BY CHELSEY WHEELER
Last month, the community of McKendree University was shocked by the e-mail announcement informing the campus that one of our fellow students had recently been the victim of hate crimes – criminal acts which are motivated by biases against someone’s gender, race, ethnicity, appearance, religion, sexual orientation or perceived membership in other stigmatized social groups. The female student involved was targeted twice in sexually explicit and racially prejudiced incidents that are believed to have been motivated by her involvement in Confront the Roots, a new student organization at McKendree dedicated to encourage open communication about black/white racial issues. Public safety was notified that she was verbally assaulted on campus and shortly thereafter, her car was vandalized. There is also an open investigation by the Lebanon Police Department to determine the responsible party or parties.
Although no permanent damage was done to her vehicle, confidence in the integrity of our community had been shaken. James Dennis, Ph. D., president of McKendree University, shared a message of strength and unity tinged with disappointment when interviewed in regards to the hate crimes.
“What I want our students to know is that we’re taking this very seriously. This is not something that we’re pretending will disappear or that we’re trying to pretend didn’t happen,” Dr. Dennis stated. “I think when one student is offended, everyone should be offended. It’s not just that one student, it’s all of us. That’s unacceptable on our campus and in our community. I expect more of all of us. We hope that by the time students get to college that they’ve learned how to communicate effectively with one another in a positive way. You hope, but it’s not always the case. So when things like this happen we’re disappointed and concerned and I think that’s definitely the case here.”
The incidents show that even our small and inclusive community of education is not immune to the racial tension affecting the greater St. Louis area. In response to the violence in Ferguson, Mo., McKendree has made it a priority to provide students and local citizens with opportunities to talk about these issues openly by hosting public speakers, Brown Bag presentations and classroom discussions about racism, race relations and social climate.
“There’s racism throughout our society, and we know that, and we know that on a daily basis there are remarks that are made about people who are different than we are,” the president continued. “We can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend that racism doesn’t exist. We have to find positive ways that we can talk about it, discuss it, and see what we can do about it. We need to deal with this as an institution, and we’re going to.”
Luckily, it is unusual for students to intentionally offend one another with bigoted words or actions at McKendree University. Although the incident itself might have been an anomaly, it exposed a level of ignorance and intolerance inherent in racism that we must recognize and attack as a community.
“I think everyone has a little bit of racism in them. And that’s a shame, but we need to recognize that in ourselves and then know how to deal with it,” Dr. Dennis advised. “It’s really up to every individual to make a commitment to find ways to communicate effectively, try to understand the differences that do exist, and then try to understand why.” While some may argue that the perpetrators of such crimes deserve to be punished, he advocates for education: “We have some students who are just ignorant. They don’t know any better. We may have some students who are racist,” he admitted. “I think it sends a wave through our community that says we have a lot of work to do. If this is happening, then it’s our job as educators to try to ensure that people understand what they’re doing and how they’re hurting people. Talking about it is the first step, to create awareness, and then we can begin to make progress.”
McKendree University values its students as individuals and as members of a diverse community, and these hate crimes do not define who we are as an institution. We want our students to feel like a family by creating an environment that is safe, enriching, stimulating, inclusive and fair. These cowardly acts of racism and prejudice were reprehensible, but instead of generating strife, they have motivated students from different backgrounds to empathize with each other, and, more importantly for many, to reexamine their own thoughts and actions and recognize their inadvertent yet regular contributions to the continuation of racism, sexism and stereotypes.