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Campus roiled over anonymous name calling

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Posted on March 16, 2016 |
By David Fuchs



CharlesRainey2537.jpg
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE FIRST-YEAR student Charles Rainey was the target of an anonymous assault on his character on the social media app Yik Yak late last month. He hopes the uproar over the incident will increase sensitivity around issues of race and inclusivity on campus. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — When Charles Rainey, an African-American from the Atlanta metro area, chose to attend Middlebury College last year, he knew he would be in for some big changes.

Coming from a high school that was 96 percent black, he expected the liberal arts college in Vermont to be far whiter and more progressive than his schools back home in the South. He expected the community, though different, to be welcoming, and he expected the curriculum to be rigorous. What he did not expect was to become the target of explicitly racist online comments six months into his first year.

The anonymous posts, which appeared online three weeks ago, included but were not limited to the following comments: “Rainey is an attention whore, sexual predator and anti-white jigaboo,” and “We don’t like Rainey because he’s making up stuff about racism at Midd like we freed you all from slavery what more do you want.”

The comments were uploaded to Yik Yak, a social media app that allows users to post anonymously to an ongoing feed where other users can upvote, downvote and reply in a similar style to websites like Reddit. One of the early defining features of the app was that users could only see and interact with a particular feed if they were within a certain geographic radius. Now, due to the “herd” feature introduced in May 2015, users can connect with their home feeds from anywhere in the world.

Even though the comments were posted from multiple accounts, the anonymity of the app prevents the college from determining not only the number and identity of the original poster or posters but also — due to the latest feature — whether the responsible parties were even on campus at the time of the posting.

Middlebury is only the latest in a long list of college communities that were agitated by disparaging comments posted to Yik Yak. Essentially, Yik Yak is a cell phone app where people can post anonymous comments on an electronic bulletin board. While most of the comments are jokes, gossip or observations on the world at large, dozens of college campuses around the country have seen posters take verbal pot shots at their fellow students.

Middlebury College President Laurie Patton reached out to the entire college community shortly after the “yak” targeting Rainey was made. Grasping this as a teachable moment, she urged everyone to stay true to the community standards of consideration and respect.

“Everyone in our community should understand the damaging effect that personal comments or attacks — anonymous or otherwise — can have on individuals and on the community as a whole,” Patton wrote in an email to the community.

The posts appeared immediately after the publication of a front-page article in The Campus, the Middlebury College student newspaper, about two resolutions related to inclusivity that Rainey, the only black student senator, had introduced to the Student Government Association.

Throughout his first six months in Middlebury, Rainey has taken an explicitly anti-racist and inclusive political stance. He said he was moved to adopt that position in response to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments last December questioning the efficacy of affirmative action with respect to African-African students at selective universities.

“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to — to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school … a slower-track school, where they do well,” said Scalia during the oral arguments of the case Fisher v. University of Texas.

As a debate took place on campus through op-eds and table conversations, Rainey said that fully considering the other side required him to “constantly consider the false prospect of his inferiority.

“Middlebury is an elite institution and when you’re a student here, specifically a first-year student, and you’re already going through the anxiety of being at the college for the first time, trying to perform your best and find your niche, and you have a statement that goes out that perpetuates a stereotype about a group you’re in … I would invite people who don’t know how that feels to think about it.”

After the debate had been going for two and a half months and the administration had not released an official statement, Rainey decided to speak out, pushing the Student Government Association to pass resolutions requiring college President Laurie Patton to issue public comments.

Once news of the resolution had been published in the student newspaper, the Yik Yak incident followed.

Beyond being horrible for Rainey, this incident has made many students of color — specifically black students — feel unsafe, said Hana Gebremariam, a junior from Silver Spring, Md., and officer of the Black Student Union.

“There was just one day where every single ‘yak’ was about him,” she said. “There was just no escaping it.”

“Not only were those posts literally the definition of cyber bullying but they were also blatant racism,” said Maya Doig, a senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., and co-president of the Black Student Union. 

In addition to the explicitly racist remarks, many of the other comments like “sexual predator” are rooted in racist histories and stereotypes, said Doig.

“The fact those views and that language was used at Middlebury is disturbing,” she said.

Patton addressed the student body directly in her email.

“The first of our Community Standards is ‘cultivating respect and responsibility for self, others, and our shared environment,’” she wrote. “For many of us, this year has tested our understanding, our perspective, and at times our patience. We have tried — imperfectly — to work through issues of race, gender, privilege, and inclusivity at large town hall meetings, small group conversations, classroom discussions, and individual interactions. The anonymity and impersonal quality of some social media sites has at times shown itself to be a less considerate environment. While they can be places of kindness and generosity, they also can be platforms for disrespect, revenge, and hate. When this happens, it must be condemned by all.”

A second statement from the college written by Vice President for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer Bill Burger addressed the incident more specifically and clarified the college’s commitment to inclusivity moving forward:

“Middlebury condemns the use of racist language earlier this month directed at a student on the social media app Yik Yak. Racist language is intolerable regardless of where, how, or by whom it is expressed. It is particularly egregious when delivered anonymously through a social media platform. Middlebury will continue to cultivate a considerate and inclusive campus environment where all members of the college community feel respected and valued. This important, ongoing effort will continue to be one of the college’s top priorities.”

Moving forward, Rainey noted that the community’s response to this situation will set a precedent for what happens when students of color in positions of power are exposed to racially motivated attacks.

Rainey hopes his story will serve as a wake-up call to the college community as a whole.

“The effort (toward inclusivity) should not only rely on cultural organizations or members of marginalized identities, it also needs to be a priority of white people to make this community better for everyone,” he said.

Editor’s Note: David Fuchs is a junior at Middlebury College and an intern for the Addison Independent.

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