By Abby Wargo
On Friday, Nov. 22 around 9:30 p.m., a racial bias incident occurred on the Washington College campus.
According to an email sent on Saturday morning by the Department of Public Safety, a white pickup truck was driving through campus. Its occupants were yelling racial slurs out the window at multiple groups of WC students.
Public Safety deduced that it was the same white pickup truck that was reported on Nov. 11 for allegedly yelling racist slurs at students of color at the crosswalk on Washington Avenue by Reid Hall.
The truck’s occupants have since been identified, and Public Safety has written No Trespassing letters banning all four from campus and campus events. The suspects are not WC students.
The Chestertown Police Department, in collaboration with Public Safety, has opened an investigation into the incident. Public Safety has provided surveillance footage and obtained witness statements from the students involved to assist the investigation, according to Public Safety Director Brandon McFayden.
The investigation is still active and ongoing, but acting police chief Lt. John Dolgos said that the department is working with the State’s Attorney’s Office to determine if any of the truck’s occupants can be criminally charged.
“It all depends on what kinds of facts we can learn from the case, if there really was any criminal violations and if there was probable cause to charge,” Lt. Dolgos said in a phone interview on Nov. 26.
In the meantime, Public Safety and CPD have increased patrols around campus for the foreseeable future, and request if anyone knows anything about the case to contact either the police department or Public Safety.
In response to this incident, the President’s Office also sent out two emails to students, faculty, and staff denigrating the truck’s occupants’ actions. President Kurt Landgraf said that the recent bias incidents are “profoundly connected” to the College’s decision to cancel performances of “The Foreigner” three weeks ago.
“This — and any kind of harassment, bullying, hate crime, bias, or racist behavior toward any of our students — is intolerable. My first and most important job is to ensure that all of our students feel safe, welcome, respected, and heard,” Landgraf wrote in the email sent Monday, Nov. 25.
Although the recent incidents have sparked administrative action, instances of racial bias have pervaded the lives of minority students during their time at WC.
Senior Jocelyn Elmore, president of the Black Student Union, said, “We [minority students] have been facing micro-aggression, racism and bias for many years at WC and these situations have been swept under the rug. Majority of the minority students feel uncomfortable and under-valued as students here at WC.”
It has only been since these incidents happened that the College has begun to implement more active inclusionary measures, according to Elmore.
“The cases regarding the trucks and racial slurs have added to the discomfort that we feel being at a predominantly white institution. Until now, we have felt like no one cares about what it takes to keep students of color on campus once they get us here,” Elmore said. “We have been voicing our concerns to administration for years and we are finally being heard. It is saddening that it took these major events to occur to encourage change.”
The BSU has been working toward creating a more accepting community, and events that they hosted this semester, like the “Is it Offensive” panel discussion, have served to educate the campus on insulting or upsetting interactions. Last week, BSU launched a social media campaign to raise awareness of microaggressions, using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatterAtWAC to post about real interactions minorities have had with white people on campus.
Elmore said of the campaign, “Our goal with this social media campaign was not only to raise awareness, but to encourage our peers to join us and stand against these issues.”
The BSU has a variety of events planned for next semester, and Elmore encouraged anyone to attend their meetings.
While campus groups are stepping up to create change, recently, many think the College as a whole has not done enough to foster a culture of inclusion and acceptance. Elmore said the first step in achieving this is education.
“Most people are ignorant, meaning they lack knowledge of these issues. As an institution that values all students, it is the college’s job to teach and provide educational forums and discussions regarding diversity and inclusivity,” Elmore said. “There are some people who have never went to school or lived with people of color before they got to Washington College. Therefore, just as the school teaches and informs us about sexual assault and drug and alcohol use, everyone should also be taught about diversity and inclusivity.”
Landgraf wrote about change and increased education in his email to campus.
“But I also see this as a pivotal moment for us, a moment to do some hard soul-searching about who we are as a campus and as a larger society, and to turn our pain into fuel for meaningful change. To help us do this, we have begun a campus-wide diversity initiative to look at how we deal with diversity issues of all kinds on campus given the changing demographics of our student body, our immediate community, and the larger society in which we live,” Landgraf wrote in his Nov. 25 email.
These new initiatives stem from the revision of the College’s diversity statement, which was finalized at the end of the spring semester.
The Board of Visitors and Governors created a diversity committee whose focus is on creating a more coherent, campus-wide commitment to diversity and advocating for programs that will invite change.
Lynn Bergeson, a Board member on the committee, said, “I think we recognize that we want to make our college community more diverse. We need more professors who are persons of color, we need more students who are persons of color, so we’re all really just trying to achieve a more diverse, a more inclusive, more compassionate, college community, and the incidents of the very recent past just tell us that this issue is timely, urgent, and necessary.”
Claire Hansen, the new diversity liaison that was appointed by President Landgraf at the beginning of the school year, has been tasked with doing this more directly, as well as surveying all of the disparate other diversity efforts made by various campus groups, such as Intercultural Affairs and BSU.
Some of the methods they have proposed for fostering a more tolerant community include providing campus-wide education and training, similar to Elmore’s suggestion.
“Ultimately, it’s really my goal to make sure all of these groups that are doing aspects of diversity and inclusion work are working together. I feel like we work in silos so frequently, and if we communicated around these issues more, not only would there be a greater level of transparency, but we could help alleviate unease that arises,” they said.
The consensus among these initiatives is that to decrease issues of racial bias, the onus is on every member of the campus community to acknowledge the problems and become more open-minded. “These issues should be important to every student on campus. In order to see change, ALL students must come together to learn, understand and plan ways to combat these issues TOGETHER,” Elmore said.