.

Those weren’t the first times black students on American’s campus have been targeted. Last year, black students found racist epithets written on their doors. And a number of posts on Yik Yak, a location-based app, also gained attention last year for racist statements about black students made by people on campus, including the message, “Black people are weird. So sensitive. Isn’t there some cotton that needs to be picked?”

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But in a statement released on Friday, the university said it does not view the rotting banana incident as related to racial bias. “Actions can and do have impact beyond their intent and that was the case here,” the university stated.

Given the history of racist incidents on campus, many students of color say they want to see more from the administration.

“I think it’s an absolute joke to say that a banana and black people has no connotation knowing America’s history.”

“I think it’s an absolute joke to say that a banana and black people has no connotation knowing America’s history,” Ma’at Sargeant, an American University sophomore and the president of the Black Student Alliance, said.

So far, the white male students responsible for the dorm room incident have faced code-of-conduct charges. They have not been suspended, and students say they haven’t seen any indication from the administration that they will be. Other students say the two students should be expelled.

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Sargeant said she thinks recent town halls on campus, during which the administration spoke with students about these incidents, were designed to improve the university’s image rather than to help black students. She thinks some of the comments from administrators were offensive as well.

“They had a lot of scripted stuff to say, and it sounded so rehearsed… They were saying, ‘We hear you. We’re trying,’ but didn’t give us anything substantial,” Sargeant said. “Scott Bass, the provost, said, ‘Oh I’m surprised by how articulate all of you guys are’ — that assumption that black people can’t speak properly. It was just a joke to me.”

Sargeant added that black students have been bringing up issues they’re having with members of the faculty as well — such as a lack of diversity among faculty, faculty not challenging stereotypes of people of color voiced by white students in the classroom, and faculty embracing a Eurocentric approach to teaching some of their courses.

She said some faculty have also joked about violence against black people. For example, she cited an incident where a student asked a professor what he would have done in an incident like the one in South Carolina, where a black student was thrown from her desk by a white officer. She said the teacher responded, “Oh, I would have shot her.”

During the protests and through the university student newspaper, The Eagle, many black students have recounted their discomfort on campus.

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Jada Bell, an outreach coordinator for the Black Student Alliance, told The Eagle during the protest, “I think back to my experiences as a freshman in Anderson, people used to write [n —] on my whiteboard, tear down Black Lives Matter posters, knock on my door in the middle of the night and run. I felt not safe on the campus I was paying for.”

Taylor Dumpson, a junior and president of the Intercultural Greek Collective, wrote an op-ed in The Eagle sharing her experiences.

“I, as well as my fellow students of color, have been mentally and emotionally attacked from students and professors harboring racial tension from the day we stepped on to campus,” she wrote. “I have witnessed my peers, first hand, become victims of racial discrimination and, most recently, need to help console members of the Black community as not just one but two of our sisters have had racial hate crimes directed toward and at their existence as if to say they don’t belong here.”

According to Sargeant, black student organizations on campus are forming a coalition to work toward making the campus a more welcoming place for students of color and there will be meetings on future actions, including protests.