By Adelle Whitefoot
More than 50 people attended a Speak Out for Justice rally Friday afternoon at the University of Minnesota Duluth after two inflammatory comments were posted to Snapchat in the last month.
The crowd included students, staff and faculty, as well as UMD Chancellor Lendley Black, who listened to the speakers but did not speak at the event.
The rally was sparked by the discovery of two images on UMD geotag stories with the derogatory comments. One was a digital image of a poster that said “Undocumented, Unapologetic, Unafraid, United we Dream” and inserted onto it was the comment “Should we call U.S. Immigration and customs enforcement.”
The second picture showed a poster for Hijab Day — an event held by the Muslim Student Association for Islamic Awareness Week at UMD — with the inserted comment “What’s next … build a bomb workshop?”
During the rally many students spoke about prejudice on campus as well as why they were participating in the rally.
One of those students was Azrin Awal, a Muslim student who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh when she was 3 years old. Awal said she wasn’t surprised by the images on Snapchat.
“Sometimes you’re rendered speechless, but you are not shocked, and it’s a really interesting experience where you feel like you can’t talk but you’re not surprised. And that is what I felt this weekend when I saw these Snapchats up on the UMD geotag story,” Awal said.
Awal said working to bring inclusivity to UMD does nothing if they don’t have the support of the administration or student body.
“And by that I mean by not claiming to be a diverse, multicultural and inclusive campus without backing it up with words that we are an anti-xenophobic campus, we are anti-homophobic, anti-racist and anti-sexist. The list goes on,” she said. “Without those statements backing it up, you can not claim to be multicultural or diverse, and that’s why we are bringing it to the front lines.”
Black sent an email to the campus Wednesday that addressed the incident.
“Over the weekend, there were several expressions found on social media and geotagged from UMD that fall short of our values and goals,” he wrote. “We want you to know that we are aware of these incidents, along with others. We are tracking them and we are doing what we can to mitigate their harmful impact. … Building a campus climate that encourages and supports equity, inclusion, and social justice is about more than one incident, or one person — it is about systems, structures, and each one of us. It is up to all of us to demonstrate our valuing of equity and inclusion and of each other as members of the UMD community.”
The statement included a link to where students can report such incidents.
Racist incidents at UMD have put the school in the spotlight several times.
In April 2010, two white female students had a Facebook discussion about a black female student who had entered the same study lounge. The social networking site allowed the conversation to be seen by their Facebook friends and it quickly spread. The conversation included several slurs. In November 2012 a video was posted on YouTube depicting two white females in blackface using racial slurs, including the n-word, and racial stereotypes.
“This is why so many people don’t feel comfortable and we need to work together to build an environment where people can feel comfortable to be who they are without the fear of persecution,” said senior Akquaa Anye. “I hope one day that we can get to a place like that, and it might be too late for my time, but I hope the future generations at UMD will be able to prosper in an environment that is way more welcoming than what I am used to and welcomed into.”
During the rally, organizers read statements from students, most of whom wanted to remain anonymous. One of those statements was from a Latino student who described being harassed. “When I was living on campus last year, I would come home to notes on our door that said ‘move out’ or ‘build a wall’ and ‘I hope Trump deports you.’ During election night there were guys chanting outside my dorm, screaming ‘build a wall,'” the statement read, noting that while university staff were notified, they felt nothing was done to address it.
Consequences were included in a list of student demands:
• Students caught being discriminatory against other students should be required to take cultural diversity courses.
• Freshman seminars should be mandatory and include a section that focuses on diversity and inclusivity.
• Require faculty to take diversity training.
• Require all students to take diversity and inclusivity studies.
• Ensure the university responds more quickly to issues of discrimination.
“We expect more from our school,” Anye said. “When incidents like this happen and it goes three or four days without the school saying anything, I start to wonder if the school supports these people.”
A UMD statement posted Tuesday to the Kirby Student Center Facebook page said, “We want to make it clear that these images were not posted by Kirby Student Center or by the university, but they were tagged at the location the photos were taken in.”
It noted that the only way they could be removed was if they were flagged as offensive by other Snapchat users, which was encouraged.
The image of the Hijab Day poster is no longer on Snapchat, but the image of the undocumented immigrants poster was still up as of Friday night.
“We do not condone these hurtful acts,” the statement said. “This is not a joke. This is not cool. You do not gain anything from tearing someone else down. We need to stand up for one another. If you hear something or see something offensive say something, speak up.”
The UMD Student Association also sent an email to the campus, saying “Incidents like these create an unwelcoming and hostile environment for UMD students and only further divide us. On behalf of the Student Body, we want to unequivocally condemn these actions and lend our apologies to those who were affected.”
Awal said Black has agreed to have a meeting with her and other students about what more can be done to make UMD a more inclusive campus.
“We are all paying way too much money to feel uncomfortable,” Awal said. “This is our campus and this is our moment. I think this campus can do better. I believe this campus can do better.”