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The Carletonian

After racist messages, St. Olaf students protest

<oughout the past week, students at St. Olaf held demonstrations in response to a series of racist messages sent to black students. Carleton students attended several of the demonstrations, and leaders of Carleton student groups have been communicating with organizers at St. Olaf to determine how to move forward together.

On separate occasions in late April, St. Olaf students Don Williams ’18 and Samantha Wells ’17 found anonymous notes on their car windshields with threatening language and racial slurs. Although these notes were the immediate cause of the protest, St. Olaf student organizer Krysta Wetzel ’18 emphasized that there have been several racial incidents on campus since October.

The power of social media

 On Monday, April 24, after news of the first note spread, which was sent to Williams, Wetzel used a megaphone to alert a dining hall full of students that students of color did not feel safe on campus and that they planned to “disrupt your lives until ours are made safer in a really strategic and structured way.” A video of Wetzel’s announcement has since been shared over 500 times, igniting social media attention to racism at St. Olaf.

On Monday afternoon, Williams called a meeting for all students of color at St. Olaf, where they brainstormed responses to the notes. According to Carleton Black Student Alliance (BSA) Vice President Aislinn Mayfield ’19, the BSA board attended the meeting and offered its support.

On Wednesday, April 26, Williams published a comprehensive list of demands to the St. Olaf administration, including faculty and staff diversity training, more faculty of color, curricular reforms to reflect the societal contributions of people of color and a zero tolerance policy for racist, sexist and homophobic epithets.

“We have very strong administrative action when it comes to alcohol on campus because we’re a dry campus, but what about taking similar stance when it comes to racial-based hate,” Wetzel said. “If we get a report of racial hate, why don’t we take similar steps that we have toward drugs and alcohol and apply that, so that there is an actual administrative action that shows that this is a value the administration has.”

On Saturday, April 29, St. Olaf President David Anderson announced the finding of the second note on William’s car in a community-wide e-mail. In the e-mail, Anderson encouraged the student body to “blanket the campus with expressions of what our true values are,” but student believed he failed to address the administration’s next steps.

Carls show up

Immediately after Anderson sent the e-mail, students from St. Olaf and Carleton and Northfield residents packed Buntrock Commons for a sit-in, during which students of color shared their experiences with racism.

“We’re really thankful to Carleton for its support,” Wetzel said. “We want Carleton students to know that if you all are doing anything and need support, we’ve got your back.”

CSA President Walter Paul ’18, former CSA President Tiffany Thet ’17, CSA Senator Sharaka Berry ’18 and African-Caribbean Association (ACA) President Gifty Amos ’19 were among the speakers at the sit-in.

“Racism cuts between the Cannon River,” said Paul during the sit-in. “I want to just tell every Olaf student here that has faced racism that every Carleton student is behind you.”

“If you’re tired of hearing about racism, try living it,” said Berry. “I’m tired of living racism. I’m tired of dealing with it. I’m tired of being scared for my life when I see a police car or every time I see another person get shot on the internet.”

Amos reminded white allies to “know where your support crosses borders. You guys can’t speak for us. We have to speak on our own. You guys can only help us with the navigation.”

Paul and Thet also remarked on white allyship. “Do not take this instance as your token moment of solidarity,” Paul said. “Solidarity should be a lifetime movement.”

Thet hoped that the audience, “especially white students, take away from this protest that you will need to stand up for your fellow students of color and say: ‘This isn’t okay.’”

On Sunday, April 30, organizers at St. Olaf, including Williams and Wetzel, led a march on campus from Buntrock Commons to Boe Chapel, which Carleton students attended. The marchers stood in silent protest during the Sunday morning service, according to the Chicago Tribune.

By the evening, the St. Olaf student organizers had created a leadership structure and designated press contacts in response to surging media inquiries.

The movement makes headway

On Monday, May 1, the St. Olaf organizers, by then known as the Collective for Change on the Hill, led an all-day strike of classes, clubs and activities, and held a sit-in in Tomson Hall. That afternoon, President Anderson met with students and faculty of color, and they reached an agreement on the Collective’s Terms of Engagement.

According to a St. Olaf media statement issued on Monday afternoon, “The terms in the agreement outline the process for addressing our mutual concerns about racism and diversity on our campus. This includes establishing an autonomous task force to examine the issues raised by students.”
“It was a really meaningful gathering,” said Paul Briggs, St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Art. “It was really, really rich, and I think it was important closure for the day for everyone to come together and just support each other.”

“This is just a small step in a process that’s going to be very long and very rewarding,” said St. Olaf student Charles Hamer ’20.

Wetzel explained that the Collective needed Terms of Engagement because “we were tired of working through structures that don’t benefit us to get things that we need.”

Yesterday, the Collective met with St. Olaf’s Board of Regents per its initial Terms of Engagement, now called the Terms and Conditions of Negotiations.

Campus cultures at St. Olaf and at Carleton

While some think that St. Olaf and Carleton are not that different in their campus cultures, others think that there are notable differences between the two.

“The climate at St. Olaf is almost the epitome of the state of Minnesota,” said anti-bias educator Lyn Mitchell, who is also a parent of two St. Olaf alumni. “People are putting things under the rug. There is conflict avoidance, passive aggression, a lack of awareness—a profound lack of awareness—and a lack of experience with other kinds of people, other ethnicities, other religions, other genders and other sexualities.”

Mitchell expressed concern about a lack of attention to racial issues on St. Olaf’s predominantly white campus. Mitchell added that St. Olaf administrators did not seem to understand institutional racism on their own campus, and that programming on how to be an effective ally was “nonexistent.”

In comparing St. Olaf to Carleton, Thet noted that while both are predominantly white institutions in rural Minnesota, social activism is more prevalent at Carleton than at St. Olaf. Nevertheless, Thet worries that the Carleton student body is more focused on looking the part than on taking meaningful action. “I think activism at this campus [Carleton] can sometimes be very performative, very reactive rather than proactive, which is problematic,” she said. “The activism that I think Carleton should be striving for is the proactive activism that is more about, ‘We don’t need an incident to act.’ ”

Thet thinks that racism also exists on the administrative level at Carleton. “I think institutional racism at Carleton is very similar to St. Olaf, if we look at the amount of faculty of color that we have and the amount of support that is given to students of color from staff,” said Thet. “We need to look at: What is Carleton prioritizing, and is it prioritizing the admissions office and not prioritizing the OIIL office, the GSC, which are typically centers for students of color.”

She went on to explain that Carleton has a strong call-out culture when it comes to racial incidents. “When you look at things like the CLAP and social media, I think students of color, in particular, are very vocal about not wanting to be subject to microaggressions or to oppressive questions like ‘where are you from?’ and ‘why is your English so good?’ They are very vocal about the kind of emotional damage that gets across,” said Thet. “I’m not saying St. Olaf students are not like that, but I think because call-out culture is so strong here, white students in particular are disinclined from being overtly racist.”

Similarly, Paul said that racism at Carleton manifests itself in “the way in which students may approach one another, small instances in classrooms, the people you’re more inclined to work in groups with, whom you’re more inclined to eat lunch with or which parties you’re more inclined to join. What does that say about your perceptions of other people?”

In comparing St. Olaf and Carleton, Paul said, “I think at Olaf it was different in that it was very explicit to the point of a hate crime, but at Carleton it’s more those micro-level, covert perceptions and behaviors that reinforce the system of racism.”

However, Thet pointed out that the Carleton community is not immune to overt racism. In 2015, a senior posted a racially insensitive tweet about the Baltimore protests that followed the murder of Freddie Gray. “That was a really huge thing. Completely blew up. No administrative response. He wasn’t reprimanded, and he was allowed to graduate. I think those types of things and the administrative response in particular is similar to St. Olaf.”

Moving forward

In a Tuesday e-mail update, St. Olaf College Director of Public Safety Fred Behr said that the college is “reviewing security camera footage, examining records from computers and printers in public spaces and comparing handwriting samples” in order to identify the student or students behind the notes sent to Samantha Wells and Don Williams. Behr also said that St. Olaf has leads and is working with the Northfield Police.

According to BSA Vice President Aislinn Mayfield, BSA recently met with Williams and Wetzel and is now discussing how to “establish a better relationship with the black students at St. Olaf.”

In her role at BSA, Mayfield said she hopes to figure out, “How do we make that community between the black students at Carleton and at St. Olaf better? How do we make that stronger? How do we come back and forth across this bridge more often?”

Paul said that St. Olaf’s Student Government Association (SGA) could play a role in fighting racism on campus. “The protests were very organized and they really did everything independent of SGA, but I think in the future, as student representatives, as elected members of the student body, SGA needs to communicate more and more with students.”

Paul also credits CSA’s Intercampus Liaison position, currently held by Adam Loew ’20, as a vital information link between the two colleges that can be used for future activism.

“Let’s show up. Let’s make sure that we show them we’re here for them and we know what they’re going through because we experience it too here at Carleton,” said Mayfield.

News Editor Perrin Stein and Viewpoint Editor Jacob Isaacs contributed reporting.

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