In interviews Thursday night ahead of Friday’s planned “Silence is Still Violence” solidarity march through campus, student leaders discussed what they describe as the inadequacy of Boston College’s response to several racist incidents that occurred earlier this week.
The incidents, specifically the defacing of multiple “Black Lives Matter” posters in residence halls and a widely circulated Snapchat of a blackened steak and cheese sandwich taken by a student with the caption “I like my steak and cheese like I like my slaves,” led BC administrators to send out two messages to students, one on Monday and one Thursday.
The incidents also prompted an emotional rally Monday night, and a heavily attended walkout Wednesday organized by Eradicate Boston College Racism. At both events, students voiced dissatisfaction with BC administrators’ response to the incidents, which they see as not strong enough. Their comments add to long-running concerns by some students that also led, for example, to the organizing in September 2016 of a “Silence is Violence” march that criticized BC’s handling of the defacing of a sign in the Mod Lot with a homophobic slur.
Akosua Achampong, Undergraduate Government of BC president and MCAS ’18, said she was disappointed but not surprised when she initially saw a post on Facebook about the defacing of the Black Lives Matter signs, which were made to read “Black Lives Don’t Matter” and “Black Lives Do Not Matter.” Then, on Sunday, she saw the Snapchat for the first time.
“That was very upsetting and almost exhausting at the same point,” she said. “There is nothing funny about slavery, there’s nothing funny about the rape and torture and enslavement of people, and so for any student to find that funny was just confusing.”
But, she said, it’s bigger than one student or sign and part of a problem students face at some level every day. For some people, she added, the issue is political, but for some it’s deeply personal and emotional.
“It’s not just a Snapchat, it’s not just those two or three signs, it’s [an accumulation] of every single thing,” said George Boateng, president of the Black Student Forum and MCAS ’18.
Achampong said the University’s response on Monday, a statement from Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley and Vice President for Student Affairs Barb Jones, was one of the quickest responses administrators have made to an incident, but she added that some students have found it lacking.
“Boston College condemns all acts of hate and is committed to holding any student who violates our standards accountable,” Quigley and Jones wrote in the five-sentence statement.
Francesca Araujo, MCAS ’20, described the statement as “crass.”
“How can a response to something so inherently dehumanizing and emotional not be emotional too?” she said. “I just want to remind everyone that a sign wasn’t ripped down, someone literally wrote ‘Black Lives Do Not Matter.’ That makes me feel unsafe.”
Titi Odedele, MCAS ’18, said she doesn’t think people understand how much these incidents have impacted students, some of whom have told her they can’t sleep, eat, or do homework because they feel unsafe.
Nina Bombole-Boimbo, CSON ’21, said that as a freshman it has been challenging to process the racist incidents on campus.
“It’s been really hard to process, especially being so far away from home,” she said. “To think that I came to a school where the administration doesn’t particularly care about such a prominent issue was really upsetting. I definitely didn’t expect to experience something like this, especially so early on.”
Achampong said people “do not physically feel safe here.” Bombole-Boimbo said one of her friends called her in the middle of the night asking to sleep in her bed because she felt like there was nobody in her dorm who cared about what was going on.
“The only place she could find any kind of comfort was with another black student,” she said. “To not only be out of your comfort zone but to feel in danger is extremely unfair and that’s been an extremely upsetting experience.”
Araujo added that she is not sure what is holding administrators back from issuing a statement that explicitly affirms that black lives matter. Achampong said she understands the politicization of “Black Lives Matter,” but also said people need to understand how deeply emotional it is for some black students. Another student said it was not clear from that first email that BC is standing by students who are affected by the incidents.
Odedele said she found the lack of response from University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., disappointing, because of BC’s stated dedication to social justice and Jesuit values.
“It seems counterintuitive, right, to know that history, and to see this silence, it’s disheartening,” she said.
Zach Patterson, vice president of the Black Student Forum and MCAS ’19, said he had talked to a priest about Leahy’s role as both the University’s president and a Jesuit—Leahy can step down as president at any time, he said, but he’ll always be a priest, in a pastoral role.
“To not fulfill that role, I feel like that’s sort of a misstep on his part, because as the leader of this institution he has the responsibility to make sure that the students under him are feeling welcome at the institution and make sure we feel like we’re adequately cared for, and we’re not just sources of income,” Patterson said.
Patterson perceives BC as an institution that is run like a business.
“When you run it like a business, it takes the emotionality out of it, it takes the compassion out of it, and I think the way they’re running BC is not the most compassionate,” he said.
Araujo said she doesn’t think BC responds to these incidents with the same force as other schools. She gave Brown University and Georgetown University, which announced earlier this month that it will avoid investments in private prisons, as examples. Achampong highlighted Duke University, which she said made a strong statement on the violence in Charlottesville in August. Leahy made a similar statement, although it was to faculty at University Convocation, and students were not emailed.
“We want to be just as good as our peer institutions, if not better,” Achampong said. “Being that we are a Jesuit university, we should be the trailblazers for a lot of these topics on social justice and human rights.”
“[The administration’s power] is to set the tone, and to show students what the goals are,” Odedele said. “You can’t change every single person’s mind, which is fine, but the administration has the responsibility of showing students what’s acceptable and what’s not. And I think this was yet another case where the opportunity to respond in a firm way … was lost.”
Achampong said she thinks a lack of AHANA+ representation among high-level University administrators affects how they respond to bias incidents.
“There’s no one there to say, ‘Oh, I can have a personal connection to this,’ and have it be as visceral for them as it is for many students,” Achampong said. “Because they’ve never been in our positions, they can’t fully do that.”
Boateng said that BC’s efforts to improve issues of racism on campus are often opaque.
“If you’re saying that you’re working towards progress and towards improvement, then let students know,” Boateng said.
“Also, how can you not involve students in that type of action if it’s something that’s directly affecting us?” Odedele said.
Achampong and Tt King, UGBC’s executive vice president and MCAS ’18, hope that after Friday’s march the University makes some additional efforts to deal with issues of race at BC. King cited a campus climate survey, stronger bias-incident reporting resources, and some kind of pre-university race education module as possibilities. Students said they plan to present demands of the University at the march Friday.
“Trying to find a concrete, accountable way to keep track of the way that we’re educating students that are not just conversational but that can be quantitative in some way is something that I’m really looking forward to and hoping will emerge sooner [rather] than later,” Achampong said.
Another goal is to explore making the African and African Diaspora Studies Program a full department, outside of which Achampong said there is a lack of black representation among professors, especially in the sciences and in the Carroll School of Management.
“I think it’s still very saddening that a student, if they so chose, could go their entire four years at BC without ever being taught by a person of color,” she added.