There’s a word in our language with a peculiar amount of power. It’s a word that gets attention fast.
Last week, Business School senior John Andrews, who was checking his Facebook.com profile between classes in the lower levels of the Ross School of Business’s Executive Residence, found that word at the end of a message.
The message was in response to his profile picture, which shows a map of Michigan and the words “No on 2” printed in forceful red.
It began, “no on 2 eh??? im a WOMAN and i say YES on 2!!!!!”
It ended, “you must be a nigger.”
Andrews, who is black, is no stranger to unsolicited messages. During the 2004-2005 varsity basketball season, he saw playing time as a walk-on point guard. But aside from the occasional jab at his ball handling, the e-mails he received were supportive.
“Nothing like this,” he said.
After reading the message, he let the word simmer for a moment.
“I was taken aback,” he said. “It took me a few minutes just to work through those emotions.”
The message was sent from a Facebook profile unfamiliar to Andrews. He suspects it may have been a front.
A bleak frustration was gestating. But so was an idea.
Within minutes, he was logging onto his e-mail account. He saw an opportunity. He sent an e-mail with the subject line “Messages of Hate” through iMpact, the Business school’s mass e-mail system.
He then sent messages to dozens of groups, including the University chapters of the NAACP and Black Student Union.
The e-mails asked if others had received similar messages and, if they had, to preserve them as evidence that “equality and fairness does not exist in this state.”
“People see situations in history textbooks, but they aren’t aware that this still happens now, all around them,” he said.
Andrews said members of the black community were supportive, but not surprised.
“Unfortunately on this campus, it’s not an uncommon thing,” he said.
Some shared similar stories with him – incidents of harassment at parties and in the dorms.
Sharon Vaughters, assistant to the dean of students, confirmed that students have reported several hateful messages since last week’s election.
The trend is not new, she said. The passage of Proposal 2 has simply lent a new edge to the harassment that already exists on campus.
Andrews dismissed the idea that the message directed toward him was a prank.
“I think if you are aware of the historical significance behind the word, it would be very, very difficult to use it in a joking manner,” he said. “Unless they’re just unaware of what’s going on.”
For him, this was evidence that programs like affirmative action are still needed, and badly.
For instance, he said, the woman’s profile showed she worked for Rock Financial, a company that many business students apply to.
“If she’s interviewing me for a job,” he said. “I won’t be perceived as equal to other candidates.”
Andrews attributed the incident to cultural and racial seclusion.
“When you aren’t exposed to people of different races,” he said, “you form assumptions and categorize them based on limited information.”
Because of institutionalized racism, he added, the information behind these assumptions is often flawed.
So what now? Since the passage of Proposal 2, the possibilities of a whitewashed student body and stunted cross-cultural dialogue have shadowed many campus discussions.
“I don’t have a game plan,” Andrews said, adding that outreach and discussion between different groups is going to be more important than ever.
“Reach out,” he urged new students. “U of M has unlimited opportunities. Don’t stay within your comfort zone.”
The road ahead for Andrews and others will likely be thorny in the coming months. A lot of ground remains uncovered.
“This wasn’t the first time I’ve been called the n-word,” Andrews said. “And I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
Don’t stay silent
Students can report instances of harassment to the Hate and Bias Report Line at 734-615-2427 or fill out an incident report form at www.urespect.umich.edu/reportform.html.