A torrent of racism on Yik Yak and the administration’s response
by Jack Queen; photo by Mallory Roberts
A light breeze sent yellowed leaves fluttering through the air on the morning of Nov. 20 as Colorado College students slowly trickled onto campus, carrying backpacks and holding steaming mugs of coffee. It was the last day before Thanksgiving break and most were anxious to get the day’s work done and head home for turkey dinners and some well-deserved downtime.
Unlike their peers, juniors Thad Pryor and Lou Henriques walked the other direction, away from the Worner Student Center. Neither carried backpacks, just single sheets of paper. Near the bottom, each read in bold, “In response to these findings of responsibility the following sanction is issued:” For Pryor, a two-year suspension, for Henriques, expulsion. Both were charged with “abusive behavior” and “disrupting campus activities.”
A week and a half earlier, students were also wrapping up classes, this time before a four-and-a-half day block break. That Monday night, the social media app Yik Yak—which allows users within a five-mile radius to make anonymous posts—began to fill up with increasingly vile racial slurs. Some of the worst, such as “Go back to the cotton fields,” were directed at black students, but virtually no racial group escaped disparagement.
By morning, the racist bile had cleared, but it had already sent painful tremors among minority students, to whom it was a manifestation of widespread marginalization and prejudice on campus.
“I felt disappointed but not necessarily surprised,” said Jazlyn Andrews, co-chair of the CC Black Student Union. “These types of comments are ones we face off-screen as well. It’s not always necessarily as explicit as the Yik Yaks were, but the comments are coming from the same ideologies nonetheless.”
The virulence of the posts shocked many white students who thought CC was beyond such regressive inclinations.
“Some of that stuff was just over the top nasty,” said senior Ryan Sarsfield Lach. “I can’t believe there are kids on this campus who would say shit like that.”
The following day, president Jill Tiefenthaler sent a campuswide email denouncing the posts as “the work of cowards and bigots, who have no interest in community.” A day later, after an impromptu meeting convened by the Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies Department and the Feminist and Gender Studies Department, 56 faculty and staff signed a letter expressing solidarity and recognizing “students’ feelings of anger, hurt, and disappointment.”
It was a jarring way to finish off the block, and for the many students who passed under the Tutt Library tunnel on Wednesday morning, the tension was spelled out in red spray paint across a concrete wall: “YIK YAK SOLDIERS WANT TO BE SLAVE OWNERS. FUCK YOU! YOU CAN’T CONTROL US.”
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Since late October, racial tensions have been rising on college and university campuses across the country. At the University of Missouri, a string of racially-charged incidents—including a swastika made of fecal matter and slurs allegedly yelled at the school’s black Student Body President—prompted a graduate student’s hunger strike and a show of solidarity by the football team that swiftly ousted the school’s president and chancellor.
Protests erupted at Claremont McKennaCollege after Dean of Students Mary Spellman sent an email to an aggrieved minority student in which she said the school needed to better serve students who didn’t fit “the CMC mold.” She stepped down the next day. Shortly thereafter, an email sent by a Yale lecturer that questioned the administration’s role discouraging culturally insensitive Halloween costumes touched off protests and calls for resignation.
A groundswell of protests spread to dozens of schools across the country, where minority students and their allies often issued calls for sensitivity training, curriculum changes, renaming of buildings and leadership changes. The nation was taken aback by the intensity and rapid spread of these protests, although some commentators, like The Atlantic’s Andrew McGill, saw them as an “inevitability”: according to his figures, black enrollment has dropped at the country’s 100 or so top-tier universities. In his view, it was thus unsurprising that students of color felt marginalized.
“I do not think this was a sudden development at all,” said Jazlyn Andrews in an email. “It’s shocking to people because we have been led to believe that campuses like ours are hubs of diversity, when in fact they have been adding students from marginalized communities and stirring without changing the campus climate to properly accommodate our needs.”
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At 9:02 a.m. on Nov. 16, students were notified that the block’s First Monday speaking event had been cancelled, and that students had organized a gathering at Reid Arena where people could share their experiences and thoughts regarding racism on campus. The event was well attended, and students stood crammed out the door to hear their peers give disheartening accounts of marginalization. A Native American student told of being “war whooped” and asked what tribe she was from. Black students reported being told their hair was “too kinky” and they “weren’t black enough.”
It was a painful but, by most accounts, constructive morning.
“Students of color don’t really feel like they have a voice on campus, and that’s why the forum was the perfect venue to get a voice out, and it was heard,” said Nebeu Abraha, sophomore and co-chair of the CC Black Student Union. “I think it accomplished everything I wanted it to.”
He stressed, however, that much more needs to be done.
“I don’t think this is something that’s going to be tackled in my time at CC, even.”
White students spoke of their responsibility in creating a more welcoming community and said the gathering helped them realize they needed to do more.
“I was pretty thrilled to see our institution intentionally supporting our students of color,” said senior Melissa Seehausen.
In the following weeks, the Butler Center, which works to promote inclusion and respect for minorities on campus, organized twice-weekly open dialogue circles and held office hours for students to talk about race issues. On November 19th, students of color stood in silent vigil in the Worner Center, hands linked and wearing T-shirts that described systemic racism in stark terms. Students again gathered for “Continuing the Conversation,” an event held on December 6th where attendees shared thoughts and received a free copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, “Between the World and Me.”
For Nebeu Abraha, the spasm of hate on Yik Yak was at first infuriating, but the conversations it sparked were long overdue.
“I hadn’t been that angry in a very, very long time,” he said. “But as soon as I had the time to breathe for a second I was so happy that it happened. Because a lot of white students aren’t forced to think about these issues, and when something like this happens they still aren’t forced to think about them, but it sadly and rightly gives merit to what students of color have been saying on this campus for a very, very long time.”
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While the administration worked to alleviate the pain the Yik Yak incident caused—and the pervasive sense of marginalization it revealed—it also mulled over how to deal with the perpetrators. Yik Yak posts are anonymous, but in the case of violent threats or other illicit posts, the company hands over user information to the police. (On November 30th, Western Washington University police arrested a 19-year old student on felony charges related to “Yaks” threatening students of color).
None of the Yaks at CC warranted a police response. But throughout the incident, students had been screenshotting offensive Yaks and preserving those that might have otherwise been deleted or voted off.
One such post was a comment in response to the Yak “#blackwomenmatter” that read, “they matter they’re just not hot.” Thad Pryor admitted to writing it but claims he quickly deleted it. (Lou Henriques, who declined to comment due to his pending appeal, admitted to posting offensive South Park quotes. Shortly before publication, he said his appeal had not been granted and that he withdrew from the college).
“Just sort of potshotting was happening, and everyone was making fun of each other, and when it became apparent that people were really getting offended and taking it personally, I deleted it,” Pryor said in a phone interview.
According to Pryor, the rumor mill attributed the comment to him, and a student came to the administration with the screenshot and accused him. The wheels of justice turned swiftly: on Thursday morning, he was summoned to a 4:00 p.m. conduct hearing with Associate Dean of Students Rochelle Mason and Associate Dean of Students Cesar Cervantes. Shortly thereafter, he received an email calling him to a meeting the next morning to discuss the school’s decision.
“So during that two-and-a-half hours is when the entire decision was made on my two year suspension,” he said.
Rochelle Mason declined to comment on the case, citing privacy rules. (A spokesman for the college told The Colorado Springs Gazette that “federal privacy laws” prevented them from discussing disciplinary action.) She did not respond to further inquiry regarding conduct cases in general.
Pryor was found guilty of “disruption of college activities” and “abusive behavior,” the latter defined in the Pathfinder (which outlines CC’s disciplinary policies and procedures) as “any act that endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student group” or “produces ridicule embarrassment, harassment, intimidation or other similar result.”
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Pryor and Henriques’s posts were crass but nonetheless forms of speech, and any punishment for speech will invariably provoke a discussion on First Amendment rights. Indeed, the focus of the nationwide debate on campus racism has turned upon a perceived tension between inclusivity and the right to free speech. It awoke in many from both the left and right latent fears about “the coddling of the American mind,” or the notion that today’s college students have become hypersensitive and censorious, qualities epitomized by “trigger warnings” and the disinviting of controversial speakers in the face of student opposition. This mindset, they say, is inimical to the liberal arts, which enshrines open inquiry and respectful debate, not the dismissal and silencing of those holding discordant beliefs.
“Being an inclusive community doesn’t require unanimity,” said professor of political science David Hendrickson. “It means, first of all, that we are committed to the proposition that students should feel they have the means to develop their own views about the range of subjects they are interested in—to be all that they can be. Professors are there to help them do that, not tell them what to think.”
The First Amendment, like several others, is not entirely inviolable. It does not apply to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater or, according to the Supreme Court, speech that incites “imminent lawless action.” Virtually everything else is fair game, and the government and its public institutions—including universities—cannot censor it.
At a school like CC, which is private but receives some federal funding, the line is less clear. But for Hendrickson, institutions of higher education should try to follow the spirit of the amendment whether or not they have to, although in narrowly defined cases when speech is “threatening, harassing or defamatory” universities may have an interest in restricting it.
“In general, speech should not be restricted; the remedy for offensive speech is more speech, involving rebuttal, criticism, and shaming, not censorship or banishment,” Hendrickson said in an email.
“I think free speech is very important,” said Nebeu Abraha. “I also think that there are some things that are more important than free speech…And I think that’s the line that we should play with and not necessarily ‘is it free speech or not,’ but is this type of free speech warranted?”
Jazlyn Andrews emphasized that the right to free speech does not protect people from reproach.
“Free speech doesn’t mean you won’t or shouldn’t be held accountable for your words,” she said in an email. “I think you have to ask, ‘Who feels they can speak freely while moving through most areas of campus?’”
This second point is echoed by some critics of free speech universalism. Literary scholar Stanley Fish, in his controversial book “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too,” argued that free speech is merely a “political prize” awarded by powerful groups to forms of expression they deem acceptable.
Others, like The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, take issue with this reading of history: “Over the course of U.S. history, both the protections enshrined by the First Amendment and the larger ethos of free expression that pervades American culture have played a major role in every successful push that marginalized groups have made to secure civil rights, fight against prejudice, and move toward greater equality,” he writes.
From this perspective, attempts by racial equality advocates to limit free expression (insofar as they genuinely do limit discourse) would undermine the very principles that empowered them in the first place. Which is to say, the way to fight systemic racism is not to silence those who deny it but expose their error in open dialogue.
It would, however, be a mistake to characterize the whole movement as a revision of long-standing principle. Jazlyn Andrews, for instance, says she would like to “have a physical space (like a residential house) in which [students of color] can relax, get to know one another and build bonds outside of the predominantly white spaces on campus (which is everywhere, let’s face it).”
Last year, former student Han Sayles and current senior Amirani Amarillo wrote a petition, supported by many students of color, that asked the administration to, among other things, diversify the curriculum by introducing “subjects of (but not limited to) class, race, gender, and sexuality… reflected in our classrooms and syllabi across campus.” To some, though, forcing students to take classes in line with a particular agenda—however noble it may be—is not in the spirit of the liberal arts.
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Campus was set to empty for break just a few hours after Pryor and Henriques’ punishments were handed down, but before CC’s Yik Yak quieted for the holiday, it filled with shocked and sometimes indignant reactions. Expulsion and a two-year suspension for an upperclassman (which is, in effect, expulsion) are the harshest discipline the school can hand down, and some felt the administration had overreacted. In the past, punishments for cases involving physical violence and sexual assault have been a single semester suspension, as was the case last year when a student allegedly choked and verbally abused his girlfriend, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Asked whether he thought the sanctions were justified, Nebeu Abraha said, “It saddens me greatly when you see a lot more student involvement in debates surrounding the punishment that certain students received, but then you see a fraction of that number of students that were outraged about the racism itself.”
“What they did was definitely really stupid,” said senior Henry Zecca, who is white, “but I think expelling them for it is absurd.”
No other students were disciplined for the incident. If you believe Pryor and Henriques’ narrative, they were only responsible for several posts in a sea of racist garbage targeting students of all ethnicities, and there could have been dozens of perpetrators. One could argue they were made an example of despite the supposedly objective nature of conduct hearings.
An official in the administration, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested that fear over the toppling of high-ranking officials across the country may have compelled the school to come down exceptionally hard to head off any unrest.
There are some problematic elements of the case, and they are the subject of Pryor’s eleven-page appeal, which he provided to the Cipher. Pryor contends that the process was in violation of Pathfinder procedures—namely that he was not informed of his charges until the sentencing process and that “at no point during [his] meeting with Mr. Cervantes or Ms. Mason did either of them mention any specific school codes, values, or Pathfinder violations.” He also contends that his clean discipline record was not taken into consideration and that his sanction was not, as outlined in Pathfinder, “appropriate to the needs of the student and the CC community.”
Charging Pryor with disruption of college activities is presumably related to the cancelling of block four’s First Mondays as a result of the furor the posts caused, which implies that, in the school’s eyes, Pryor’s comment was a principal catalyst for the flurry of hate. Given the short life of the comment and the quantity of other posts, this seems like a dubious proposition. In his appeal letter, Pryor suggests Mason and Cervantes suspected him of other, more offensive Yaks that he denied writing when presented with them.
“I asked Rochelle, ‘Are you punishing me for the six words that I wrote?’ And I kind of talked her into a position where she had to say, ‘OK, it is those six words.’ The implication is that those six words—the ripple effect was the cancelling of First Monday and then the forum on racism.”
As for the abusive behavior charge, the post was plainly denigrating to black women, although Pryor adamantly denies he intended it as anything more than a joke. He claims Mason told him the school punishes based on impact rather than intent, a standard that was explicitly invoked by Dean Edmonds in a 2008 letter regarding a similar case involving a controversial parody of the Feminist and Gender Studies department newsletter, the Monthly Rag. It is a well-intentioned standard but by its nature a subjective one.
“Intent is always relevant, though not necessarily determinative,” said professor David Hendrickson. “You can’t make the subjective feeling of the hearer dispositive without grossly infringing on the right of people to speak their minds.”
“The implication there was that I was a huge part of this whole racist attack on students of color…that I made students feel physically and mentally unsafe,” added Pryor.
According to Nebeu Abraha, however, the posts did have that impact on some students of color.
“There were literally students who were afraid to walk to their dorm,” he said. “I’ve never at all feared for my life, especially on this campus. But a black woman on this campus? It’s like how you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a movie theater, you know?”
That Pryor and Henriques were complicit, if perhaps not wholly responsible, in an incident that made a group of students feel physically unsafe warrants some kind of disciplinary action. But for Kazzy Medellin, a Mexican-American student who interns at the Butler Center, removing the students from the community seemed like the wrong approach.
“When I first heard that the kids got expelled and suspended or whatever my first reaction was kind of like just, ‘How are they supposed to learn?’” she said.
She said a mutual friend of both her and Henriques told her “that he had admitted to it because he wanted to be a part of the conversation.”
Medellin also recalled a time when she and some friends who were students of color stayed late at a fraternity party with Henriques and talked into the night with him about issues of race.
“He was so understanding and I feel like it’s really hard to find students who will listen. And he was one of them,” she said.
In this light, a better option may have focused on reconciliation and reflection rather than outright removal. Rochelle Mason did not respond to an inquiry as to whether such options are considered in these cases.
Shortly before the publication of this article, Pryor and Henriques’ appeals were denied, and the latter withdrew from the college. Pryor, whose suspension was reduced to one year in light of his clean disciplinary record, has not decided whether or not he will return to CC. Apparently, the administration is confident enough in its evidence, procedures and judgment regarding sanctions to close the cases. Privacy rules nebulously attributed to federal regulations are a convenient shield, but they may not satisfy the skepticism of those who think the axe shouldn’t have fallen so hard.
“Personally, it’s not even something I think, something that I stand by,” said Pryor. “I apologize for it wholeheartedly. I didn’t mean to offend anyone, I didn’t mean to be racist or hateful.”
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Racism is a serious problem at Colorado College, as the storm of repulsive slurs on Yik Yak revealed in a very painful way. What makes it so sinister is that it is often subtle, with slights—intentional or otherwise—building to a raucous din in the hearts and minds of minority students. Many white students are thus unwittingly complicit in the marginalization of their peers. The unrest buffeting campuses across the country reminds us that, contrary to the vapid proclamations that “racism is over,” we still have work to do in re-forging a common humanity ripped asunder by a cruel past.
The question we must ask, however, is how we let our principles guide us in this journey. Do we re-examine our value of free expression to better reconcile our society to a harsh reality, or do we hold fast to our commitment to open, if at times distressing speech? As a school, will we try to soften the hard hearts of the prejudiced through conversation and learning, or will we seek inclusion through exclusion of those who run afoul of civility?
Extremely important conversations have begun at Colorado College. Thad Pryor and Lou Henriques will not be a part of them.