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“It so long and talking everyone.”

This is exactly how my four-year-old described attending a two-hour town hall meeting at NC State about Racial Climate to my husband today. (Luckily, he and his little brother had some videos to watch and the promise of Howling Cow ice cream afterward. Bless their sweet hearts, a two hour adult meeting is no fun.)

Usually, I reserve the blog for photography, review articles of interest to my clients, and personal projects. Today is an exception.

This is important. I attended this meeting on race at NC State and I thought it was important to share the experience for those who couldn’t make it and are curious what these conversations look like.

Most importantly, the thoughts of students of color are shared here and I want to do what I can to amplify those voices for others to hear.

Some background information before I get into the meeting itself.

  • I’m an alumna of NC State University and live just a few miles away. My husband is a tenured, full professor.
  • I visit the university about a dozen times per year to attend committee meetings at Park Scholarships and to serve as treasurer of the Park Alumni Society. My son goes to preschool down the road so we pass through campus 3 days a week. We frequent Hillsborough Street restaurants. We love NC State and enjoy spending time on campus and interacting with faculty, staff, and students.
  • I’m currently working to establish an endowment with my class of Park Scholarships of at least $25,000 to support the program that provided us so much over our 4 years as it works to grow their endowment in the coming years. Our collective commitment is a drop in the bucket but it shows our investment in the university and the support for its flagship scholarship program.
  • A week or two before this meeting, another unarmed black man, Keith Lamont Scott, was killed at the hands of police. This time, it was in Charlotte and felt particularly close to home. Due to the sheer number of police brutality related incidents that have been in the media recently, race relations are in the forefront of political discussion locally and nationwide.
  • A few days before this meeting, two white NC State students shared racist messages on social media that were outrageous. I refuse to post the words here. The apologies from the students and the reaction from the university left much to be desired in my mind. They didn’t seem to take this issue seriously enough and their messages to students were tone deaf.
  • The meeting on the topic of “Racial Climate” was scheduled at the beginning of the year and was not organized in response to these two specific events.

The First Half

So to the meeting. Stewart Theatre was nearly full and a noticeable majority were students of color. Many attendees were in university administration and the Chancellor sat a few rows up with some students. A student moderated and allowed a few university members to present:

  • Dr. Linda Smith (Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity)
  • Dr. Tracey Ray (Assistant Vice Provost for Student Diversity)
  • Dr. Barbara Kirby (Associate Vice Provost for Academic Programs and Services)
  • Deborah Felder (Assistant Director of Student Involvement)
  • Reggie Barnes (Senior Director of Campus Community Centers)
  • Beverly Williams (Director of Education and Training)

Amusingly, the titles for these individuals sound broad enough that I can’t really determine what their day job looks like but here were the highlights of that 30 minutes regarding what the university is doing and plans to do:

  • Require at least one member from each university group to attend diversity training. This would be a yearly requirement for all 600+ groups.
  • Administration is exploring a general education requirement dealing with diversity topics. Concerns include whether to develop in-house or from other successful programs and whether it should be a for credit course or not.
  • A commitment to EEOI in hiring practices and working to hire a diverse staff.
  • Campus police are undergoing unconscious bias training, funded by a grant.
  • State law requires supervisors to have diversity training. Some colleges such as the vet school and College of Textiles are creating special programs for all staff members.
  • The creation of a Bias Incident Response Team which serves to support those impacted by these incidents, track them and detect patterns, and allow for more transparency about what is going on at the campus level. This team will not replace law enforcement, the Division of Student and Academic Affairs, the Office of Student Conduct. It will not restrict free speech or serve as a group that does “damage control.”

What struck me after listening were two main points. One, I had no idea all of this was going on. The perception of the university from my shoes is one that isn’t doing enough about diversity education. The reality appears to be different. There is quite a bit of manpower and time spent working on this issue. Second, there is a overall vibe of wanting to help create a safe, inclusive environment and the emotional language used all feels really vague and non-specific. It would be lovely if all of this works but the facts on the ground as I see them suggests that these goals are not being met. All of this information makes me feel conflicted. Happy for the effort but disappointed in the results so far.

Then the Chancellor speaks directly to the issue of the racist tweets and his statement on behalf of the university, delivered via Twitter (which angered many). He sympathized briefly with the hurt this incident caused. He explains that the law dictates that these students did not act criminally and he has a duty to honor the law and protect their first amendment rights. He explains Paul Cousins (an attorney type) is present to field legal questions based on his decades of experience in this area. You can listen to what the Chancellor Randy Woodson said here in my wiggly video with occasionally small child noises:


Fast Tube by Casper

Let’s just say his message was not well received and there is noticeable tension. The mic went directly to Dr. Linda Smith (I believe it was her, my memory is a bit fuzzy) and she seemed to have the unspoken role of bringing the emotional level down. She explained that yes, it’s true that the law doesn’t allow legal consequences and that perhaps we all need to consider how we can help change these laws. Her comments seems somewhat well received particularly when she expresses how difficult it is to prove racism. That resonated with the group. She’s eloquent and uses examples of her experiences as a woman of color.

The Second Half

Now the crowd had the chance to ask questions. Here is a taste of what was said by students of color:

  • These comments may not be illegal but they are damaging because racism like this is what turns into microaggressions and that in turn creates an unsafe environment for students of color. Of course you have to ensure you fulfill your obligation to the university but what about a responsibility to the students? Did one win over the other today? Consider that.
  • The student who wrote the messages lived with a black student. By all means, don’t judge someone by the worst thing they said at age 18 because I, too, have done stupid stuff. But can you really expect that to be the kind of environment that student can thrive in?
  • Two first person stories that are very upsetting to a student: While painting the free expression tunnel at night once, someone had called the cops because they were worried her group of black friends was jumping someone. She also has a professor that opens up awkward conversation about race with inappropriate racial jokes. She cites one about students of Mexican heritage that was most recent.
  • The half apology from the students who wrote the racist messages was insulting.
  • Where is the line between first amendment rights and hate speech? Will these students be reprimanded. It feels like they just get to say sorry and everyone expects us to get over it. What message is the university sending?
  • A student feels safe only because he is a big guy who can defend himself but he doesn’t feel comfortable as a black male on campus. The university is a special place that requires special rules, much like a jail does. Certain things are not allowed in jails and those sorts of protections could be applied here perhaps.
  • No one wants Paul Cousins, the legal expert, to weigh in on the legal side. Nope. Nope. Nope. Students want to be heard. They don’t want to be told why they should be ok with the Chancellor’s decision. He is not called upon to speak.
  • The privilege to attend a university is not a right. Students must apply and write essays, submit letters, have good grades. Why can’t students lose that privilege? He ends his remarks with “I’m not racist, my roommate is white.” This receives a ton of applause because black students are sick of hearing about how a white person can’t be racist because they are friends with a black person.
  • You say you are inclusive but I don’t feel it. The least you can do is quit advertising the university this way. At least that way, I won’t be surprised when I feel this way.
  • The legal thing isn’t always the moral thing. This was clearly directed to the Chancellor.
  • One student asks the Chancellor to look at the speaker. She’s noticed that each time a student speaks, he doesn’t turn his body to show he is listening. She tells him that it’s disrespectful. Granted, the auditorium is round presenting logistical difficulty but for the remainder of the meeting, he does turn his head.
  • Many students look up and read specific student policies and ones goes as far to cite the number of the policy. Each one suggests that there can be penalties for racially charged statements and discrimination based on race. Why can’t these be used?
  • A black woman stands up with a paper and says it’s the a policy about racial discrimination that was repelled. She wants to know why. I wish I remember the specifics of this policy but I don’t. Hopefully someone can chime in here so if you were there, please help on this one.
  • The sister of an alum who is training to be doctor points out that the Chancellor’s remarks were addressed to the African American community and not the whole university. She is frustrated at the desire to make this about legal concerns and sees it as subterfuge for what is actually happening. She asks the administrations to consider emotional harm. The students used words as their weapon of choice. You can’t take away that weapon but can you really do nothing? Is the emotional well-being of a huge percentage of the student population worth anything?
  • A student asks why other universities have been able to expel students for similarly racist comments. She cites specific examples across the nation.
  • One student rambles about something I didn’t quite understand and feels it’s important to actually say the n-word out loud. That using the term “n-word” minimizing something. This makes the woman to my left angry and she turns around, visibly upset. It’s clear most of the room feels the same way.

I’m fairly certain the above comments were from students of color and I know I missed some due to a bathroom break in the middle. One of the statements at the most was a white student, if that. There were two other white students who spoke. Here is what they had to say:

  • The creator of the message board that the racist messages were posted to came to defend himself. For full disclosure, he may have been of Asian heritage but he was far away and it was difficult to tell. He starts with “I don’t think NCSU is overly racist.” (Pause: Are you kidding me? Is he serious? How about no racism. Zero racism would be nice.) He says the board wasn’t meant to be a place for racist views and that the later comments about the student wanting to bring a gun to protect himself were not a threat. “The student was just afraid of….” The crowd finishes his sentence with “black people.” The message board guy says “Yes, he’s afraid of black people but he didn’t mean it as a threat. I know he didn’t.” Scoffing and eye rolling ensue. That expression, “I can’t even.” It was meant for moments like this.
  • A woman in the corner says that we all need to work on personal growth to make changes and that it’s important to confront racist peers. She mentions her racist upbringing more than once and how (ostensibly), she has become accepting of diversity in her own life. The comment comes across as very tone deaf like “you guys need to work to fix this”. The room is again very tense. She continues with her speech and I get the impression that she feels she did an amazing job even though the room is obviously upset by her implications that students of color (and others) aren’t doing enough to prevent racism.

I wanted to make a comment at the end and got a brief moment at the end. I encouraged the university administration to listen carefully to the pain and hurt expressed in the room all evening. I explained that as an alum, I’m disappointed that NC State has clearly not made a commitment to be a role model in this area. I say that it’s not on these students to fix this, it’s on the university. That I’m grateful to hear the many programs in place to education students and faculty on diversity but I’m concerned they aren’t working as effectively as we’d like if this is how black students feel on campus. It is completely unacceptable and I stand with them.

The meeting wrapped up quickly and a cookie gift certificate is given away to the raffle winner.

When the minutes from the meeting are emailed to attendees, I’ll post them here.

Randy Woodson, Chancellor, was interviewed immediately afterward. He maintains that the university’s hands are tied and that he understands how upset everyone is.

My Reflections

I was left feeling angry. I decided that it would be bold, but appropriate, to stop and speak with the white woman who appeared particularly tone deaf to how she came across. She thinks calling people out is important so I decided to go for it and take her advice. She insisted that everyone in the audience agreed with her and that I was wrong. It was clear that I was agitating her so after a few back and forth words, we parted ways.

I chatted with some students of color that we sat with during the meeting and I asked them their thoughts about the woman in the corner and their reaction was obvious, it upset them. It felt disrespectful. It felt like she was blaming them for their own oppression by saying they weren’t working hard enough to fix it. We commiserated and headed for ice cream. They could not get over “overly racist” and kept saying it over and over, dumbfounded.

I actually had to stop and collect myself because the tears were falling at that point. All the emotion of the entire two hours hit me at once. This woman who clearly sees herself as this beacon of inclusivity is offending people of color and doesn’t see it. How are we ever going to ensure people of color get a fair shake?

I keep coming to this one thing I’ve read: Would white people be ok if tomorrow morning they woke up and were treated the same way we treat black people?

No. But so many don’t see the racial biases that are still present. Want to read more? Here are a few good reads I found just this week:

Want to take action? Here are two ways you can do that with links to other resources:

Thanks for allowing me to share here. <3 Feel free to email me with any questions or if you want to discuss anything. You can reach me at jess@jessrotenberg.com.

PS Some iPhone snaps from our day.

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jess

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