A Campus Full of Fear: What It’s Like Being a Student of Color at Syracuse University Right Now

If you have not heard by now, Syracuse University has been dealing with an onslaught of racist incidents since November 7th. This most recent string of incidents began when racist graffiti was found in the bathrooms on two floors in Day Hall, an on-campus residence building for first-year students. That would be the first of many incidents on campus, or more specifically, at least 13 more incidents since November 7th, with some being as recent as recent as November 21. A definitive list of all reported incidents so far can be found on Syracuse University’s website. 

The voices and the experiences of these students have been reflected in the recent #NotAgainSU protests on campus, whose demands for change have reached Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud. On November 20, the Chancellor was presented with a list of demands from protesters calling for the implementation of such initiatives as mandatory diversity training for faculty and staff and developing multicultural offices. Chancellor Syverud would only agree to 16 of the 19 demands made by protesters. Additionally, four students were suspended on November 20th for their part in the verbal assault of a Black female student

It is one thing to hear about these acts of hate in the media, while it is another to begin to comprehend the pain, fear, and anger felt by students of color on SU’s campus right now. Shedding light on the daily encounters with racism experienced by SU students is vital for putting these major acts of hatred in context. 

Taylia Hinds is a sophomore at Syracuse University. Originally from Long Island, she has a passion for singing and was impressed by the university’s music school and communications school for her major in Communications and Rhetorical Studies. Taylia was aware of past incidents of racism on campus, namely the video that circulated online showing Theta Tau fraternity brothers making racist, anti-Semetic, and homophobic remarks as part of a skit. When the incident was first reported in April of 2018, one semester before Taylia would start as a freshman, it  was a defining moment for Taylia, as she would begin to view Syracuse “as a place where racist incidents can happen at any time.” 

Her fears would be confirmed. “I always tell my friends this, but I've experienced more racism here in Syracuse in the last 2 years than I did in 18 years growing up on Long Island,” she told me. 

Not only has this created a lot of stress and fear in Taylia’s life since coming to Syracuse, it is one incident of racism in particular that would discourage her from pursuing her dream in advancing as a singer within SU’s music school. In an ear training class where she was one of two Black students, Taylia immediately felt out of place.

“I was struggling with the work because it was very different from any music class I’d taken in high school, and when it came time for the midterm I wasn’t prepared. I didn't go to a fancy private high school like most of the kids in my class and didn’t have the same amount of experience with certain things.” 

Taylia said that preferential treatment was given to white students, approaching their questions in a more friendly and helpful manner than hers. Determined to pass her midterm, Taylia did some last minute review of her notes in the hallway outside the classroom right before the students would walk into the class. She says that her professor singled her out and accused her of cheating, before backing down when Taylia explained that she was looking at her own notes. Then came time for the test. While performing her midterm, Taylia says that her professor told her to stop proceeding to berate her in front of the entire class. She says her professor told her that she clearly didn’t care about the class or music and even insulted her abilities as a musician. Then, she says he ended his rant by telling Taylia that she’d be better off dropping his class. 

“After that, I went home and cried for hours and felt like a complete failure. Nothing happened to the professor even though I reported it. He's the only professor that teaches that class, which is mandatory for all music majors, so I just stopped trying to pursue a music degree here [at Syracuse University].” 

 

Photo Credit: Taylia Hinds

 

Another student, Christina*, was devastated when the news about the Theta Tau video came out. 

She viewed Syracuse University as her dream school and questioned whether or not she would feel safe there, even at one point reconsidering her commitment to the school. Unfortunately, she too would deal with racism first hand as a student at Syracuse University. 

She described to me her experiences with microaggressions on SU’s campus. As a Latina, she found herself getting questions about her citizenship on three different occasions. She says that people assume that she’s either from an urban area or not from the United States at all, giving everyone quite a shock when they hear her speak without any kind of accent. 

Christina explains, “Anytime I tell people I’m from Long Island they act like it’s the biggest plot twist in history. My first semester of college there was a white female that made fun of the way I said ‘ask.’ I didn’t know I was saying it wrong and she responded by saying that people from urban areas usually speak like that-- uneducated. This confused me because I am not from an urban area, I was born and raised in the suburbs. There are so many things I could say. There are probably experiences that I did not realize because I am so normalized to it.”

So when racist incidents picked up earlier this month, neither Taylia nor Christina could really say they were shocked, but they were definitely scared. Christina said that she even found herself talking precautions to protect herself.

“The main change I made was keeping a low profile. I try not to be too loud in public spaces and almost always walk with a friend. I’m a lot more aware of my surroundings and usually catch myself speaking lower or not speaking at all. I haven’t gone to class since Monday in fear of recent threats. A few days ago the university put shuttles on campus that would drive us home if we didn’t feel safe. I’ve taken a shuttle home everyday since they were implemented.”

One word that came up a lot in the news and in these interviews in describing the current climate on SU’s campus is tense. Academic buildings that are usually bustling with students are barren. Christina described it as a “ghost town.” This is partly due to the cancellation of classes after a white supremacist manifesto was published to a forum frequented by SU students.

Taylia says, “Everything seems off. Syracuse is a big school (over 20,000 students) and when I went to the dining hall yesterday, the whole main campus was empty. I saw maybe 20 people walking around.” 

 

Photo Credit: Taylia Hinds

Christina and Taylia have taken action by protesting in the Barnes Center on campus and posting about it frequently on social media. When asked about what changes they’d like to see made on campus, they both wanted to see the perpetrators expelled from campus and held accountable in a court of law, as well as more transparency from school officials about the incidents. Both want programs that advocate for inclusivity and tolerance, but as Christina points out, Syracuse University has tried that

“After Theta Tau they created SEM 100 [a seminar required for first year students to foster diversity and inclusion] that was supposed to tackle this [racism] but all we talked about was the Trevor Noah book we were supposed to read. Half the students in my class didn’t read and were not punished for it. They still passed the class.” 

While the fault here lies less with the idea and more with the execution, one thing that is clear to Christina, Taylia, and many of their classmates is that the university is not doing enough. They hold Chancellor Syverud personally responsible along with the on campus police force and the board of trustees. 

Given the chance to speak directly to the Chancellor, Christina says she would say, “You have lost the trust of students of color at Syracuse University. Ever since you became Chancellor there have been countless racist incidents and not one effective solution has been made. The #NotAgainSU movement has shown how much you don’t care about students of color. It has been made clear that you and the people who work with you only care about money and the school’s reputation. This movement will not go away overnight. Students and staff will remember your treatment even after this ends. We will not stop until our demands are met and we are treated like human beings. We are deserving of this space and education.”

Taylia says, “...don't promise anything you can't deliver. You have let the minority students on this campus down before; you can’t do it again. This time, we won't just sit by and forget about what happened. You need to enact actual changes and quickly or things are going to do nothing but get worse. You have the power to fix this so do it.”

It’s clear that Syracuse University has a long way to go. Taylia and Christina say that one of the best ways for the public to get involved is to talk about what’s going on. 

Christina says, “I hope the public can continue to spread awareness and the struggle students of color go through on a daily basis. The best way the public can help is by talking about #NotAgainSU. Talk about this to your professors, neighbors, family and classmates. I hope this movement does not end at Syracuse but spreads to universities across America as well.” 

 

*name has been changed for the safety and privacy of the student