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Racism on Campus Prompts Conversations, Questions About Commitment to Diversity

University of Richmond
January's incident of racist graffiti has prompted discussions in classrooms about racism on college campuses. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

The recent discovery of racist graffiti at the University of Richmond has sparked larger conversations on how to talk about hatred and bias on college campuses. VPM spoke with students about what they’d like to see done and to professors who are using the recent events to engage in dialogue.

International student Lina Tori Jan woke up on a Sunday in January and checked her phone. On a group chat, someone shared pictures of racist messages written on dorm room name tags.

“I was shocked to see like a word like terrorist on a door. And I cannot believe it. You know, I'm from Afghanistan, I grew up with that word. So every time I see that, where I literally want the ground to open for me to hide," she said.

Tori Jan is a senior who double majors in Political Science and Leadership studies. She came to the University of Richmond on a scholarship. She, along with another International student, Hijab Fatima, are Resident Assistants, or RAs, in the dorms. While the racist graffiti wasn’t in their building, the students still felt targeted.

“For us, it's not just a dorm room. It's not just- this is our home. That is literally our home because if that is not our home, then the next home is thousands of miles away," Fatima said.

University of Richmond Professor Corey Walker said that hate message are not a recent phenomena. He says when incidents of racial hatred are documented, a bigger picture emerges.

“We're seeing a rise in all of this intolerance, a rise of increased hatred and hate acts, both within communities and within college communities and in the broader community," he said. "So it would do us good as faculty and to begin to place this in a broader context.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there have been over 300 reported cases of white supremacist propaganda found on college campuses nationwide last school year. That’s a seven percent increase over the previous year. 

Walker, who teaches “Philosophy of Race,” has been cataloging these incidents too. He points to Syracuse University, where at least 25 racist and anti-semitic messages have been found since November. This prompted some students to leave campus and led to weeks of protests. 

“We look at the most recent incident at Ball State that the professor calling police into the classroom. We look at incidents of antisemitism swastika at the University of Georgia, just in the fall semester," Walker said.

Even before the racial slurs were discovered at U of R, Walker was already holding classroom discussions about, such as the recent gun rights rally held at the State Capital on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. 

“So the question becomes how do we begin to understand that incident in the context or in the continuum?" He said.

Monti Datta, who is an Associate Professor of Political Science at U of R, has taught courses on human rights in modern slavery. He says students often come to him to share personal stories of racist behavior they’ve encountered on campus. 

“I think very much our students are starving for deeper conversation that goes beyond just the academic," said Datta.

Datta says after the racist graffiti was discovered, he made it a point to check in with students, to see how they were coping. 

“And the classroom I think, is for me the best space to try to create that safety of, you know, equity and diversity and inclusivity," he said.

Datta says it’s the leaning into discussions about race that his students are appreciating.

“We're teaching our students through the horrors of these racist vandalous acts, that it's okay to name it. It's okay to talk about it. And we need to talk about it and not pretend it'll go away," Datta said.

Student Lina Tori Jan says the school has done a pretty good job of trying to make students like her feel more accepted and welcome, but she’d like to see more. 

"If you're gonna preach a name of diversity inclusivity don't just do it on the website. Don't do it through pictures, apply it to your school," she said.

Fellow student Hijab Fatima says student leaders continue to meet with the administration weekly. The Collegian reports that at a meeting this week, students discussed the need for more diverse faculty and requiring racial diversity wellness classes.