At 11:15 a.m., nearly 35 students began to silently march north from the Du Bois Center toward the University Union. The purpose was to protest NAU administration’s response to a racist incident in which three NAU students posted a picture of themselves wearing black, cosmetic face masks on Snapchat.
During the April 3 march, participants held signs showing racist posts on social media made by NAU students, as well as on Snapchat. Many protesters also put duct tape across their mouths. The protesters said the tape had no significant meaning, but several of them wrote the word ‘listen’ on the tape.
Senior business management major Janiece Jenkins, one of the event coordinators, said students reached out to the administration about the incident but felt they were not taken seriously. The concerned students were told the situation had been taken care of and not to worry, Jenkins said. She did not believe the administration.
“For them to tell us it’s been handled yet these [students] are still riding around — we see them at the pool having fun, we see them on their bikes riding to class — like nothing happened even though we’re affected,” said Jenkins. “We’re walking around hurt, scared, not knowing what’s going to happen next.”
For Jenkins, this problem is easily solved. If students faced clear consequences after making bigoted actions, it would put minority students at ease while deterring others from making such remarks.
“We just want to know. Where’s the transparency?” Jenkins said. “They want to sweep it under the rug like it didn’t happen. But it did.”
According to NAU spokesperson Kimberly Ott, the university is aware and has addressed the incident but cannot always share details of outcomes due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA is a federal law that protects a student’s privacy relative to their education throughout their university career.
“We have looked into it. [The office of] Equity and Access are aware of this [and have] investigated it,” said Ott.
Ott said she couldn’t comment further due to FERPA laws.
But for many students, this response simply is not adequate. Jenkins said this protest was a request to the administration for clear and concise consequences for when racism happens on campus.
This protest comes in the wake of a recent campus forum where NAU President Rita Cheng said she did not support safe spaces, a statement which prompted student protests.
During the President’s Campus Forum March 29, Cheng was asked about the incident involving blackface masks but only said the incidents had been looked into and addressed by the dean of student in the Office of Student Life. Cheng also said students should try to better understand differences of opinion, and they should also use the resources available on campus.
Sophomore journalism major Kiara Brown was one of the students who took part in the protest and said Cheng’s comments did nothing to comfort her.
“It makes students [think], ‘Why are we going here if they obviously don’t care about us?’” said Brown. “I think [the administration] just don’t really care about the retention of the black students or any students of color for that matter. Because when things like this keep happening, [the administration] is not doing anything about it.”
A few students met with members of Student Life after the march. A meeting between the concerned students and the Equity and Access Office is also planned.
“We asked Student Life to look more into reforming campus policy. Students who were involved and leading the protests are making sure Student Life is held accountable,” Brown said.
Brown said Student Life told the group that students in blackface are protected by freedom of speech.
“It’s different because it’s hate speech, and our safe-working environment was violated,” Brown said.
Cheng responded to a student’s question about safe spaces at the forum.
“As a university professor, I’m not sure I have any support at all for safe spaces,” said Cheng. “I think that you as a student have to develop the skills to be successful in this world and that we just need to provide you with the opportunity for discourse, debate, dialogue and academic inquires. And I’m not sure that that is correlated with the notion of safe spaces.”
Brown said she and other protesters have contacted the students who wore blackface, with hopes of receiving an apology.
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