An open letter circulated by black students on Feb. 26 begins with the sentence, “To every Black student who has ever felt targeted, hurt, and silenced: you are not alone.”
The letter, which students emailed to the residence hall distribution lists throughout the day, describes how Kenyon’s culture ignores, and actively enables, racist speech and behavior. It is addressed to an unnamed “you” — a black student who was called the n-word by a white peer. The letter details “recent and recurring” instances in which non-black students used the n-word.
“When a non-Black student called you the N-word (a word your people reclaimed from an unjust past, a word that is a symbol for siblinghood and a shared history of bondage), you were hurt,” the letter states. “You hear it everywhere, now. You begin to act, telling your non-Black peers that they cannot say the N-word, and they reply that yes, they can.”
Students subsequently held a sit-in on Feb. 28 in Peirce Dining Hall to protest racism and hate speech at the College. Approximately 60 students lined the atrium from 5-7 p.m. under a banner that read, ‘The black man did not invent the n-word. It is time for the inventor to fix the problems the word has caused. #NotSoLiberalArts.’
“If you talk among the students in the Black Caucus and the BSU [Black Student Union], you’ll find the vast majority of us have experienced some form of on-campus racial discrimination or slur used by one of our white or non-black, but typically white, peers,” said one student, a sophomore varsity athlete who spoke to the Collegian on the condition of anonymity due to legal concerns.
Some students held signs that decried the use of the n-word by non-black people — including “I have multiple nicknames. The n-word is not one of them,” and “No, it’s not okay to use the n-word even when it’s in a song” — while other signs addressed systemic racism and white supremacy. “Anti-blackness is global,” one sign read.
The catalyzing open letter was unsigned, but students endorsed its message by emailing it from their own accounts and posting it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Several hashtags have emerged alongside these posts: #ComplacentlyKenyon, #IAmNotYourNWord and #AtKKKenyonYouWill.
The Collegian contacted more than 20 students who shared the letter and attended the sit-in with a request for comment. Some students declined to comment, while others did not respond.
The sophomore student said they shared the email partially because they hoped to convey to other black students that they are “not alone” in their experiences of racism at the College.
“I feel like people think that black students are just complaining,” the student said. “Like it is a minor inconvenience that people use the n-word. It is a major inconvenience and a big hurt and we wouldn’t be making a big deal out of it if it weren’t already a big deal. The message is: take us seriously.”
The student said they, and their peers, have been losing nights of sleep due to the trauma these incidents have incurred.
Quashae Hendryx ’18 responded to the open letter in a Feb. 27 email to the student body. His email, entitled “To my fellow n-words,” accused those involved in the open letter of hypocrisy. “You believe that Black people’s biggest problems stem from non-Black people,” Hendryx wrote. “You believe that being called the N-word hurts our race more than your own divisive actions.” He detailed divisions within the College’s black community and wrote, “We have said countless things to one another far more offensive and divisive than the N-word.”
Lanise Beavers ’18 then analyzed Hendryx’s response in another email to the student body. She wrote that Hendryx was “conflat[ing] interpersonal conflict with racial oppression.”
“Black communities are often lectured about internal strife, and must prove their worthiness to be treated as people, as if internal strife disqualifies us from just treatment,” Beavers wrote. “It does not.”
Members of the Black Student Union (BSU) met with administrators over the past week to discuss incidents of racism happening on campus. Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 said she attended two meetings — one on Feb. 21 and another on Feb. 22 — that were organized at the request of students of color.
“There isn’t a single panacea for this issue, but we’re hoping, through structural means and through some specific initiatives aimed at cultural change, we can start to improve things on campus,” Bonham said.
At several points, the letter calls out administrators for not taking black students seriously and for claiming “there is ‘very little they can do’ about these n-word users.”
“Hearing that students don’t feel supported by the administration is hard to hear because in fact I think there’s been a great deal of heavy lifting that has taken place in order to work with students to address these issues that have happened,” Bonham said.
Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ted Mason said the College is planning to host structured conversations about campus values later this semester. He hopes these will provide a platform for students who feel unheard.
“I’m very troubled and bothered by the things that are going on,” Mason said. “I have seen this movie before because it was part and parcel of my undergraduate years. It’s not new. That it’s not new doesn’t make it any better.”
President Sean Decatur published a blog post titled “No, things must not stay the same” on Feb. 28. (Later, he attended the sit-in.)
In the post, Decatur laid out how the College can move forward. First, he noted that the College is updating its discriminatory harassment policy to clarify how students can report instances of misconduct based on race, ethnicity or religion. The new Discriminatory Harassment Policy will “incorporate a comprehensive education effort on racial bias,” he wrote.
The College is also working to expand education efforts regarding racial bias and bystander intervention, according to the blog post.
He also wrote that the Community Planning Group, which he convened in the week of the The Good Samaritan controversy, recently recommended concrete ways to advance community dialogue.
“While 2018 has been a trying year so far for our community, I call on all of us to refuse to accept that things will remain the same,” Decatur wrote.
“This is work that was begun years ago, continues today and will continue into the future.”
The sophomore student said the response to the letters has been largely positive, but they emphasized the gravity of the situation.
“Some people seem to regard this kind of drama as just that: drama,” the student said. “There was one person that I overheard … who was talking about how he was going to get ‘all the juicy details’ about the racist incident. I think that adds salt to an already really painful wound because these events are taking a toll on us that people tend to ignore.”
“The end goal for me is to feel safe on this campus,” the student said. “Because I don’t.”