When Noah Huerta, a freshman at Arizona State University, logged on to his Twitter account in November 2017, instead of his typical feed of celebrity news, memes, or music, he was surprised to see one of his classmates tweeting the “N word” and stating she had “jungle fever.” Huerta was angry. He considered the classmate a friend, and the incident caused him to distance himself from her. This kind of digital offense is not rare; in fact, it’s quickly becoming commonplace on college and university campuses across the country.
The digital age has introduced a new venue for racial harassment among college students through social-media platforms. This generation is immersed in social networks. More than 80 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds use some form of social media, according to the Pew Research Center. Many social-media platforms offer users the possibility of uploading racially charged photos, videos, and statements with few restrictions. In this new environment, hateful messages spread rapidly. Twenty years ago, university officials would likely have managed these matters with relative privacy, involving few beyond the immediate campus community; now an act of campus racial bias can make national headlines within hours.
This new digital environment presents college administrators with competing incentives. They understand that their university may lose applicants, esteem, and revenue if it is publicly identified as unresponsive to racism. Still, administrators might be wary of potential backlash if they dole out punishment to those who seem to behave badly on social media, only to find out the story is more complicated than the post initially reveals. It has been more than a decade since officials at Duke University punished the lacrosse team after what appeared to be a “smoking gun” e-mail seemed to confirm a young black woman’s allegations of having been raped by several white members of the team. When charges were dropped, Duke officials were excoriated. The Duke Lacrosse backlash launched the career of Richard Spencer, who led the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
The question is whether university officials can do more than balance the concerns of institutional reputation. It is far more important to the black students on campus to know their well-being, and not the institution’s reputation, is motivating the official response.
Assistant Professor Meredith Clark at the University of Virginia, who researches the intersections of race, media, and power, struggled to name a university that she thinks addresses social-media incidents adequately.
“To date, I have yet to see a university handle essentially a social-media crisis well, particularly one that their students are involved in.” Clark said. “I really have not seen a university do that well. If there were one that had done it well…we might not know about it. The problem would’ve been handled in a way that really didn’t draw a lot of attention.”
When universities are addressing these incidents, openness plays a huge role, Clark said.
“There’s some very basic things that universities can do.… Those are primarily to be transparent and honest about the problem.… That transparency can be as simple as, ‘We are listening.’” Clark said. “Another thing that I think universities should probably do is try to use social media to essentially build relationships with students.… Social media can be used as a means to opening up a channel of communication that you might not otherwise have with them. So, meet them where they are.”
Swift and Sure
Arizona State University seems to have followed many of Professor Clark’s recommendations in 2014 when a fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon, hosted a “MLK Black Party,” where students wore sports jerseys, flashed gang signs, and even drank from watermelon cups. The party was widely documented across social media, specifically Instagram. The party took place on a Sunday, and by Monday the university severed ties with the fraternity and launched an investigation to deal with the students responsible. This kind of swift response is not always seen, especially at predominantly white institutions, although Arizona State does receive above-average ratings for its student and staff diversity.
“If you don’t act quickly, then it can leave the impression that you either don’t care, or you’re not sure what to do,” said Nicole Taylor, the deputy vice president and dean of students for Arizona State University–Tempe. “We act quickly because we want to ensure all confirmed parties that we do care and we want to figure out what the heck happened.”
The presence of campus-related racism on social media does not mean that students are no longer accountable, Taylor said.
“Our code of conduct applies to students no matter where they are. Whether they’re overseas studying, whether they live on campus, whether they live off campus, they do something or they do something online,” she said. “Our code of conduct covers all behavior in all of those places and spaces.… It actually makes it easier when it is online because we get it in writing.”
However, the wheels of justice don’t always turn so easily.
In January 2018 a student at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, posted a video of herself referring to her residential adviser as an “f__ng n___.”
The university newspaper, the Old Gold & Black, reported that the student was a freshman and had posted the video using the slur to a “finsta” account, a secondary Instagram account that is typically used to post things a user doesn’t want on their public Instagram account.
Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch sent a letter to staff, faculty, and students, calling it a “deeply troubling video.”
The university did not identify the student in the video, citing “federal privacy laws.” The student is no longer enrolled at Wake Forest University, but the university did not confirm whether she voluntarily withdrew or was expelled.
The student body’s reaction to the racist video was mixed because the university was discreet about details, said Chizoba Ukairo, program coordinator at the Pro Humanitate Institute at WFU and a 2017 graduate. There were rumors that the student was not expelled but instead left voluntarily, Ukairo said.
“There was certainly anger, frustration.… People wanted [the student who posted the video] to be expelled, which did not appear to happen. She was given an opportunity to leave the university before essentially being forced out,” Ukairo said. “[Wake Forest University administration] were purposefully vague.”
In her role at the Pro Humanitate Institute, Ukairo works on social-justice education and community-service programming for students. When she was a student at Wake, Ukairo was very involved in social issues on campus. Now she works closely with students and helps to orchestrate the Social Justice Incubator at WFU, a student-oriented initiative that discusses incidents such as the video. She acknowledges that WFU handled the incident expeditiously.
“Universities drag their heels, institutions are so slow, by nature and by choice. So, to see that she was not just gone in two days but over the weekend, I was shocked.… I think there was a desire for more clarity on how she left, but I think people were happy with her leaving.,” Ukairo said.
The lack of clarity about administrative response came at a time when black students at Wake Forest University were still waiting for justice in the shooting death of 21-year-old Najee Ali Baker, a student at nearby Winston-Salem State University who had been shot and killed at a party hosted by a historically black sorority at Wake Forest University just one day before the racist video post.
Social Media as a Tool and Weapon
Other universities have come under fire for not responding promptly to racial incidents, either on campus or online. Recently at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, a former student who is white avoided hate-crime charges for allegedly harassing her black roommate in the fall of 2017. This harassment allegedly included spitting and smearing bodily fluids on the roommate’s belongings. The white student, Briana Brochu, allegedly bragged about the harassment in Instagram posts.
Jazzy Rowe, the black student, requested to switch rooms prior to finding out what Brochu did, according to an arrest warrant from the West Hartford Police Department. In a Facebook video Rowe addressed the harassment, saying that university officials warned her against speaking publicly about the incident and threatened to remove her from campus. Hartford University Public Safety learned about the incidents on October 17, when the victim found out, according to University of Hartford President Greg Woodward.
In this case, when the institution was slow to respond, it was social media that held Brochu responsible for her actions.
Assistant Professor Meredith Clark of the University of Virginia warns against assuming that social media will always help solve problems, though. In fact, racist social media tend to generate a copycat effect, Clark said.
“What I think is particularly dangerous about the replications of those sorts of acts on social media is that they create a model for others to copy,” she said. “There are ways for people to find out about when things are being done to disrupt other campuses, and they can repeat those same behaviors, and that can cause some problems.”
For some students, the solution to balancing racism they see online may lie in decreased social-media use. Navona Carter is a junior at Arizona State University studying history and African American studies. Carter was the president of the Black and African Coalition at ASU during the 2017–18 school year. Carter said that people have to “learn to protect themselves by restricting how much time they spend on social media.”
“It’s so easy to get online and to see things that offend you or things that just aren’t good for your mental health all the time.” Carter said. “I think that if people are constantly seeing things on social media that are upsetting them, maybe they should just monitor how much time they spend on social media, or maybe unfollow or block accounts that make them feel uncomfortable…. There’s no way that we can completely censor our lives where we’ll never be offended by anything we see online.”
Carter also believes that racist incidents online make students of color feel isolated.
“I think it can make students feel as if they don’t belong in the university setting, especially if the incident that they see is at their own university.… African Americans, in Arizona, we’re only 4 percent of the population, and at ASU, we’re only 4 percent of the population. It’s kind of a universal trend across the nation.… It can make you feel like an outsider,” said Carter.
Sometimes those who post racist things online are just uneducated, Carter said. “The main thing I usually see [are] culturally insensitive posts where people who are not black or not specifically people of color will have posts that, if they had a historical understanding, would be very culturally insensitive or inappropriate,” she said.
Social media aren’t going anywhere. In fact, their usage is only increasing. In 2011, the Pew Research Center found that half of all Americans use at least one social-media platform, while only 5 percent of American adults did so in 2005. Today 69 percent of the public uses some type of social media.
As students continue to take to Twitter or Snapchat to share their lives, voice their concerns, or post their racially charged beliefs, college campuses will be left to find ways to best address and combat these old tensions in the new digital age.