Recently throughout the country, there have been increasingly visible instances of institutionalized racism rearing its ugly head on college campuses.
This fall alone, at least three incidents have made national news. A faculty member at Yale University questioned the inappropriateness of wearing racially offensive costumes on Halloween and members of a frat turned away non-white party goers. At University of Missouri, incidents of racism have also occurred with alarming frequency, and students feel that their complaints are falling on deaf ears within the university administration, according to CNN. Western Washington University (WWU), located just three hours away in Bellingham, Washington, has also experienced an increase in racist behavior on campus.
Late Monday and into the early hours of the Tuesday just before Thanksgiving break, racist remarks were made toward two black members of the student body on the popular app Yik Yak.
According to an email sent to all students by the President of the university, Bruce Shepard, some of the messages, including one post saying “Lynch her,” were threatening to both African-American students mentioned on the app and students of color in general. These remarks came in response to the movement at the university to change the WWU mascot, the Viking, to something more inclusive and representative of the student body, which, according to the Associated Press, is 25 percent non-white.
In response to the threatening messages on social media, the university’s president rushed to provide accommodations for the threatened students and cancel classes the next day, Nov. 24 according to Kirotv.com.
Later that day, Shepard sent out a long email somewhat outlining the situation, but largely shined a light on the steps that Western took in response. Out of the nearly 3,000 words in that email, only 50 of them were dedicated to talking about institutional racism.
Although WWU made sure to let everyone know how they dealt with the threats on campus, the extent to which the real situation was really dealt with is questionable.
While the university mobilized staff and administrators to provide for the temporary safety of those affected, with such little talk about the cause of the situation—institutional racism—the university didn’t deal with the long term issues which will continue to threaten the safety of the students on campus.
Properly handling cases of institutional racism on college campuses is vital because they’re institutions which were designed to benefit privileged groups in the first place.
College is essential to the future success of our population and to closing the gap of opportunity between white students and students of color is a civil liberty well past its due date.
However, one discussion is hardly a fix. This incident has revealed complex issues within the Western community about who gets to be represented at school.
Threats made against students of color at WWU for attempting to change the mascot from a white, male Viking to be more representative of the diverse WWU community revealed a group on campus that feels minority representation is unimportant. Because that sentiment has surfaced, the need for representation of students of color on campus is even more urgent than it was before.
Changing Western’s mascot is necessary to ensure students of color that Western is a safe space for them. Maintaining the Viking as the Western mascot would show that the university is still a place exclusively for privileged white men, and even with the conversation that Western has started about institutional racism, nothing has changed.
Although it took a terribly jarring incident to make it happen, a conversation has started at Western about institutionalized racism, representation, and making Western’s campus a safe place. Now that it has finally started, it’s plain to see that there’s still much to talk about. After all, feeling safe when going to class should not have to be considered a privilege. ◼︎