It’s been more than two years since an upsetting racist Snapchat photo circulated around IUP’s campus social media and passing conversations. The photo, taken Dec. 7, 2015, was of a few black students in the Stapleton Library and displayed the caption “Monkeys stay in groups.”
In a matter of hours, the photo had spread from Snapchat to Facebook and Twitter, prompting IUP President Michael Driscoll to issue a statement regarding university climate.
At the time, many students and organizations were in an uproar, with some calling for the person responsible for the photo to be expelled.
Both long- and short-term solutions were offered for this incident.
In August 2016, the Center for Multicultural Student Leadership and Engagement (MCSLE) was founded to combine the Center for Student Life and the African American Cultural Center. The organization, created after the December 2015 Snapchat, was created as a means of providing “inclusive services and programs” to students.
Additionally, a group consisting of faculty, staff and administrators created the Racial Justice Coalition, which demonstrated each day during the first week of class for the spring 2016 semester outside of Stapleton Library. They held signs and tried to open a conversation to shed light on a quiet, yet important, issue: racial discrimination.
As with many social issues on campus, the bulk of anger and outrage at the racial incident faded to the background in the midst of finals week and then winter break. Students’ attentions were either diverted or their rage was minimized by time.
“We created the Racial Justice Coalition very recently, in the last few weeks, because we were concerned about returning to campus, and we were worried that there was a lot of silence on campus,” said sociology professor Melanie Hildebrandt in a Jan. 23, 2016 The Penn article. “We’ve had some racist incidents, and it just felt like faculty needed to show our students that we care.”
In the 2016 interview, Hildebrandt said the 2015 Snapchat photo was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
But that “camel’s back” apparently healed quickly. Not even two years later, another racially charged Snapchat surfaced from an IUP student.
A Sept. 4 photo depicting a burned grilled cheese sandwich with the caption “How do you like your grilled cheese? The same as my slaves,” caused another bout of student activism in defense of diversity.
Student response to this incident was stronger than that of 2015, and this could, in part, be due to the fact the Snapchat circulated at the beginning of the semester rather than during finals week.
A series of seminars were conducted by IUP students in collaboration with a few administrators, including ones on Sept. 6 and Sept. 20, which were primarily used to discuss the First Amendment, hate speech and diversity education.
Additionally, a letter, which began with “racism and hate have no place at IUP,” was signed by about 200 professors and staff members and distributed university-wide.
IUP, however, has a long history with racial injustice. The university battles itself over how best to handle situations of social justice, such as the racist Snapchat photos, which could be considered a First Amendment violation if the perpetrators were punished; an apparent racial disparity among students who were designated to attend Punxsutawney before coming to IUP’s main campus, which was described in an in-depth May 4 article in The HawkEye; and the university’s previous mascot, which was changed from the offensively deemed “Crimson Indians” to the “Cherokee the Bear” in 1991, which was considered equally inappropriate, before settling on the “Crimson Hawks” just 10 years ago, in order to keep with National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) standards.
The Fall 2016 Campus Climate Study, which was published shortly before winter break last year, was a study commissioned by Driscoll and the Office of Social Equity that highlighted IUP’s shaky history with equality.
One extract from a survey text box on the study said, “If you are not a white, Christian, straight male on this campus, you will face discrimination, and, from my communication with students, they feel as if the IUP administration does not care.”
Many other reports of discriminatory attitudes and behaviors students and faculty have found on campus and in the study.
Even during a Sept. 20 inclusion forum run by Charles Wilson-Adams (senior, communications media) in coordination with MCSLE in Sprowls Hall, intolerance seemed to persist in audience members.
One man in particular argued that commentary on grilled cheese wasn’t the same as Jim Crow.
He said students who were offended by such comments should “go back to mommy’s basement” to grow up and learn what is important.
“This stuff invalidates people’s experiences,” said Aidan Williams (senior, sociology), who was one of the speakers at the forum and a student on the Diversity Student Council.
Some audience members jumped to the defense of the speakers, including professors and other students.
“On one side of the law, there is the First Amendment,” said philosophy department chairwoman Mary MacLeod. “On the other side, there is a mountain of law for the case of civil rights.”
To drive home the point that faculty, students and administrators were in agreement that “jokes” such as these Snapchats and other racially fueled comments were intolerable at IUP, Wilson-Adams projected the letter signed by approximately 200 IUP community members.
“Keep scrolling,” Wilson-Adams said as the names of those who support diversity and inclusion on campus whirled by. “Keep scrolling.”
Thomas Graham (criminology), another student speaking at the forum added, “They are grown men and women – educated men and women – who think this is important.”
Despite growing support, the divide between those fighting for more diversity acceptance and inclusion on campus and those who think efforts are fine the way they are is still vast.
Through the decades and struggles, the end result of IUP’s goal for equality seems to include very little progress in favor of campus diversity. While the university may not have taken action in light of the last Snapchat, students took matters into their own hands, proving that they do care about what happens on their campus and are willing to fight for a better environment.
Williams said there hasn’t been much discussion since the beginning of the semester, but there has been talk about the introduction of more or mandatory diversity classes into the curriculum.
“There is a diversity class, but it isn’t mandatory for students,” Williams said. “So that has been our biggest thing right now – getting that put into the curriculum and working with the multicultural center to put more diversity events on campus.”
Williams said there was a December cross-cultural conversation about race.
“There were multiple workshops about how to combat bigotry in the family, the history of the confederacy and the biological components of race,” Williams said. “We also talked about where IUP is headed, where it could be and where it has been.”
Williams said that he thinks IUP has the ability to unite and come together, but there is a “blame game” that’s too focused on who’s at fault for what’s wrong in the community rather than what steps could be taken to improve it.
“It’s not a black-and-white issue,” Williams said, “and we need to get to the root of the issue. We all come from different experiences, and we’re all human and all deserve that respect.”
Williams added that he thinks IUP could get to a better place with its diversity and inclusion, “but there are people on campus who don’t want us to get there.”
“I think we will come out on top,” he said. “I’m hoping.
“Next semester is my last semester, but I want it to be my best semester with certain events. I’ve been talking to the multicultural center to bring in different speakers, and I’ve been thinking about having a week of ‘untouched topics’ that aren’t talked about in mainstream media.”
Williams said he wants to use his positions with MCSLE and the diversity council to strike some conversation with students and urge them to get to know each other, not just what they seem in media.
However, Williams also said he was uncertain about how long it will take IUP to reach that inclusive goal.
“I don’t know why I feel like this Snapchat won’t be remembered, but I feel like more people feel that this one was stupid and childish while the last one was more serious.”
Williams said that when people forget how these things impact some students on campus, there is a danger of repeating the offense.
“It may be forgotten by everyone else,” Williams said. “But for those students who it impacted, it may be forgotten.”
Williams said he thinks the job of administrators now is to support the students.
“A lot of administrators have this debate of ‘It takes time; we have to do this before we do this,’ but just letting students know that they’re taking the time to work on it and that our voices aren’t forgotten will help, and trying to bring in more diverse speakers and program would definitely help.
“I feel like faculty could make more time for their students – people of color – to talk about their experiences. I think their voices get lost, so getting some diversity programming or extra credit for students could help.”
Williams said he hopes students start to speak up and make spaces uncomfortable for hate speech.
“I feel like there’s a lot of spaces that people of color don’t have access to, or spaces in which they get upset, but they need to speak up. We’re at a PWI [predominantly white institution], so there’s not as much people of color in mainstream Greek life, in different classrooms and majors, different groups – there are some people of color, but there isn’t as much.”