No, students aren’t just upset about a racist Snapchat group

BLM Fargo Instagram | Photo Courtesy
If behavior like this can go undiscovered for a month, what else don’t we know about?

NDSU’s response speaks to institutionally tolerated racism

This past Monday, Dec. 2, the Instagram account for Black Lives Matter Fargo shared screenshots from a Snapchat group filled with White NDSU students bearing a racially insensitive, and quite frankly abhorrent, name. The conversation which started on social media over the actions of these students turned into a larger one, focusing on NDSU’s role and response to the situation, which left much to be desired.

Students both on and off social media are asking, “Why didn’t NDSU do more?” Yet, this terrible situation is ensuring the conversation surrounding race, diversity and inclusion on campus will not be swept under the rug. Students are disappointed and angry, let’s discuss why they have every right to be.

To really understand the source of this outrage, the Snapchat group’s name and conversations are well past the realm of ‘friends joking around’. The title of the group included the N-word, and a screenshot revealed one member saying, “We’re not racist, we just prefer white people,” which is both ignorant and racist. 

The post exposing this group was shared on Instagram under @blmfargo. It includes the username and social media profiles of several of the members of this Snapchat group. These screenshots had been shared with NDSU officials on Nov. 2. 

While the comment section on the post was overwhelming in its condemnation of these individuals, there were a few people that suggested these men might not all be responsible for the name and comments in the chat. However, it should be noted that the quote about a preference for White people was made at least a day before the screenshots were taken, ample time to condone the conversation, let alone click a button and leave the group. 

It was only after @blmfargo shared the screenshot, and thousands of individuals interacted with the post, that NDSU chose to make a public statement. 

In an email sent out to students by Dean of Students, Casey Peterson said, “When received on November 2, the report was immediately reviewed by the Equity Office and the Dean of Students Office, and all actions that could be taken were completed on November 3 with the students involved.”

It’s hard to imagine that all action could have been taken in two days when it’s clear the members of this group need diversity training at a minimum and lengthy follow-up to ensure the weight of their actions are felt. 

Nonetheless, Peterson later lamented to Valley News Live, “I’m not sure who didn’t think we had done anything with it, but that’s the way it’s been portrayed, but it was actually all addressed within 48 hours.”

Why didn’t it appear anything had been done? Perhaps because the community was only informed of the situation one month later. Perhaps it was because NDSU’s official Instagram account commented, “Thanks for reaching out. NDSU is aware of the situation and is currently investigating,” on December 1st. Or maybe we just expected more from our university than hushed and hasty action. 

Bethany Davidowitz, an NDSU student said on the situation, “From what I heard from @blmfargo, the only thing NDSU did was ask the boys to change their group name, which is absolutely absurd!”

2020 NDSU graduate Nadia M., commenting on NDSU’s response, said, “That course of action shows Black students that their university not only doesn’t care about their identity but the pain that comes with living in this country.”

The truth is that this isolated incident is not the problem. This is not to say the situation isn’t extremely problematic, because it is, but that the issues inherent here have more relevance to institutionalized racism than they do with one group of racist men.

To understand this, look at the response one of the boys gave to BLM Fargo after the story went public, “I just don’t understand why people are so set on getting us in trouble for this group chat… These were intended jokes within our small group chat. We didn’t ever think someone would log into a Snapchat of a member and take pictures without them even knowing.”

The injustice to this individual was not that the actions themselves were wrong, but that those actions are now having real consequences. What occurred in this situation was so commonplace that those involved felt bad because they were caught, not because they were racist. This is captured best when the man eventually said, “We just got unlucky when said person took pictures of it.” Unlucky indeed.

Honestly, I can see where this person is coming from in a sense, not because I accept the conduct by any means, but that the public nature of this incidence is rare. Bear with me here, but when behavior like this is tolerated and permeates campus, getting caught and ‘punished’ seems like an unfair exception when the rule is often just to ignore it.

“I have heard so many white people on this campus say and use the n-word freely,” says NDSU student McKenna Warcken, “And they think that it’s okay to say it because no one stops them.”

Was the language used by these men despicable? Yes. But was it an uncommon occurrence? I don’t think so. As Nadia M. said, “During my time at NDSU I didn’t experience racism in a bold manner, but I did experience microaggressions… I would usually brush them off after venting to close friends.”

What these men did speaks to their individual racism, but coupled with NDSU’s response, we see a deeper problem within the university. 

This past June, following the murder of George Floyd, President Dean Bresciani said, “Simply put, our students and colleagues of color are valued members of the NDSU community and need to feel supported.”

NDSU alumnus Angel B. has a few choice words in response to this, “I doubt they feel supported during this situation, or maybe the support only comes when the students of color are helping them win championship rings?”

In his announcement this summer, Bresciani went on to say, “I am asking campus leaders to each do their part to learn, listen, and provide opportunities for engagement around issues of race and inclusivity.” As a student, I have yet to see these ‘opportunities for engagement’, but campus leaders will certainly learn from this situation to better listen.

The statement sent to students by Peterson on Tuesday sounds familiar, “NDSU will continue to take incidents such as this extremely seriously, and will use every tool we have to combat and prevent incidents like this.” 

It feels like the only reason this was taken so seriously is because it was seen by so many. Had BLM Fargo not spoken up, this would have likely just been another in what must be a series of unknown racist incidents at NDSU. 

And what had been done before Tuesday? The NDSU community was granted only silence. Yet silence in the hands of an institution with a wide-reaching voice is injustice. 

As Warcken said, “We get notifications for stuff like sexual assaults, fights, break-ins all the time, but we don’t get notified about blatant racism? That is not okay and makes it seem like our campus has something to hide.” 

To Warcken’s point, students received one such notification on the morning of December 2nd, informing them of a robbery on campus. If these updates are meant to protect and inform students, including racist incidents in these updates would inform people about possible danger at NDSU and discourage similar behavior. 

Peterson told Valley News Live, “Several of (the members) have reached out to other people on campus looking for ways to apologize.” What does it say about NDSU that they did so little to punish these individuals that they have to seek out their own recompense? Apologies should have been mandatory from the beginning, something even these members capable of extreme ignorance are able to grasp before NDSU has. 

NDSU’s response is expected, even if it is not tolerable. Racism isn’t a good look for any university, and it likely would not bode well for the school if they had to show the reality of it. 

However, when NDSU continues to use students of color disproportionately in advertisements and when trying to present the diversity of the campus, they don’t get to take a step back from reality when these students express outrage and demand change. 

Despite the disheartening nature of this Snapchat group, the response from students and the community at large might just finally force NDSU’s hand. In addition to comments decrying the actions of the individuals in the group, there were also many individuals insisting they would not attend a university that tolerated racism, that students were considering transferring and alumni were promising to withhold donations. 

As crazy as it might sound, most people don’t want to be associated with a school that protects racists. As Davidowitz said, “The way NDSU didn’t react has made me incredibly disappointed and honestly embarrassed to call myself an NDSU student. I’ve been considering transferring for next year and this might have pushed me over the edge.”

Alumnus Angel B. related, “Many of us never care to visit NDSU again after we obtain our degrees,” she continued, “NDSU never really feels like a home away from home for students of color. We all just tolerated the microaggression throughout the years.”

So what can be done? Because the current state of things is heartbreaking and unacceptable, and from a student’s perspective, no concrete steps towards progress have been presented by the university. 

A good place to start, and one perfect one for a university, is education. As Nadia M. said, “Racism is taught, and if you don’t educate and enforce rules that denounce racism, we continue this same cycle throughout future generations.” 

Angel B. too recommends using the university’s educational resources to help combat racism: “I feel that a course dedicated to understanding the history behind other races/cultures should be a mandatory Gen Ed for the first-year students.”

Yes, NDSU does require three credits in ‘Cultural Diversity,’ but students can get these by taking an introductory visual arts course or a course about popular American music, hardly the kind of classes set to help tackle the nuance and complexity of race in America.

Warcken also recommends a more serious punishment to individuals who take part in racist activity on campus, “Have informative sessions they’re required to attend, and as punishment, they shouldn’t be allowed to join any campus sports, clubs or organizations.”

What’s important to take away from this entire situation is not just that the actions of the men in this Snapchat group were unacceptable, it’s that their actions were only encouraged by a university environment which excuses and neglects to address racist behavior. 

As a result of everything that has happened in the last few days, we have seen both good and bad. Peterson has suggested that the students might face harsher consequences if individuals continue to speak up, which is both encouraging to those doing so and disappointing that this is the avenue that must be taken for change.

Information continues to come out about the incident, where it seems university staff in the student’s residence halls may have been negligent in handling the seriousness of the situation. But despite all this, there is still some hope, and that comes from the overwhelming number of students and community members who have criticized the racist event and the university’s response. 

Student Body President, Matthew Friedmann, in a statement to the students of the university said, “I know how frustrating it is when acts of bigotry and hate are met merely with words, so I am reaffirming my commitment to doing everything in my power to help make meaningful change.” 

Friedmann promised to leave his door and inbox open to any and all concerns and discussed a process of applying for a cultural education grant. He has promised to take action, which is more than can be said for other leaders within the university. 

More than this, students across campus have been pledging to continue the conversation and to keep this university accountable. This is more than a black box on Instagram or a Listserv filled with empty promises, these are our friends and peers pledging action. If the NDSU administration will not make an effortful attempt to combat the pervasive racism on campus, the students certainly will. 

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