Eastern Michigan University investigates after racist images were painted on student speech wall
YPSALANTI, Mich. – Eastern Michigan University responded and condemned the racist images that were painted on a post on a student speech wall in the middle of campus. The area is designated for freedom of speech.
Late last week, a Black Greek Letter Organization (BGLO) Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Inc. painted a message on one of the student speech walls to commemorate the introduction of their newest member.
EMU NAACP chapter president MaKayla Stevens said: “…that same night the message was covered. And there was like monkey spray painted on it and words we couldn’t not completely understand by two students who then posted their works on EMU Engage App with is basically a social media for the university.
Dr Doris Fields, acting head of diversity at the university, was alerted and said: ‘They (the two students) apologized immediately afterwards, but the impact was already made.’
The two students explained that it was a misunderstanding and that they had no idea it was the message of a black brotherhood that they were covering. One student posted, in part, “We could never have predicted a joke would turn into this, but I can’t hold you back, we deserve it.”
Stevens thinks claiming the post was some kind of joke is an excuse.
“Of all the animals we have, you chose to spray paint monkeys who we know have always been very disrespectful to the black community in general,” Stevens said.
A police report has been drawn up and Dr. Fields is reviewing it as well.
“On Monday, I posted a letter from me to students because I want to make sure students feel safe,” Fields said.
She monitored messages in the Engage app, met with the two students as well as the fraternity. She plans to meet with the campus NAACP chapter next week.
Stevens’ concern is that there is a pattern of racist incidents and that the university is not taking action.
“There has been an event every year since 2016. We haven’t done anything since. Every event has been swept under the rug. It’s pretty popular on social media for about a week, a week and a half, and then nobody says anything,” Stevens said.
Fields said this time was different. She worked as a teacher at EMU for nearly 30 years, but recently took on the role of Acting Director of Diversity.
“We had never had a diversity director before. So here I am. And I want to let students know that I am their advocate and will keep them safe and deal with these issues at all times,” Fields said.
Below is the email Fields sent on Monday:
Dear EMU Community,
I am writing to you today to respond to the racist comments and images recently painted on the EMU Student Government Student Speech Wall.
Racist images on the Student Speech Wall
Late last week, pictures of monkeys and racist phrases were spray-painted on the students’ speech wall covering previously posted posts by African-American fraternities and sororities. The racist images and phases were also shared on the EMU Engage app. Images of monkeys and/or statements linking monkeys to African Americans have long been considered racist caricatures.
Eastern Michigan University condemns these hateful images and statements. Racist rhetoric and actions run completely counter to the mission, values and welcoming environment of our campus. Racist stereotypes, phrases, jokes or other acts of racial insensitivity, discrimination or prejudice on our campus are not acceptable.
I understand and share the range of emotions – anger, frustration, disappointment, fear, sadness – that our African American students, faculty, and staff are experiencing at this time. It’s hard to feel like you belong or be a valued member of a culture when you’re devalued by those around you. We must do better. Our university community must ensure that every student has the opportunity to receive a quality education. We all deserve an environment where we can thrive free from discrimination, racism and prejudice.
I have been in close contact with President Smith, Police Chief Matthew Lige and other university leaders on this matter. We are working collectively to investigate this matter, and we share the outrage of the campus community. The investigation by the Ministry of Public Security (DPS) is still ongoing. Once this investigation is complete, the DPS will share its report with the Washtenaw County District Attorney’s Office, which has the final decision on whether to pursue criminal charges. Together, we will continue to update the campus community as new facts emerge.
The Role of the First Amendment
An important element of the criminal investigation of these incidents is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gives individuals the general right to express their opinions, including offensive or objectionable opinions, largely without restriction. The Student Speech Wall was designed to foster open expression and dialogue among EMU students. It is operated by the EMU Student Government and the purpose of the space is:
“Eastern Michigan University students are encouraged to paint these spaces to communicate upcoming events and other public messages. Although students have wide latitude to write posts on the Student Speaking Space, the Student Government urges all writers to adhere closely to Eastern Michigan University’s core values of Excellence, Respect, inclusiveness, accountability and integrity. We encourage positive and informative messages.
Obviously, the racist speech painted on the wall does not meet these guidelines.
Unfortunately, the First Amendment can often be used by individuals to avoid liability for hateful statements and expressions. Such conduct may not be illegal because it is protected by the First Amendment. However, it is contrary to the mission and values of EMU, and we condemn it.
The University encourages students who write on the student speaking space (including the wall and nearby kiosks) to communicate information about upcoming events and “positive and informative messages”. If you are considering painting the wall, we ask that you think carefully about the outcome you hope to achieve with your statements and message. How will others hear them, interpret them and be impacted by them?
With communication on campus comes the responsibility to respect one’s peers. Racist messages such as those painted last week exclude and convey to some that they may not be welcome on our campus. They create a culture of fear, division and hatred. People thrive in cultures that support, include, and promote a sense of safety and belonging. Each of us is responsible for the energy we put into creating a community that welcomes and fosters the success of people of all backgrounds and experiences.
UEM strives to build bridges and an inclusive environment on campus. We are committed to breaking down barriers and improving race relations, and to making conscious efforts to build an educational institution that is accepting of all races, cultures, religions, nationalities, gender identities, and sexual orientations. Understanding that inclusion is an act and process of continuous improvement and an acceptance of differences, the University will demonstrate its commitment to inclusion by offering the following initiatives:
The University’s Acting Director of Diversity is proposing DEI office hours throughout the summer on Wednesdays from 3-5 p.m. (101C Boone) April 27 through the week of August 31. Walk-in and scheduled Zoom office hours are available for students, faculty, and staff to share their thoughts on the situation and other DEI concerns across the University. (Zoom appointments must be scheduled prior to the meeting by emailing [email protected])
We are creating a feedback process that will be open to students, faculty and staff to make suggestions on the development of a “Student Diversity Training Workshop”. This DEI initiative will be created by students for students, will be hosted by the Office of the Director of Diversity, and will focus on creating the culture we aspire to have on our campus.
UEM students will also have the opportunity to participate in the DEI Listening Tour in September 2022 to discuss DEI projects/programs/initiatives and DEI concerns. Dates and times will be announced closer to the fall semester. If you are interested in participating in any of these initiatives, please contact me at [email protected]
Finally, we can only achieve a truly inclusive campus community if every member of our community actively participates in the process of change. I hope you will join me in our efforts to create a more inclusive learning environment for students, faculty, and staff – where everyone can thrive academically, feel safe, and receive an education. quality.
Dr. Doris Fields
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