BYU, black students condemn racist questions asked at event marking Black History Month

(Courtesy of Brigham Young University) A poster for the black immigrant experience panel held at BYU on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020.

They had just explained what it meant to each of them to be black and an immigrant. Then the five panelists at a Brigham Young University event sat quietly as they waited for the audience questions to come in.

Those in the crowd could send one by typing it into their phone on the event page. And each time someone did, an anonymous question would pop up for everyone to see. The screen was quickly filled.

“What is the percentage of African Americans on food stamps?”

“Why do African Americans hate the police?”

“Why don’t we have any white people on stage?”

Some in the largely white audience laughed. Those on the panel did not.

“The fact that the people made the effort to come to the panel and attack us is disgusting and honestly a waste of time,” said Tendela Tellas, a sophomore at BYU who spoke at the event and whose mom immigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I honestly don’t know how BYU can stop this again, but there needs to be a solution.”

The other panelists at Thursday’s event and some black students at the Provo school have since similarly called out the racist questions. One black student said she went home and cried after seeing what was asked. Another said she no longer has the emotional stamina to deal with the “ignorant, racist, privileged folks” on campus.

The following day, Brigham Young University formally condemned the comments. In a statement, the school said it is committed to “promoting a culture of safety, kindness, respect and love.”

It noted: “Faculty advisors over last night’s panel are creating a report of the incident that will be shared and discussed with university administrators. We are unable to determine the identities of the commenters, and if they are BYU students or not, but regardless, these are important issues for us to continue to address as a campus.”

Some students of color, though, say it’s not the first or the worst example of racism on campus. BYU is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I don’t like giving these bigots a platform,” said student Grace Soelberg about the offensive questions, “but I feel it’s necessary to show that racism is still holding strong in this world and in the LDS Church, and turning a blind eye to it and sweeping it under the rug is only going to make it worse.”

Students of color have reported being targeted. Tellas said she has been called the n-word. And some have noted their belongings were vandalized. Others have discussed micro-aggressions, including their white peers asking them uncomfortable questions about their hair or where they’re from.

“This is no longer a safe space for black students,” Tellas said.

The panel on Thursday got into some of that, as well as the further difficulties that black immigrants have in the United States and Utah.

"As an African immigrant you are at a double disadvantage because you are both an immigrant but also placed within a system with implicit and explicit racist biases towards blacks,” said Sherinah Saasa, a social work professor, Zambia native and the keynote speaker.

The BYU Kennedy Center for International Studies hosted the event and tweeted out some of the comments made by presenters, such as Saasa, who did not return calls from The Salt Lake Tribune seeking further comment Monday.

The panel was part of a series for Black History Month. During it, Saasa noted that BYU has very few black faculty members and only about 400 black students. That’s fewer than 1% of the 33,000 on campus.

But black immigrants often come from countries where they are in the majority. That was the case for panelist Kirstie Stanger, who was born in Ethiopia and adopted by a Utah family.

“I started to learn in school about African Americans in this country and how they have been treated very unfairly and still are,” she said during the panel.

The panel, some felt, proved that point.

Those who attended, including Soelberg, shared the questions asked by the audience on social media to talk about the racism. They also included: “How is it to be black? I don’t see color.” and “Why do we act like all black people don’t get treated well? There are also white, Mexican, Chinese and other races not getting treated well.”

Soelberg believes some of the questions were asked by people who just wanted to be annoying. Others, though, she said were “outright hateful and the people who wrote them did it with malicious intent.”

After the event, she said: “I’m crying because I know that tomorrow I am going to have to go to class and be on campus with people who generally believe I am inferior to them because of the color of my skin.”

Tellas said she’d like to see those who asked the questions reprimanded, though she knows the school doesn’t know who submitted which comments. White students on campus, she said, repeatedly “get away with attacking our safe black space because they are not punished.” She hopes the school will change how it handles racism and that future events on sensitive topics won’t allow anonymous questions.

Leslie Hadfield, an associate professor in the Department of History and the Africana Studies at BYU, said the event started off with a good-humored tone that was “powerful and insightful.” But the audience questions were “clearly meant to antagonize and demean black people.”

She said she believes at least two people are responsible for the comments and the department is working to prevent it from happening again.

“We apologize to the students in charge and other students negatively affected by this. I commend the moderator, student Déborah Aléxis, for her composure and maturity as she focused on the most genuine and productive questions,” Hadfield wrote in an email. “The negative questions and comments did not derail the event which had some wonderful outcomes, but adds evidence to the existence of white racism on campus, some of which is overtly hostile.”

Sociology professor Jacob Rugh added that he would file a report on what happened. He tweeted: “This is racist harassment and against the Honor Code,” the strict set of rules on behavior at BYU.

Both Hadfield and Rugh had to leave early, Hadfield said, and there was confusion over how the anonymous question system would work. That contributed to the issues, she acknowledged, but she thanked BYU for responding decisively in speaking out against the attack.

After the event, the school pointed to a statement from the LDS Church that called white supremacist attitudes “morally wrong and sinful.” BYU advised students to report any incidents of white supremacy to the Dean of Students Office at 801-422-2731.