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Black at Ohio University

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Dec. 5, 2014, was a dreary day in Athens. Rain was in the process of muddying up what little snow had fallen in the city, and daylight savings time had forced the sun to set at just 5 p.m. No one wanted to be outside that day, with temperatures being in the high 30s, and yet around 50 people were out on the courthouse steps. Almost all of the protesters held cardboard signs that became harder to hold as the rain continued to pour on Court Street, the central hub of Athens, Ohio, where multiple bars, restaurants and shops intersect Ohio University’s campus.

The protest went as these protests go: fears, tears and anger filled the talks given by speakers to the audience that listened intently as they responded to a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict New York City Police Department officer Daniel Pantaelo for killing Eric Garner via a then-legal chokehold. What changed it, though, was that the protesters decided to march into the one lane of Court that was not already blocked off by the police, stopping traffic for a short amount of time. It was 4 1/2 minutes, to be specific, the amount of time Michael Brown’s body had lain in the street in Ferguson.

Nile Harris, a black sophomore studying chemistry pre-medicine at the time, went to the protest with his friend Mark. He went into the street with the others, blocking the single lane of traffic. It was then Harris says the motorists and the students in the apartments above Court Street’s many businesses began to share their thoughts.

People were opening their windows like ‘N—-rs, leave!’ Just yelling crazy stuff,” Harris said almost a year later, hand resting on his cheek. “People were driving past, calling us ‘n—-rs.’ People were spitting from their cars. People were like ‘get a job, lazy bums.’ Like, all this crazy stuff.”

With the rain and the chaos of a public protest, these comments were probably lost to most; in news reports on the protest, these comments were never mentioned. What is certain for multiple people that were at the protest is that they said they remember highly offensive remarks being made to the protesters.

This one rally was when Harris received an extreme reminder of who he is and what he deals with every day.

“You know, you experience racial things commonly as an African-American or minority in general, but that was the probably the first time in a long time that it was extremely overt and directed toward me,” Harris said calmly. “That was really upsetting, and that was right on OU’s campus. And these are people that I’m sure I walk past on a daily basis.”

Dealing with racism in college, both extreme and subtle types, isn’t just isolated to OU. A wave of new, more publicized campus protests over unequal treatment due to race, gender and sexual orientation in parallel to the Black Lives Matter protests across the country, with notable protests occurring at Yale University and Ithaca College. Campus protest that ended up making racism in college a national topic occurred again last month at the University of Missouri, a place that had experienced multiple racial incidents and reactions. For this university, the event that made national headlines was when the school’s football team suspended activities to support a black graduate student on a hunger strike, which led to the resignation of the school’s president. The University of Missouri’s student enrollment in fall 2014 had 77 percent of its students being white, which is strikingly similar to OU’s enrollment of 78.4 percent that same year.

Experiences similar to Harris’ and many others were expressed through social media using #BlackOnCampus on Twitter. The hashtag, started by the Concerned Student 1950 group at the University of Missouri in the wake of the campus protests there, was used over 60,000 times and was featured in a verified “Twitter Moment” on the website itself. As students and faculty of color shared their experiences through tweets with #BlackOnCampus, ranging from user @birdiehumour being called “smart for a black girl” by an English teacher to @AurielEbonie being kicked out of her dorm because her non-black roommate was scared of her, white Twitter users responded. These reactions varied from claims that the hashtag users were overreacting to shock and solidarity.

Robin Muhammad, the director of the OU African American studies department who holds a PhD in history, wasn’t shocked by what’s happening. She believes that the level of surprise white students and faculty of color have to stories of students and faculty members of color only exist because most have not dealt with these racial experiences before. She says racism is much more than an OU problem or a problem in southeastern Ohio.

I don’t think people of color are surprised by how much racism, classism and sexism there is,” Muhammad said. “I think region can play part of a role, but the fact is that this is a university that attracts people from all over the world as well as all over the state. So I think that the level of surprise is really not present for those that are already from marginalized communities.”

Racial slurs and acts are more nuanced at OU. They’re done through sometimes-explicit posts on the app Yik Yak, where users are anonymous unless they make threatening posts. The most recent physical example of racism at OU came when a male allegedly tore apart a Black Lives Matter bulletin board in a residence hall.

But most of the time, racism is perpetuated through what are called “microaggressions.” Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines these in his 2010 book, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation,” as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.

Like around the nation, it seems every student of color at OU has at least one microaggression story.

Mateo Dillard is a freshman studying business pre-law who was just starting to get acquainted with the Athens campus. He started attending on-campus parties held by the Black Student Cultural Programming Board, a large student organization which frequently sets up social and educational events centered on minorities, and he said it felt like every time he attended a BSCPB party in the Baker University Center, campus police and university security members would have a crowding presence from the very beginning.

There will be parties that white organizations will put on the same way (BSCPB) will throw a party, and there is no security for white parties,” Dillard said, seemingly talking with his hands whenever he could. “But if you come to a black party, there’s cops at every corner, there’s security, you get scanned before you walk into the ballroom, you have to show the wristband so that they know that you paid for it. It’s just a whole bunch of extra stuff,”

He would eventually make his way into the party and have a good time. But then came the time to leave.

“Then when Baker closes at 2 a.m., the cops are like, ‘Alright, it’s over. Everybody leave. Walk out the door. We’re locking the doors. Everybody has to get out,’” Dillard mimicked. “But then there was a party that (an organization) had in Baker, and it was over with, but it was still going on. This was passed the time it was supposed to be over.”

Alexis Apparicio is a black student at OU who was in a learning community her freshman year. She says she was one of only three black students in the community of approximately 30 freshmen, with the rest being white. Statistically, African-Americans make up around 5 percent of OU’s population and 10 percent of the state of Ohio’s population. Apparicio’s learning community was right in line.

They all shared a set of classes together, and one of those classes had a huge midterm coming up. Typically, they shared notes and collaborated through study sessions with the whole learning community.

“Do you have the notes for this subject? No?” a white student asked another white student in the study session.

The white student tried again with another white student. “Do you have the notes?”

Again, a white student was asked, “You have the notes, right?”

Apparicio and the other two black students, who had the notes on the test material, sat, glancing over as the group tried to figure this out. It took her little time to come to the belief that the three were intentionally skipped because they assumed they didn’t have the information because they were black.

It’s not like at this point we didn’t know each other because we just spent 10 weeks with each other and had multiple classes with each other, so we all knew each other and each other’s capabilities. At least I thought we did,” Apparicio said.

Now a junior studying African American studies and political science and the president of the OU chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Apparicio said the experience baffled her, bringing her into a racial landscape she didn’t expect.

“We’re looking at each other like, ‘Is this really happening? Is this just in our heads, or is this actually like the racism that we never really thought we were going to see in college?’”

Apparicio said they let the learning community fail that test.

Marcus Cole was a black freshman at OU walking with his friends to a party in Baker two years ago. The walkway that led to the first-floor entrance of the building was strung with multiple street lamps, making it one of the most well-lit areas of campus. It was around 9 p.m.

“It was late, but it wasn’t ‘get robbed’ late,” Cole said.

Up on the sidewalk, there was a white woman about to walk past the black crowd. She was carrying a purse, so does what her mind tells her to do: she hugs it tightly as she passed them.

“So tight, as if we were going to jump her in a well-lit area on campus. I’m like, ‘Lady, we’re not going to rob you. We’re trying to go to a party.’”

These are just a few examples that have been spoken about in the OU minority community. Someone in a global studies class once made a meme in his group of the “four white girls” in the group and the “n—-r.” A white employee in a CVS Pharmacy store stopped black men and asked to put their backpacks in the front of the store, while white customers walked around with their backpacks. And at multiple times, white students would do all they could to avoid sitting next to black students in lecture halls.

Everyone interviewed for this story who has dealt with instances of racial prejudice talked about them with a laugh or a sense of astonishment. Friends will come in and humorously try to figure out what the people at the other end of the incident are thinking, or they’ll just laugh at the absurdity of the situation. The situations are presented in a way that makes it seem like ordinary talk at a dinner table. And to those who don’t deal with race-based discrimination, they have a hard time believing these anecdotes are real.

“That’s the thing: people don’t believe it,” Dillard said. “They really don’t believe it.”

Technically, the victim of racial harassment can report the incident to the university. All reported incidents of racial harassment within Ohio University start at the Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance, according to Jessica Cook, the assistant director for Civil Rights Compliance. The office deals with complaints that violate the Ohio University Equal Employment and Educational Opportunity Policy, which bars discrimination or harassment of almost any kind.

When a complaint is filed to the ECRC, the office schedules an interview with the person who filed the complaint and assesses the case, Cook said in an email. The case is then reviewed to see if the action violates university policy and is legally “severe” or “pervasive” conduct by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights’ definition. If it violates both of these, a formal investigation is prompted. Otherwise, the ECRC will either encourage mediation between the two parties to achieve an “informal resolution,” or it will refer the person who filed the complaint to other university departments, such as the Office of Community Standards, where the case may go through another review process.

Ohio University recognizes harassment as a form of unlawful discrimination that can be a barrier to access to educational or employment opportunity,” Cook said. “The Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance takes allegations of discrimination and/or harassment very seriously, and we are dedicated to preventative programming and training to try to eliminate this type of behavior altogether.  However, when a discrimination or harassment complaint does arise, Ohio University will investigate and respond in accord with (the office’s procedures).”

The formality of the reporting system turns some students and faculty off of reporting issues. Some students of color don’t find issue in it, though. Rather, they find the blame within the institution itself, whether that be Ohio University or a predominately-white administration.

“The thing that happened with Mike Brown had recently happened before that, and so people were just upset about Eric Garner, and we were just upset about the racism at the school that included students and faculty,” Harris said, referring to the protest where he said passersby called him and the crowd racial slurs. “The reason I probably didn’t say anything was because the emotions that led that protest were aimed at faculty, too. Sometimes, they’re part of the problem. That’s why I don’t say anything. How can you make the problem see that they’re a problem?

Meanwhile, Apparicio makes reports about racial incidents she encounters on campus to the university and is able to recall a time when she emailed the Sorority & Fraternity Life Office as well as the Vice Provost of Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Shari Clarke, over a blatantly racist tweet a woman in an OU sorority made. She said it took a while for the Sorority & Fraternity Life Office to respond, but when they did, they argued that she wasn’t a representative of her sorority and that she was making too big of a deal over the tweet.

What I’m saying is that if this is the feeling that one person, then who knows what anybody else is saying, and the fact that she was able to put it on social media with her name, with where she goes to school and with her letters shows that she’s not afraid of the consequences,” Apparicio said. “She does not care because she doesn’t have anything to fear. So the fact that I’m bringing this up to you and you’re saying that this is a non-issue is why she feels that she can say these things, because there’s not going to be any consequences. She ended up having to give up her letters, but it wasn’t until multiple people had to email them and say that ‘This is an issue, and we’re just not going to not say anything.’”

Addressing racism on campus is generally tricky for the university, but it’s still taken steps to combat it. OU has so far held three different “Campus Conversation” events during the calendar year 2015 to invite students and faculty to talk about racial inequality and how it affects everyday life.

Despite these events, some people at OU believe that the conversation isn’t reaching the people who need to be a part of it. The NAACP chapter and the Black Life Action Coalition, two student-led organizations that hold this belief, have been pushing for some sort of mandatory cultural competency class. Although questions have been asked about what the class should look like, the classes have slowly achieved university support. The Ohio University Student Senate voted on a resolution that in part endorsed the classes, and the black president of the university, Roderick McDavis, endorsed the classes but said the faculty would have to agree on a conclusive class.

Muhammad is one such person calling for the classes.

“I think our job at a university is to build and expand knowledge, so cultural competency, the sciences, mathematics, language,” Muhammad said, “these are all ongoing, life-long processes. So if we can give more priority to cultural competency, I think it would go a long way in making these conversations deeper and more productive. They can’t cure everything just as not one science or math or language course can make you completely scientifically competent or fluent in a particular language. The idea is that you develop a skill set and a comfortable level for engaging in difficult conversations and interacting with people who have backgrounds that are very different from yours or very similar.”

The idea of the classes was conceptualized over a year ago, so it would make sense to some that the classes would be finalized by now. However, Apparicio, who was just one of the people working on bringing the class to OU before she gave up out of frustration, said the class has been hitting road blocks by faculty members who can’t decide on the requirements of it.

I was on the first, first committee for it, and when we met to meet with them, it was like four or five students and and four or five faculty (members), and they were basically like, ‘Well, this basically isn’t going to get done because we can’t tell faculty what to teach,’” Apparicio said. “And we were like, ‘So what was the point of this meeting if this wasn’t ever a possibility?’”

Currently, the OU community is reacting to the latest incident involving race: the vandalized Black Lives Matter bulletin board.

Last week, numerous students offered to assist in recreating the bulletin board after learning that it was torn down,” university spokesperson Dan Pittman said via email. “Staff members of the Department of Housing and Residence Life and the Division of Student Affairs also talked with several students who were affected by the situation.”

In response, the Black Student Union, another large student organization focused on minorities, is planning to paint the university’s graffiti wall to grow awareness of the BLM movement and minority struggles at OU. How the university’s community will respond to the wall and whether that response will be adequate enough is anybody’s guess.

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