What's in a hate crime?

Sunday, September 23, 2018 - 4:35pm

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Photo Courtesy of Alyssa Fellabaum

Many would agree no undergraduate experience at the University of Michigan is complete without painting the Rock. Last year, I painted the Rock for the first time as part of an annual event hosted by the Vietnamese Student Association. I got to meet a lot of new people and bond with them as we participated in a Wolverine tradition. I wasn’t able to make it to this year’s “Paint the Rock” event, however, and I soon learned of some unfortunate news: the freshly-painted Rock, which bore the Vietnamese Student Association abbreviation and the names of several members, had been defaced. The association posted the following on its Facebook page:

“On September 21, 2018, it came to our attention that our organization’s name was defaced on the Rock. We had painted ‘VSA’ on all four sides of the Rock. We found that two sides were painted over with the words ‘FUCK 12’ in yellow paint. On the most prominent side of the Rock, a painted penis defaced ‘VSA.’

This is vandalism, and this is a hate crime carried out by those with access to our campus. This incident is one of many vandalizations targeting people and student organizations of color at the University of Michigan.”  

The statement ended by calling VSA and allies to help repaint and “reclaim the Rock.”

Initially, I wasn’t sure what to think. I just sat in front of my computer, rereading VSA’s statement, wondering where I had heard this sort of rhetoric before.

And then it hit me.

Almost exactly a year ago, the Black Student Union issued an extremely similar statement in response to an incident involving racial slurs written on dorm room name tags:

“On Sept. 17, 2017, three Black University of Michigan students were targeted with racially derogatory language in the form of defaced name tags on their dorm doors. This is not only a crime of vandalism, but also a hate crime carried out by those with access to our campus and residence halls, presumably underclassmen students.” 

What was I to make of this? Did the Vietnamese Student Association knowingly copy the Black Student Association’s words? Or was there some protocol that required student organizations to issue their statements in a very particular way? I point this similarity out not to accuse Vietnamese Student Association of plagiarism, but to explain my confusion over the whole situation.  

I was also confused by how quickly the vandalization of the Rock had been labelled a hate crime. A hate crime is motivated by bias against certain groups of people, such as ethnic or racial minorities. Without knowing all the details, it’s difficult to determine whether the vandals specifically targeted VSA.

One might be tempted to draw comparisons to yet another incident of vandalization last year in which welcome messages written on the Rock by Assisting Latinos to Maximize Achievement had been defaced. However, one key difference is that the graffiti in the previous incident mentioned Latinos, whereas, in the case of the Vietnamese Student Association, there was no reference to the supposedly targeted group. It was reported “FUCK 12” had been painted on the Rock; considering that the number 12 is slang for “police,” it doesn’t make sense for the message to be directed toward the Vietnamese. Then again, vandals aren’t reasonable people in the first place, so maybe that’s a moot point.

I know I hold the unpopular opinion here, but I must speak my truth: I do not view this recent event as a hate crime. A crime? Perhaps. But a hate crime? No, not without more information.

Let me be clear — I’m not trying to invalidate anyone’s feelings. Vandalism is wrong, period. It’s a blatant show of disrespect. Anyone who is upset about this has every right to be; however, to call it a hate crime may be a bit presumptuous at this point. Someone covered the Rock in profanity. It had been painted by a student organization just a day before. That organization was composed of people of color. Maybe they were targeted, maybe they weren’t. I could imagine the same exact graffiti over anyone’s name, regardless of race.

Personally, I don’t feel as though my identity has been attacked. Further, if I were to call the incident a hate crime while there’s still so much unknown about it, I believe I would be undermining the experiences of those who have been victims of actual hate crimes, such as the Black students who had their name tags defaced or Assisting Latinos to Maximize Achievement.

The situation has me reflecting on my place among people of color. I think a big part of standing in solidarity with other people of color is recognizing their experiences are not necessarily my own. Though it’s unfortunate that someone painted over the Vietnamese Student Association’s name, I will not compare it to the racial slurs and worse that others on campus have endured. It’s my responsibility as an ally to understand some of the privileges that I have. The strength of my allyship isn’t based on the idea that I struggle in the same way that other people of color do, but on my ability to see our differences so that I may better understand and do what I can to help alleviate each person’s unique struggle. I will not exaggerate the setbacks that I face to validate my POC-ness. I will not use narratives that do not belong to me.

Once more, I wasn’t there when the Rock was vandalized, and I don’t know who did it or why. The most I can do now is share my opinion, how I was (or wasn’t) affected as a member of the Vietnamese community. At the end of the day, I suppose what’s most important is that we get past it. While I don’t agree with all of the Vietnamese Student Association’s statement, at the very least, I’m glad that they were able to repaint the Rock.