Combating racism in campus communities

Georgia Lodewyk—Staff Writer

Contributed Photo

On Tuesday, March 29, Angelica “Lica” Acosta Garnett, a bilingual paralegal at an immigration law firm and a host for the Christian Community Development Association, stepped onto the stage of Northwestern College’s Christ Chapel. After a welcome from Campus Pastor Mark DeJonge, Garnett prayed. 

“Holy Spirit, we ask you to come and soften our hearts and allow us to have good conversation,” Garnett said. “May this be an honoring morning to you, Lord.”

At the beginning of her sermon, Garnett quoted Genesis 1:31, “And God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” This, she said, supported a scriptural, universal truth: all are created in God’s image.

“Our dignity is not something we earn. It is inherent,” Garnett said. “We do not have to earn our respect or our honor, they belong to us as a part of God’s design.”

Garnett then said racism had disrupted God’s desire for humans to complement and depend upon each other: 

“We, human beings, have created systems that establish a hierarchy among people, and this way of doing, living, relating, and engaging has nothing to do with God’s intent.” 

As a Colombian immigrant who moved to the United States as a seventeen-year-old, Gannett shared her personal experiences with prejudice and racism. Her accent, skin color, and differing worldview set her apart from her peers.

“To succeed in this country, I needed not to be black or brown, but rather I needed to be white. And since I was no longer white, I needed to get as close to white as possible,” Garnett said. 

She mentioned she had recognized and accepted a hierarchy that marginalized her personhood. Garnett urged her chapel audience to act differently and told them to engage with those of different races and backgrounds, affirming their image-bearing dignity.

“If we believe that you and me are created by the same creator, and that we all have a purpose in God’s creation, then it should be perfectly fine that you are different than me,” she said. “And you’re still my equal. I can learn from you.”

When chapel concluded, students exited Christ’s Chapel and continued to class. Over the next three days, though, Garnett’s message prompted hostility and aggression as racist comments affected Northwestern’s campus and the surrounding community.

Later that Tuesday, chapel attendees took their thoughts to Yik Yak, an anonymous discussion thread app where users view posts within a five-mile radius of their location. Given the anonymity provided by the app, students shared their dislike of Garnett’s race-related message as well as a previous chapel series on diversity during Black History Month. 

“Fellow white people, I guess we are the spawn of satan and rule the whole world,” a user said.

Also, a user said, “upvote if you want chapels to actually teach us about Jesus.”

Throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday, Yik Yak posts turned increasingly racist: “survival tip for all people of color that attend nwc [Northwestern College]: either act white or shut up and play your sport,” “missing the 1800s,” and “Black be gone! Praise white Jesus!”

Other posts compared black students to monkeys and said they practiced “ape activities.”

When Neftalí Ramirez, a senior at Northwestern and an intern for the college’s Intercultural Department Office, encountered the Yik Yak posts, she screenshotted them and posted the images as an Instagram Story. She hashtagged the post, “#raidersstandout, a reference to the college’s tagline.

As Ramirez’s post spread on social media, students who similarly criticized the racist remarks received backlash. Jillian Simon, a sophomore, experienced hurtful comments on the app, including a user who threatened to drive an 18-wheeler and drag her friend across the highway.

On Wednesday, a group of students informed Julie Vermeer Elliott, vice president for student life, of the chapel and race-related posts. 

The following day, Ramirez, Simon, and other students met with the college’s administrators, submitting a statement of outrage and actions. They explained how they felt their campus ought to respond to the racism. 

Then, the next day, Northwestern implemented a number of the suggested actions: resident assistants held dorm meetings and panels while professors condemned the posts in classroom discussions .

While Northwestern did not respond to multiple requests for a comment, Greg Christy, the college’s president, released a statement to students in an email on Thursday, March 31.

“To the students who were diminished, hurt, and outraged by the Yik Yak posts— as well as other words and action that have made you question whether you belong in our community: I am so deeply sorry. You belong, and I pledge to do better and to call all of us to do better… To the students who anonymously posted dismissive, hateful, and racist comments on Yik Yak: Your actions were cowardly and shameful and not representative of the courage and faithfulness, intelligence, and strength we claim to value and to which we aspire to as members of this community. I pray you repent of your wrong-headedness and hard-heartedness. God calls us to see one another as beloved children made in his image. Let’s heed that call, together.”

Two days after Garnett’s chapel, DeYounge led a lament chapel. While students prayed and grieved as a campus community, a Yik Yak user posted, “If anyone don’t wanna get shot at school tmr [tomorrow] I suggest staying home.” While the user quickly deleted the message, it reached the college’s campus security and the Orange City Police Department.

That Friday, April 1, police patrolled campus and investigated the threat’s source.

“I’m heartbroken about what happened, and the result of that is that people don’t feel safe.” said Alex Vasquez, leader of Dordt University’s diversity council and student multicultural club. “I work with students, and I ask them, ‘How do you define what home is?’ Overwhelmingly, people will say, ‘Where I feel safe and comfortable’”

Vasquez said the racist Yik Yak posts “stripped away” students’ sense of home.

Ramirez says she experiences these effects of racism daily: “There was finally a person of color on stage talking about their personal experiences—experiences I could finally relate to as a Latina.”

When Ramirez sits among her peers in Northwestern’s cafeteria or classrooms, she wonders who posted the racist comments: “It will take time to instill a sense of safety and belonging again… to not be looking over your shoulder all the time.”

According to Vasquez, Dordt is creating a Vision for Diversity statement as they are not immune to racist incidents like the Yik Yak comments at Northwestern.

“Most people think that this is an individual issue. Like, ‘If I’m not racist, I’m not the problem. Someone else is.” Vasquez said. “But if we can agree that we’re all sinful by nature, then we can have an idea of, ‘Okay, how am I participating in this and what am I doing to help this situation get better, or how am I making it worse?”

Aaron Baart, Dordt University Chief of Staff and Dean of Chapel, also spoke out against the racism: “You are compelled by a gospel that paints this vision of the kingdom of God. And if you’re moving in the opposite direction of that and causing division, you are working anti-Christ in that moment, and there’s zero tolerance for it.”

Baart urged his campus’ students to not waver in silence: “We are supposed to be culture’s first responders as followers of Jesus. If there are people in our country still hurting because they are being marginalized or discriminated against for any reason, Christians should be at the front of that charge. Not waiting in the back, wondering if it’s safe enough to jump into these tumultuous waters.”

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