Who has power?: Butler students react to hate speech in Atherton Union

After a hate message was found in a room near the Diversity Center, open conversations will take place at two different times on Wednesday. Collegian file photo.

DANA LEE | EDITOR-IN-CHIEF | delee1@butler.edu

Over the weekend of March 1-3, the words “white power” appeared on a whiteboard in the Atherton Union student lounge near the Efroymson Diversity Center.

The hate speech prompted a joint-response from SGA President Sam Varie and Alex Kassan, SGA vice president of diversity and inclusion. Frank Ross, vice president for student affairs, posted a video on social media saying hate speech is not acceptable. Faculty Senate also responded to the incident.

On March 5, students received an email from student affairs stating the campus’ zero tolerance for hateful rhetoric. Open conversations will take place from 12-1 p.m. and 5-6 p.m., March 6 in the Diversity Center.

***

It was still one of the few spaces on Butler University’s campus he considered a safe haven. So even as two Butler police officers entered the room to investigate where someone wrote the words “white power” on a whiteboard, first-year Abiodun Akinseye preferred to stay here — in the Atherton Union student lounge.

He liked the isolated quiet it provided between classes. The worn mismatched furniture, the lone wall painted blue, his favorite table — it all felt familiar, even though lately he felt as though his sense of belonging was slipping on a campus that still felt foreign.

As a high school senior at Northwest High School, he initially worried about Butler’s lack of diversity when over 81 percent of students were white, but he was assuaged by the school’s history. Founded by abolitionist Ovid Butler, the school was the first Indiana college to enroll both men and women, and it admitted students of color 10 years before slavery was abolished.

“Butler was founded on the values of diversity,” his tour guide said. Now those same words hung on a poster in Jordan Hall, following Akinseye even as he walked into classrooms where he was the only student of color. You belong here, his dad once told him. Even if you don’t feel like you do. Akinseye believed him then, but lately he wasn’t so sure.

He thought about transferring to a school like IUPUI which offered more diversity, but wanted to stay for Butler’s academics, small class sizes and because he was encouraged to text his FYS professor with questions like “Why can’t we just accept people for who they are?”

He liked to ask questions even when he didn’t know the answers, and here was another: was it easier to perform heart surgery or to change the mind of an ignorant person?

In the final week of February, the president of Butler signed a letter urging state legislative leaders for a comprehensive hate crimes law. Now it was March, and the school was in local news headlines because the words “white power” appeared in a room next to the campus diversity center over the weekend.

“Butler U addresses offensive message found in student lounge,” read one headline.

Another read “Butler investigating ‘white power’ message on whiteboard; students ‘not surprised.’”

One reporter referred to the definition of hate speech on air, calling it “abusive or threatening language that expresses prejudice against a particular group.” As she spoke, video of students walking across campus came into view. Almost all of them were white.

Akinseye logged onto Facebook. “Racism is alive not only at our predominantly white institution, but around the world.” The post was written by a friend, the news story shared below. The headline isn’t fake, she wrote. Was anyone listening? This was her school.

***

This was junior Alex Kassan’s school too, and when she saw a picture of a white board with “white power” scrawled in black on social media, she couldn’t find it within herself to feel surprised.

Students of color, Kassan said, can tell you the same thing about campus culture: microaggressions and blatant examples of racism happen at Butler every day.

Lately, she wondered if using the term microaggression unintentionally minimized the amount of hurt it could cause, that maybe it was better to call it like it was, to beat racism and ignorance back with equally blunt rhetoric — an aggression. Would it even matter?

She was born in Elkhart, but moved to Hamilton County, where the percentage of people with diverse backgrounds dropped from over 43 percent to less than 18. She graduated from North Central High School, which had a diverse student population, but decided to attend Butler, which did not. When people asked how she got into Butler, there was an added connotation that maybe it was a mistake.

She came to Butler so she could major in gender, women and sexuality studies and to examine positions of power, but the majority of students on campus represented that very same power. She was appointed SGA vice president of diversity and inclusion to create safe spaces for minorities, but now those spaces were being encroached by “white power.”

It felt like a slap in the face. But no, she told friends who asked. She wasn’t shocked.

There were days in her classes when Kassan felt tired, days when she asked herself: “How much energy do I have to educate today?” Because whether Kassan’s professors realized it or not, that’s what they were asking her to do when she was the only student of color in the room and the class topic of the day happened to cover minority experiences.

Kassan always believed she could use her position as a student leader to help empower minorities, and now here was a chance to take the power away from whoever wrote “white power” and redirect it to the emotions and feelings of those affected. On Sunday night, she worked with the president of SGA to craft a response.

She wrote what she would want to hear from someone else, if her safe space had been violated. “This is f*cked up,” she said. “Let’s just acknowledge that at first. Then, “I hope people know  there’s someone out there who’s paying attention, who cares.”

She included her email at the bottom of the statement, below her signature and title, because she didn’t know what else to do. What else could she do, besides let people know she was there.

***

An investigation through the dean of students office would open Monday morning, but that was still two days away and Frank Ross was hurting. These were his students. As vice president for student affairs, he could email a statement, which he did on Tuesday. But here and now was 8 p.m. on a Sunday night at home while his five-year-old son Mason was in bed.

Ross took off the baseball hat he had been wearing all day, held his phone to eye level and hit record. It took several tries to condense three minutes into one — there was so much to say — but finally, there, it was done.

“This contradicts our university’s values of diversity and inclusion,” he started, and then in the final seconds of his message, “I will be in touch to discuss next steps and how we as a community move forward from this.”

He clicked share. He posted on Instagram because that’s what his students said they were using these days and then tweeted the video as well.

Several Butler students coming back from Selma, Alabama, saw the video after reenacting Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bloody Sunday March on its 54th anniversary. Crowds chanted phrases like “no justice, no peace” and “because the power of people won’t stop.”

On campus, it felt to Ross like there were members of the community who wondered why the words “white power” were problematic, even as he got the sense from students of color that they weren’t surprised something like this had happened at Butler. Mostly, they wanted to know what the university was going to do about.

Later that night and more than 24 hours after he first posted his video, Ross opened Twitter and scrolled through the comments. When he created the video, it was because he wanted to reach out to students. Any negative rhetoric, he could ignore.

“H O A X.  They depend on the overreaction which they always get,” someone tweeted.

“Another fake hate crime no doubt.”

“There is no such legal thing as hate speech. Especially just because you don’t agree or like it.”

“Hysteria is what you’re displaying here.”

***

Is this what moving forward looked like? Akinseye wondered, then watched as the views on Ross’ video hit 1,000, then over 8,000 views. Most of the comments confirmed what Akinseye had already believed — that few people cared about hate speech or how it made him feel. That these days, it was becoming harder to have a conversation about race even when it felt to him more urgent than ever.

“Erase it and move on,” one comment read.

“If the first person that saw it erased it, and maybe didn’t broadcast an attention seeking video to the world, it would have zero effect, and it would stop,” another tweet echoed.

But white power was a mentality, it wasn’t just something they could erase, Akinseye argued. Again his mind wandered to what it would take in order to change the mind of an ignorant person.

“I wouldn’t want more minorities dealing with this in the future,” he said. “Why don’t we deal with it now?”

Inside the Diversity Center, several students nodded. Some slung their arms over chairs. Another lounged lazily on a beanbag. Backpacks were strewn aside, the weight slipping off students’ shoulders once they walked inside. Two red Chinese lanterns framed one of the doors, and on the same wall, a black and white poster of Nelson Mandela. “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere,” it read.

“That’s no joke,” a first-year said.

“That alone is a problem,” said another.

“I don’t think it was an accident. They did it with intention.”

“Two words: white power. Those words have power. They’re trying to send a message.”

Michelle Stigter, the modern language center director, looked at the students. She knew one from a previous class. Two more were in her class this semester. It might help, Stigter thought, if students knew they had someone they could talk to, which is how their spontaneous discussion group ended up forming around a table.

Sometimes Stigter would wander into the Diversity Center from her office on the third floor of Jordan to attend the Social Justice Diversity discussions held once a month. She always saw the same people and she worried they weren’t reaching the students on campus who needed to hear these conversations — the same ones who equated black power to white power and didn’t see a difference.

The school required every student to attend eight Butler Cultural Requirements — events that were supposed to expand students’ perspectives. “Eight before you graduate,” the slogan on campus went. But how could a curriculum engage students who were only there to fulfill a graduation requirement? Or instill an open mindset in students once they leave?

“I want to put my students in a position to see something from a different perspective,” Stigter said.

“We come here to learn, to get an education,” a first-year said.

“You can’t teach empathy,” a senior responded.

The group paused. It was a Monday night and almost 5 p.m. Akinseye was ready to go home and so was everyone else. One girl had class. She zipped her coat. She shouldered her bag.

“Don’t forget: you are agents of change,” Stigter said. “It’s a heavy burden to carry.”

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