St. Cloud State students use racist graffiti to affirm anti-racist solidarity

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Racist graffiti was found last week on a St. Cloud State University (SCSU) campus building bulletin board. While this was certainly not the first time such graffiti has appeared on campus, the school’s response was a departure from the usual practice of removing the offensive language as quickly as possible.

After students of Yolanda Lehman’s “Race in America” class put up a display in the east stairwell of Stewart Hall to honor Dorothy Height, who helped planned the 1963 March on Washington and later received the Presidential Medal of Honor, racially offensive words scrawled on the display were discovered March 31.

“I was asked what I think should be done,” said Lehman. “I said that I wanted the poster to stay up. I did not believe in sweeping things under the rug or hiding from ignorant people. I felt it was very important for our students to have the opportunity to respond to it.”

Her 20 students began writing anti-racist notes and messages and posted them on the board, Lehman reported. “Twenty [notes] soon became 40; then they got their friends, and 40 became 80, then 80 became 160… Now [there have been] well over 200 responses at this point,” she added. “They are largely White students who are writing these notes.”

The bulletin board since has been nicknamed “The Wall.”

“The message my students want to send to anyone and everyone who would listen: ‘Let’s not focus on the one ignorant individual — let’s focus on the response of the many. The many are strong and powerful and make a difference if we raise our voices together,’” said Lehman, who has taught classes at SCSU for four years.

In a March 31 email she sent to SCSU faculty and staff, Lehman noted, “We have many students who are willing to stand up to racists and bullies on our campus. It is nice to affirm that not everyone at SCSU feels like the person who wrote that hateful message.”

Such racist actions can’t be tolerated, SCSU Mass Communications Professor Marie Dick told the MSR. “If there was any derogatory statement [directed toward] anyone of color, of course I or any of my colleagues would not stand for that.”

According to Lehman, “My students feel so strongly about this that they have petitioned the university to move ‘The Wall’ into the Atwood Center so that every student would have the opportunity to see it and respond,” she said, adding that the display’s relocation was expected to occur this week.

Lehman praised SCSU President Earl Potter’s support: “He came out early and came out strong in support of the anti-racist efforts of the students,” she said. “The administration is eager to be supportive of the students and their desire to create a more open, welcoming, affirming, anti-racist institution.”

Her students also are planning to hold a discussion on race this week at Garvey Hall, based on Beverly Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Basic Books, 1997), Lehman announced. “It is an invitation for students to come to the cafeteria and sit at tables that are mixed ethnically, and to discuss race in America and on campus and what they can do together to build an anti-racist community,” she said.

Last week’s anti-racist reactions by Lehman’s students and others impressed Black students as well, she said.

“Two African American students stood there with tears in their eyes and said that they didn’t know anyone cared about them, that anyone would stand up for [them]. What we are hearing from students of color now is that they feel safer, valued and affirmed [on campus] now, not only by the other students, but also by the university and the administration.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.