Oops, My Bad! Addressing Racial Insensitivity on the College Campus


by Myliyah Hanna

As a third year at this university, it gets easier to notice trends throughout Grounds. You start to learn what days and times will incur the longest dumpling cart line. You’ll learn which bus to take to get Downtown and when they stop running on Friday nights. As a student of color here on Grounds, I’ve also noticed certain trends when it comes to how the students and the administration handle racially charged incidents: there is not enough substantial change that aids minority students.

I bring this issue up is because it’s formulaic: a student or a group of students does something offensive to one or more minority groups via social media, it spreads like wildfire, and they release a long paragraph about how they understand the racist undertones of their action and will seek to be a better person. Everyone else moves on, the offended group is left to heal an unwanted wound by themselves.

Before we look at how the University handles these cases, allow me to introduce Paige Shoemaker, another offender who found herself in this situation. In her case, her “blackface-but-not-really-blackface” excuse didn’t hold enough ground to keep her at Kansas State; she was expelled from the college. Due to her actions, she suffered the consequences and paid a fair price.

Firstly, I commend Kansas State for stepping in and removing a problem. It’s great that they are showing the majority students at these schools–at my school–that they cannot continue to get away with offenses like these because they didn’t know right from wrong; as twenty-somethings, you have no excuse to not know the difference by now.

The University can learn from Kansas’s decision. On September 2nd, students and their RAs walked through the halls of Kent-Dabney and discovered the n-word written on whiteboards and the doors of the residents, written in permanent marker. The Black Student Alliance (BSA) and the RAs did an excellent job of teaming up and creating an inclusivity program that would, hopefully, prevent this from happening in the future. Even if not, it was certainly a necessary step in the right direction.

The issue with the handling of this situation is that the student body carried most of the burden of righting the wrongs of racial ignorance. Where was the email from President Sullivan or Dean Groves condemning this behavior? Where was the change? The only thing that changed is that the students of color living in Kent-Dabney now have this incident of racial insensitivity to remind them of their first year on Grounds. Even though there isn’t a way to identify the group of students who committed this violation, the University should look at these incidents and determine methods to best prevent future incidents like this from occurring. Dialogue needs to occur between the leaders of this school and the affected students to help create an ideal environment for everyone.

Of course, the University isn’t responsible for making sure that every student that steps onto Grounds is without their biases or faults. The University, however, is responsible for making sure that every student at this University graduates with having recognized their full potential. Some students of color are tired of the emails, of feeling disdain and even regret for having chosen to enroll here. The University of Virginia is an excellent college, and I’m certainly getting my money’s worth, but this school’s handling of race issues has been robbing me blind.

While the services of CAPS and the shoulder of other minority students are here to make sense of moments of racial insensitivity, more change needs to happen. The University recently began changing the curriculum for the first years, experimenting with liberal arts studies so as to give them an opportunity at a wider range of classes. Perhaps what would be even more useful are classes about racial insensitivity and how to engage in racial discourse. Too many students here are not engaging with these topics. When they are called out for their racial insensitivity, these students feel victimized because they have never been confronted on their biases. Being able to participate in this discussion is a valuable skill, one that strengthens one’s critical thinking skills and interactions with other students from all walks of life.

The University of Virginia has the opportunity to change the approaches of racial tension into a system that works to create an open and understanding community. Dialogue and the willingness to confront discomfort are key in making important renovations to this University’s racial foundation. As an institution with roots heavily tied to slavery, it is this University’s responsibility to right these wrongs and to create an environment that is inclusive for all.