(Un)safe Spaces

A forward-thinking campus steps backward

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As a woman of color on the UC Santa Cruz campus, I could really use a break from being reminded of my otherness. I don’t go out of my way to incorporate race into my day to day, but when white supremacy stares back at me from a flyer hanging on the door of a public restroom, I feel like I am an imposter in higher education.

By Oct. 6, the Friday of the first full week of classes, the Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) received 13 hate/bias reports for flyers promoting white supremacy around campus, said Campus Diversity Officer Teresa Maria Linda Scholz. I found two of these flyers, and there was no telling how many other people had seen, read and possibly absorbed their message.

The flyers paired traditionally white propaganda images, such as Uncle Sam or the nuclear white family alongside messages of white pride. They are not overtly racist in their wording, but rather play to the nostalgia of societal norms of the past, when people of color were oppressed and scared into silence.

“They’re all going back to earlier moments of time and, a little bit like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again,’ there’s the notion that there was this ideality, good, perfect time that we should go back to,” said Martin Berger, interim associate vice provost of academic affairs. “[…] And one reason this makes us uncomfortable is because, at least as far as race goes, it was a terrible time to be anything but a white, protestant, straight,

Christian male. And these [flyers] make this nostalgic reference back to this earlier period of time, but not a particularly good time to revisit if you didn’t happen to be totally within the mainstream.”

Telling the white population on campus to not be ashamed of its privileges and to take pride in injustices committed by white people communicates to people of color that their struggles are not valid in the world of higher education. People of color are then told they are crying wolf or “attacking” white people when they encounter very real racism on campus. This only perpetuates inherent impostor syndrome felt by people of color in college.

White supremacy did not emerge out of 2017 or the new presidential administration. In America, whiteness as a concept has been developing since indigenous peoples discovered a lost and desperate Christopher Columbus off their shores in 1492. Thereafter, this entitled mentality set by colonizers kickstarted white superiority in North America.

The organization that created the flyers did so to communicate to white people that they should feel no shame in their whiteness. To feel the need to promote white supremacist rhetoric is white privilege at its finest. White privilege is the ability to walk through life in complete ignorance to societal issues that are life-changing for people of color. To communicate to the white individuals on campus that they shouldn’t listen to grievances expressed by people of color and instead ignore their privilege is intentionally divisive.

Flyers with the same message were found last year, promoting the same covert white supremacist dialogue. One hundred and forty-nine reports of hate and bias incidents on campus were received in the 2016-17 school year alone. According to social media sources, stickers demonstrating symbols of white supremacist organizations were put up on light posts throughout campus.

“Sometimes reporting goes up, not because there are more incidents, which I think there are in this case, but just because people are more comfortable about reporting,” said Martin Berger, associate vice provost of academic affairs. “They think that something will be done, they think it’s important to report. So in a lot of ways more reporting […] is a good sign because people are willing to come forward and make these reports and we want more dialogue about these issues.”

The messages communicated on the flyers can be very detrimental to the mental health of people of color, but technically are not constituted as hate speech according to both Campus Diversity Officer Teresa Maria Linda Scholz and UCSC Police Chief Nader Oweis. Both the ODEI and the police department must navigate the lines of free speech as it applies to campus, encouraging people to file reports or delegating the removal of flyers.

“Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment,” Oweis said. “There are some forms of speech that are unlawful. And one form of speech that is unlawful is a true or criminal threat, which we would investigate like any other crime. Sometimes individuals will commit crimes not knowing that they’ve committed a crime because they believe it is protected under the First Amendment.”

The fact the flyers I found do not meet the criteria of hate speech shows what lurks beneath the surface of this “liberal” and “progressive” institution.

I, as a person of color, will not and do not feel safe or supported when I hear my university say its hands are tied. To me, this emergence of white supremacy this early in the year is an ominous indicator of the campus climate in the coming years of Trump’s America. It’s clear to me the voices and hardships of people of color are not a priority to this campus.