Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Racist Graffiti

For my return to blogging, my first feature is a notice of resurging hate graffiti in one of the dorms at my place of employment.
On Sept. 4, Public Safety reported that swastikas were found drawn in permanent black marker on a bulletin board in Emerson. More swastikas appeared on stairwells and elevators Sept. 9, and again on Sept. 27 and 30, according to Courtney Bazan, residence director of Emerson Hall. Bazan said in the Sept. 30 case, the words “white power” were written on a vending machine in the Emerson laundry room. The Office of Public Safety said the graffiti incidents are not being classified as hate crimes.

Bazan said the swastikas were blatant.

“We had three in the elevator, and walking in there, I wanted to absolutely throw up when I saw them,” she said. “They’re not things that we take lightly.”
In one of my classes today, I led a discussion on the graffiti, and many issues were raised - does calling attention to racist graffiti simply gratify those who drew the swastikas? Were those who drew the graffiti racists? Or were they just drunken college students? Should the college do something about the graffiti (other than clean it off), and if so, what? What would motivate someone to do something like this? What role does alcohol play in offences like this? Is our campus really as diverse as the rhetoric makes it out to be? Where do people learn to do things like this - do they learn such prejudice at home? The usual questions that people ask when confronted with such expressions of hatred.

Two years ago, the college sponsored an "Erase the Hate" rally, which hundreds of students went to, in response to an earlier wave of racist and homophobic incidents and graffiti.

I think the institutional will is there to try to reduce such incidents as much as possible, but I suspect that even in the most progressive campus, it is impossible to completely get rid of racist expressions like this. Even if we were truly a more diverse campus, racially, religiously, and ethnically, there would still be students, staff, and faculty with racist beliefs. The problem then is to create enough pressure that people don't express such beliefs, either in words or in actions.


  1. How did your students respond?

  2. Most of the students felt that it was important to call people's attention to racist graffiti like this - that just ignoring it would not make it go away. One student was quite vehement, however, that there was no point in paying attention to such things - that it was just some students acting in a stupid way. He raised the possibility that the graffiti was written by students after they'd been drinking, which does strike me as possible. We talked a lot about whether scrawling graffiti is a sign that worse things could happen, like attacks on other people. One student mentioned an incident that occurred last year - a gay student and his boyfriend were walking into one of the dorms, and some male students beat them up. (I hadn't heard about this incident before). So writing graffiti may be an indication that there are people out there who will do more than just talk, but will proceed to hostile action. I talked about the effect that such graffiti can have upon people - it can make them feel targeted and isolated. It was an interesting discussion.

  3. "He raised the possibility that the graffiti was written by students after they'd been drinking, which does strike me as possible."

    Sure, but -- and I doubt you disagree -- that's, of course, not the same as saying "and therefore it doesn't mean anything."

    It would mean that it was unconsidered action, and that likely, or at least perhaps, the person or persons wouldn't engage in the same behavior when sober.

    But it still means the feelings (whatever they are) are still there in the person, and ready to come out when they're drunk, and possibly under other forms of stress, as well.

    So it still seems to me to clearly be a warning sign, rather than something "there was no point in paying attention to."

    Digressing, I didn't watch the Diane Sawyer/ Mel Gibson interview, but it appears he was taking the line that being drunk meant he didn't "really" have those feelings; I do agree that I wouldn't judge something someone says while drunk the same as when they are sober, but I don't agree that things said while drunk are typically wholly and utterly alien to someone. They might, indeed, be revealing something so deeply buried that it's really of little relevance to the sober person and their normal behavior, but I wouldn't assume that. It's more of a maybe yes, maybe no, thing.

  4. Yes, I would agree, whether in the case of the students or of Mel Gibson. (Actually, especially with him - I don't think his anti-semitic feelings are so buried in any case, so I would take his drunken rantings quite seriously). With the students, we obviously don't know if they were drunk when they did this or not. In either case, they're responsible for their actions and drunkenness is no excuse.

  5. The issue is that this has happened many times on our campus before . . . in the past swastikas have not been in purely public spaces, but also written on the doors of Jewish students' dorm rooms and on-campus apartments.

    Also, the bigger issue beyond the swastikas themselves was the absolute apathetic response that the students in the Emerson dorm had to the presence of racist graffiti in their community. Nobody cared. The RAs tried their best to raise awareness and still - NOBODY CARED.

    The issue here is really education . . . many people (including those in our administration) just have NO IDEA of how serious the connotations of the swastika are, and what people feel when they see one.

    Diversity can't just happen. We can't just continue to have rally after rally . . . It's about consistant education and changing the college to a comprehensive environement on campus that embraces many different cultural, ethnic, religious and racial experiences and portrays them in every part of the peripheral environment of the student.

  6. That and the college did not sponsor Erase the Hate. It was the ALS, SJP, Prism, Asian Awareness, Ithaca Jewish Excell Team from North American Jewish Student Alliance and others.

    The administration never moved towards addressing the racist/sexist and other bigoted incidences until the students who were victims of these crimes stepped forward in *outrage* at the *lack of response* from those in charge who are supposed to be making students feel safe and cared for on campus.