Like many students on campus, LSA junior Terrence Griffin knows what it is like to hear a shocking comment come from another person’s mouth that whether said intentionally or not has long-standing effects.
After a University employee allegedly commented that Griffin “looks like a black Charlie Brown” and further went on to chastise him by asking him whether “black people watch ‘Peanuts,'” Griffin said he felt uncomfortable and appalled.
“At this point, I really felt as though I was being mocked as a person, something that is very hard to deal with when it is coming from an authority at the University,” Griffin said, adding that the employee’s comments made him feel dehumanized. “It’s the fact that it makes it seem like that’s all I am, is a character or cartoon. I’m actually a person.”
The employee who allegedly made the comments, Women In Science and Engineering and UROP In-Residence Director Sally Sharp, was placed on leave after the incident, which is under investigation by the University.
“Everyone in the University community deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Tolerance and understanding are part of our core values, and we should all be willing to uphold the values embedded in those concepts,” said Senior Vice Provost for Academic and Multicultural Affairs Lester Monts.
“If these comments are true, this should be a concern for everyone in the campus community,” Monts said. “No one on campus has an excuse for being insensitive to someone else.”
Griffin said he contacted University President Mary Sue Coleman and members of the Board of Regents, as well as the UIR and WISE programs, and that everyone he contacted was shocked and agreed that the remarks are “not welcome in the University community.”
Despite the support other administrators have shown him, Griffin said he still feels uncomfortable at the idea of talking to Sharp.
“I would think that she would be more sensitive to how hurtful and dehumanizing statements of that nature can be,” Griffin said. “I would think Dr. Sharp would have knowledge of how uncomfortable and hurting such questions are. They are now feelings I know first-hand.”
Griffin said he chose to make the comments public because he has heard of several other similar incidents occurring in Mosher Jordan Residence Hall, but said many of the students who are victimized by hurtful remarks choose not to talk about them for fear of retribution.
“I would like this to start a dialogue and to show people that it is not OK to make these comments, as well as to make people more open. You still see a divide between racial lines, and I feel that if you were to discuss more, they wouldn’t exist,” he said.
Like himself, many of Griffin’s friends are residential advisors in the residence hall or have research positions through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program.
“I’m worried about my position but I hope that I’m living up to the things I was taught in training. You’re taught that comments like this are not okay and you are taught to speak out against them, so I hope by speaking out, I am doing what I am trained to do,” Griffin said.
The University responded to the allegations with a written statement given to the Daily by Housing Director Bill Zeller.
Though Zeller could not discuss the active investigation, he said he hoped students always feel free to report inappropriate comments or conduct made by University employees.
“Residents and student resident staff should never hesitate to bring forward concerns about inappropriate or insensitive comments or conduct by a member of the University Housing community – whether student or employee – to an appropriate staff member, advisor, or Department of Public Safety officer,” Zeller said.
“It is critically important for students to speak up when they feel they are being placed in a hostile situation or environment without at the same time having to be concerned that there will be negative repercussions for coming forward,” he added.
Zeller also stated that diversity is an integral part of both programs and that both programs actively recruit diverse students and emphasize the importance of multicultural perspectives.
“As a community, we need to continually conduct a self-examination as to whether we are doing enough to ensure that all members are treated with the appropriate respect and dignity that they should always be able to expect, especially in their contacts with University staff,” Zeller said. “We hold ourselves accountable if we fall short of achieving such values.”
Monts emphasized the need to make events like this into an educational experience.
“We should also be willing to allow space for people to learn about each other. We are not born with the cultural competencies needed to be good citizens in a diverse society. Cultural competencies are learned behaviors that we acquired over time. So, as we make mistakes dealing with one another, let’s allow the space to readjust and learn how to deal with these issues so that they don’t reach crisis proportions.”
Though Griffin’s incident involved only people inside the Mosher Jordan living-learning communities, Griffin and other minority students said that the campus in general needs to be more cautious and aware of the effects comments can have on individual students and not be so accepting of racially-sensitive remarks.
“I think it’s very crucial that we as people, and we as individuals, watch what we are saying, what connotations we are making. I think a lot of us speak without really knowing the full connotations of what we are saying,” LSA sophomore Areej El-Jawahri said. “We have to be sensitive to other people’s feelings because we haven’t gone through what they have experienced. We don’t know how personal it is for them.
“This is no joke. Racial slurs are not something to be laughed at. The goal of our campus should be to take this out of our system because we really don’t need it. We are all capable of communicating in a way that would show respect to other individuals.”
While El-Jawahri said most of the time she has spent at the University has been positive and filled with good memories, she can relate to Griffin.
But in her case, it wasn’t a University faculty or staff member contributing to her feelings of discomfort. On Sept. 11 of last year, El-Jawahri, who is Arab-American, said she received a death threat via e-mail.
“That moment was really a turning point in my life. I felt alone, I felt insecure, I felt that whatever I contributed to my community didn’t really matter, and that is the worst feeling anybody can ever have, especially at that point in time,” she said. “(Arab-Americans) felt unwelcome in our own country.”
But she said that despite her experience, many of those around her supported her and gave her hope that other people’s attitudes would change.
“In the mix of this anger, you could also see a lot of hope because there were a lot of other Americans who stood up and said, this is wrong,” El-Jawahri said.