Students take stand against graffiti

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Students standing in front of the We are ONE board

Among the students who applied the lessons of Yolanda Lehman’s (seated) ”Race in America” class are, from left: freshman mechanical engineering major Anthony Larson, Sartell/St. Stephen; freshman Sarah Gruhot, Fargo, N.D.; and sophomore international business major Andrea Dohmen, Hampton. More than 830 spontaneous reactions to racist graffiti that defaced a class poster in Stewart Hall were generated for “The Wall,” a display that was moved to Atwood Center for more than two weeks.

Several students in a class called “Race in America,” without prompting from university administrators, banded together to immediately and publicly denounce a racist message posted on a bulletin board honoring Height’s accomplishments. They left the racist vandal some graffiti of their own.

“Not true. Not funny. Not OK in my community,” read one.

“Racism is ignorance,” read another.

“Man up,” another read. “Do you talk to your mother with that mouth?”

The student-driven outcry spread through text messages, e-mails, Twitter and Facebook early this week and continued Wednesday [April 18]. By Wednesday evening, students had left more than 100 notes for the unknown racist. [On April 13 the display was moved to Atwood Center and the expanded bulletin board had 833 responses in two weeks.]

“Learning about (Height), you kind of connected with her. It was personal,” said sophomore Sara Schoborg, who is white. “I think this reaction is a really strong one and a good opportunity for students, especially the silent majority. It’s a great opportunity for students to speak out against it.”

The students in Yolanda Lehman’s diversity class have just finished reading “Open Wide the Freedom Gates,” the memoir of Height, who turned 97 on March 24. The students consider her a hero, Lehman said, and they created a bulletin board to honor her.

It didn’t take long for someone to scrawl the racist message across the bulletin board, which hangs in a stairway between the first and second floors of Stewart Hall.

“My students were very justifiably mortified,” Lehman said. “But they were also determined to respond to it in a way that would make Ms. Height proud.”

“She wouldn’t have let this go by,” student Andrea Dohmen said of Height. “She would have stood up against this and done something.”

Dohmen, who is biracial, and African-American student Ernest Langston said they were proud that so many fellow students stood up against the hate speech. Seeing and hearing the opposition from white students creates a safer environment for students of color, they said.

“This response has been very positive and truly engages the community in how we can come together,” Langston said.

“Now we see the allies who will say that this is not cool.”

Those students began to leave their messages in Stewart Hall in a campaign driven by student outrage. The group wasn’t about to let one misguided person speak for the entire campus, said junior Trisha Mulheron, who is white. So the students decided early on against taking the bulletin board down.

“We decided ‘Let’s leave it there and use it as a learning experience,’ “she said.

Mulheron spoke to a chemistry class Wednesday and many hadn’t heard about the graffiti. She encouraged students to tell their friends and respond with messages of their own.

And Mulheron left a message of her own to the vandal.
“Progress can’t be measured in the actions of ignorant people, but in the community response to these actions. We will not tolerate hate.”

“We’re really proud of the way the students have responded to this. (The graffiti) was a reprehensible and despicable thing to do,” said Michael Spitzer, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “I can only characterize it as an affront to the university.”

St. Cloud State made headlines in late 2007 and early 2008 for the discovery of several swastikas on campus. The source of nearly all the swastikas remains a mystery. And while the campus community united against that graffiti, this outcry was more immediate. And Lehman noted the numbers of European Americans who vocalized opposition that they might have been feeling but not expressing previously, Lehman said.

“They are saying that not only does this offend (students of color), it offends me,” Lehman said of the white students. “This is my university, and I am paying tuition dollars to come here. And this is not the kind of community I want to be a part of.”

Lehman said she was proud to know the students and honored that they are standing up to resist a message of hate. “I think that this fundamentally changes the climate of the university,” Lehman said. “(The vandals) can no longer assume that nobody will report them and that their statements represent the feelings of the majority of the campus.”

- David Unze

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