A racist image scrawled on a whiteboard in a residence hall has spurred another discussion on hate, bias and racism at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
April Handtke, assistant director of housing, said staff doing a routine check of Coate Hall noticed a drawing of a black man being lynched by three men in white hoods accompanied by a drawing of a swastika and the words #black lives don’t matter. Staff found the drawing about 2 a.m. on Jan. 30 on one of the public whiteboards in a basement study room.
Handtke said staff are trained to take pictures of any objectionable material found in the residence halls and then make a hate/bias incident report. Handtke said the hall director communicated with his staff and residents his concerns about the hate portrayed in the act.
“This is not something that can be written off as a joke,” Handtke said. “No matter the intention, the impact of the drawing doesn’t change.”
According to the UW-L campus climate office website, 126 incidents of bias or hate have been reported on campus since August. The reports include acts such as graffiti or vandalism in the residence halls, as well as verbal misconduct and physical violence.
UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow said the investigation into the incident is still ongoing, and sent a copy of the image Friday morning in an email to everyone on campus with information about three events being held on racism and hate/bias. The first of the programs was a teach-in on racism held Friday in Eagle Hall, where students, professors and staff from the campus climate office spoke about its history and impact.
“We have to talk about these things,” Assistant Director of Campus Climate Amanda Goodenough said at the teach-in. “They are happening. And it is traumatizing for our community to see that.”
UW-L ethnic and racial studies professor Richard Breaux said he has become absolutely exhausted with the issue of racism. Just a few months ago, UW-L held a forum on the issue of a Confederate flag being displayed on campus by constructions workers.
During the teach-in, Breaux spoke about the history of racism, the Ku Klux Klan and blackface as well as their ties to higher education from the 1800s to today. He spoke about how the Klan marched in the University of Minnesota homecoming parade in the 1920s and how blackface was a routine presence in the history of collegiate social life from fraternity minstrel shows to recent incidents including a “ghetto party” at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater during the 2006-07 school year.
“You can see the historical significance where an image like this comes from,” Breaux said of the Coate Hall drawing.
Suthakaran Veerasamy, a psychology professor at UW-L, conducted an exercise with students attending the teach-in, where they pretended to be squirrels sharing a cage at the zoo with the elephants. That is how people in the minority feel in relation to white people, he said, where there are more whites with political, economic and other forms of power than the minority.
“Who’s running the show in the country,” he said, “the elephants or the squirrels?”
At the end of the teach-in, students were allowed to ask questions and one was about whether it was helpful to acknowledge racism. Both Breaux and Veerasamy said you have to tackle the topic rather than ignore it.
You have to start acknowledging the real problem, Veerasamy said, that this is a racist country and a racist campus. People don’t want to admit that, he said, and you can’t have a real dialog until they do.
“It is good this happened,” he said. “We get to see the university for what it is.”
Kalon Bell, a UW-L student and president of student organization Black Student Unity, said he was also very frustrated, upset and angry. The first time he was called the n-word was in third grade, he said, and in light of the recent incident, doesn’t know whether progress is being made.
Bell said he was disappointed only a small group of students, staff and faculty attended the event, with many chairs left open at the teach-in. Bell and other black students attending said they felt society and the university have failed in their duties to educate people about racism, and UW-L could do more to require students to learn about issues of race.
“That image is a culmination of what we knew about how people feel,” Bell said. “It is something the institution has failed to combat.”