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Students and faculty talk diversity at Wake Forest

daniel@yesweekly.com | @Daniel_Schere

Students and faculty gathered in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University, November 19, for a town hall discussion on campus policing, treatment of minorities and other student concerns. The discussion featured a four-member panel that included Vice President of Campus Life Penny Rue, and Regina Lawson, chief of campus police.

During the question and answer period, one of the hot topics that surfaced was the recent sighting of messages written in chalk such as “Wake will lie for your money” that suggested the university was not providing a safe en vironment for minorities. Rue called the chalking “an act of cowardice” in the campus newspaper, Old Gold & Black.

Brittany Salaam, a junior, has written messages in chalk before and addressed Rue from a microphone in the audience.

“I take great offense to being called a coward,” she said. “Furthermore it’s worth saying that I easily could call members of the administration cowards.”

Salaam is concerned that an unhealthy environment is being created for student activism on campus.

“As someone who’s personally had my life threatened on Yik Yak, I remember being monkey-called as I walked through Manchester Plaza, and witnessed my best friend have a lit cigarette thrown at her and then asked does that make me racist,” she said.

Rue responded to Salaam by saying she is always open to meeting with students about any issue, and hopes her comments do not dissuade students from coming to her in the future.

“Yik Yak is vile,” she said. “And it brings out the very worst in people, and sadly the Wake Forest community. But that doesn’t mean we stop there, so I’m committed to continuing to work with students and if I’ve harmed your ability to trust me because of my statements in the Old Golden Black, I regret that.”

Rue said she was angry when she found out about the chalking and called it an act of cowardice because she felt someone was trying to harm efforts to bring diversity to the student body.

Professor and MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris-Perry was also in attendance Wednesday and defended Rue’s comments.

“To the extent that we are going to be courageous and brave or cowardly or not, I’m going to stand here and say that I publicly also said that and said it directly to students, and also invited students to come into my office and have a conversation with me that I believe that the chalking was an act of cowardice,” she said from the audience. “I also believe that one can call an act an act of cowardice without saying that someone is a coward.”

Discussions of racial issues have become increasingly paramount on Wake Forest’s campus this semester, stemming from the death of 18-year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9 as well as an incident on September 5 when the university’s chapter of the fraternity Kappa Alpha Order planned a “Rap Video” party which was cancelled when students violated the rules by dressing up.

Stephen Boyd, a religion professor at the university who was also one of the panelists, said the conversation about diversity has progressed a great deal since he arrived, and that back then minority students may not have felt empowered to speak up.

“When I came here 30 years ago a fo rum like that would not have taken place,” he said in an interview.

Still, Boyd thinks the conversation about diversity has yet to progress.

“It’s not enough for diversity to be talked about. You can talk about it all day long. The question is, people who come from different sociocultural, economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds, are they still welcome at Wake Forest,” he said.

Boyd added that he thinks the effort to improve diversity at Wake Forest may not be able to happen without some degree of struggle, but ultimately it will improve the wellbeing of the student body.

“I never believe any space is a completely safe space, I’m not even sure our families are a completely safe space,” he said. “But the language I use is, is it a safe enough space for students to use to get an education and to do the kind of intellectual and social and emotional growth and development that we hope takes place during this period of their lives.”

The student advocacy organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has given Wake Forest, a private institution, a “code red” rating with regard to free speech. The designation is based on two statutes in the student handbook that forbid offensive and threatening speech. One statute that lays out rules for written messages on campus states “All signs/posters/ flyers displayed on campus must be in good taste, consistent with University policies, and must not contain sexist, racist, profane or derogatory remarks, or nudity.”

Another clause states that “Verbal abuse is the use of obscene, profane, or derogatory language that abuses or defames another person. Harassment is any action, verbal or nonverbal, that annoys or disturbs another person or that causes another person to be reasonably apprehensive or endangers the health or safety of another person.”

Six other universities in North Carolina, both public and private, were given code red ratings. Those schools include Davidson, East Carolina, NC Central, UNC-G, Winston-Salem State and the School of the Arts.

At the forum, in addition to the chalking issue students brought up other topics surrounding minorities. Gracie Harrington, a senior, spoke about the difficulty of her experience of com ing out as bisexual during her sophomore year. She is calling for genderneutral housing and restrooms, which is something some of the UNC-system schools are currently exploring.

“Ultimately I’ve heard that this decision will be left up to an elite group of campus, which is the board of trustees, and I wanted to come up here today to say that I think that is an injustice,” she said.

Beside her was sophomore Dani Benitez, who told a compelling story of transitioning from being a woman her freshman year to identifying as Genderqueer this year. Benitez, who medically withdrew from the university last week, followed Harrington by calling for similar gender-neutral reforms.

“Wake is my home for eight months of the year,” Benitez said. “I don’t want to be stared at, or treated like I’m some sort of freak at home without people knowing who I am.” !

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