Christian Hawkes: Yes, racism on campus is BYU’s problem

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The statue of Brigham Young at BYU is seen in this photo from September 2013.

Earlier this week, The Salt Lake Tribune published an opinion piece from a Brigham Young University student entitled “Don’t blame BYU for the racism of others.” The author argues that BYU itself has no need to apologize for racist comments and questions at a recent campus forum because this was a case of personal rather than institutionalized racism.

Commentary from many people, including people of color, about the incident demonstrates that it is, in fact, BYU’s problem.

No one is claiming that Kevin J. Worthen, president of BYU, came to the panel himself and asked the questions on behalf of the university. What they are saying, however, is that BYU is complicit in the racism that occurs on campus and the racism that its students display.

These questions did not come out of nowhere, they represent a pattern of disrespect and disregard for students of color.

Students of color get accused of being “diversity cases” or only being allowed at the school because they play sports, disregarding the very real qualifications that these students have.

Students of color get told that their experiences with racism are overblown or that they just “misunderstand” what everyone is saying and perpetuate their own victimhood. And when white students are confronted with these, they claim that racism does not exist on campus or that only some of these instances are racist, or they demand that we be respectful to the people who asked the questions because “they might feel bad and shamed and move to white supremacist organizations,” as a friend of mine put it.

(Aside from the aforementioned incident with my friend, none of these are my personal experiences, but the experiences of friends of mine.)

The very fact that these students felt comfortable sharing these questions demonstrates that the environment at BYU at least passively permits racism to exist, so long as it is isolated incidents.

BYU’s response to incidents such as this is to ignore it until it gets enough attention on social media, at which point they issue a “We condemn racism” statement on Twitter while not taking any action.

They did it for this panel, they did it when white supremacist propaganda was found on and near campus back in November (such propaganda had been found within a block of campus months prior) and they continue to do it today.

White students feel that they can get away with racial slurs and white supremacist propaganda as long as they have plausible deniability (“I’m not racist!”) and as long as the administration does nothing. The fact that racist incidents keep happening show that BYU’s current response to racism is inadequate, and the fact that students feel empowered to share racist comments on social media and in person shows that the “Global and Cultural Awareness” classes that the op-ed author points to as successes are inadequate at best for combating it.

There is absolutely a culture of racism and discrimination at BYU. Students feel able and empowered to share racist things as long as they feel that it is not racist, and administrators turn a blind eye to racism and think that a blanket condemnation on social media is sufficient. Meanwhile, students of color feel that they are at it alone.

It is not the responsibility of marginalized individuals to teach the majority how they are wrong. It is the responsibility of the majority to recognize the harm they have done and are doing and change their behavior as a result. It is high time that BYU — both students and administration — learned this lesson.

Christian Hawkes

Christian Hawkes, Orem, is a student of Middle East studies/Arabic at Brigham Young University.