Rutgers administrators react to racially sensitive Snapchat photos shared online
In the past month, Snapchat was used by University students to share racist photos and captions at five different universities across the U.S.
At the University of North Dakota, a photo was posted of three white students smiling with the caption “locked the black b**** out,” referring to a roommate locked out of their residence hall. Another photo shows four female students wearing black masks with the caption “Black Lives Matter.”
A similar photo was shared by a Quinnipiac University student showing a smiling female student wearing blackface with the caption “Black Lives Matter.”
A Kansas State University student posted a photo with blackface, referring to herself by using a racial slur and waving what intends to be a gang sign. And at Prairie View A&M University, a Mexican student posted a photo of her face covered with black tape with the caption, “When you’re tryna fit in at your HBCU."
Similar behavior can happen anywhere, said Mia Kissil, Senior Program Director at Center for Race and ethnicity at Rutgers.
“And I think it does happen anywhere,” she said. “We have this thing called freedom of speech and people think they can use in often inappropriate ways.”
This issue is not unique to those universities or the age group of university students either, said Delia Pitts, associate vice chancellor at the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Rutgers.
Students individually can help prevent incidents like this from happening in the future, as well as the issue of racism on campus, said Allison Harbin, a Graduate School--New Brunswick student.
Rutgers is highly diverse, but the issue of racism on a university campus is not based off of experience and exposure alone, Pitts said.
“It is much based on ignorance,” she said.
These photos illustrate the impulse to be juvenile, Harbin said.
Harbin said these incidents emphasize the problem of white privilege, saying the students involved did not understand the racist and discriminatory visual legacies they referenced.
Kissil said students are looking for attention and may not be considering the full trajectory of their actions.
In the past, Kissil said students were only able to communicate with their immediate group of friends or people in the vicinity. The rise of social media apps, such as Snapchat, mean that students now have a global audience.
“There’s an ability now that there would not have been five or 10 years ago,” she said. “There is a reason it is called sophomoric humor and there is an ability to transmit that ‘humor’ to a much a wider audience than there ever was before.”
She said this same incident might have happened years ago but the public would not have heard about it. Only the few students who participated in the racist joke would have known it occurred, she said.
“Now, the opposite is the case,” she said. “A very tiny group of people may think this is amusing but because of social media and the Internet, they can now transmit that to millions of people.”
The diversity of a campus does make a difference, said Jorge Schement, vice chancellor for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
“Rutgers is different in the sense that students seem to have a much higher awareness of the different types of people around them,” he said. “That doesn’t prevent any small group from acting out, but it does create a sense of expectation for the larger population.”
Many Rutgers students come from homogenous communities, Schement said. But when they begin living in the residence halls, they encounter people from different cultures and ethnicities for the first time.
Student soon learn to value diversity, he said.
“They taught themselves the value of diversity by interacting with people. Universities are fundamentally places of discourse and ideas,” Schement said. “A university that is vibrant and that is engaged is naturally going to take up the discussion of issues of race in American society, hopefully attempting to gain a better understanding and progress on some very old issues.”
Pitts said that President Barack Obama's words at Rutgers' Class of 2016 commencement address that "American converges here" is telling about the University.
“We do feel a particular interest and responsibility to take up some of these national concerns, and examine them in a way only a university can,” she said. “Because we are a community of thought and inquiry and research, we can look at some of these questions in a way a different community does not have the resources or an interest to look into.”
Universities in general are more aware of racist issues, Kissil said. While there is a greater ability to get out in front of things, the bar tends to move backward, she said.
It can be difficult to keep up with what is offensive to different cultures and what the socially acceptable terms to use are, she said.
“Words come in and out of play. Words that were previously offensive all of a sudden are embraced,” Kissil said.
Even the phrase "Black Lives Matter" would not have the same meaning and freight in the past that it carries today, Pitts said.
“It’s a constantly shifting cultural environment,” she said, adding that universities are places that should be culturally aware and work on tackling issues of racism.
Creating a dialogue to explain to students why certain photos or social media posts are offensive will help them learn more about people who do not look like them, Harbin said.
“Who RU," a new initiative documenting diversity at Rutgers, is aiming to do just that.
The Center for Race and Ethnicity, a scholarly center at the University and one of the components of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, invites students to start this dialogue and discuss students experience of race and ethnicity on campus, Harbin said.
“We want to create a platform for a respectful exchange and minority voices,” she said.
Noa Halff is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. She is an associate news editor for The Daily Targum.