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Race-based Facebook Controversy Stirs Minnesota Campus

The Facebook conversation that roiled the University of Minnesota Duluth in mid-April continued to reverberate last week culminating in an emotional forum on campus.

“What we see here is an escalation of vitriolic bigotry and racism,” said Helen Mongan-Rallis, who facilitated the Wednesday afternoon gathering of about 100 students, faculty and administrators in the Rafters, a meeting place on the top floor of the Kirby Student Center.

“The outrage [is] that White people would act so surprised that this happened,” said Mongan-Rallis, who is White and a native of South Africa. “For people of color this is not new.”

What happened was a conversation on the social-networking site Facebook on April 14 between two White female students after a Black female student entered the room, describing the Black student and referring to her race in derogatory terms. The conversation was posted on the students’ “walls,” making it available to all of their Facebook friends, and it quickly spread from there. One of the students has 786 friends on Facebook, Mongan-Rallis said.

What disciplinary action the two students will face, if any, remains to be determined. Deborah Petersen-Perlman, the school’s equal opportunity director, first met with them on Monday, she told the forum. They have 14 days to file a response before any action will be taken.

Mongan-Rallis read the transcript of the conversation at the beginning of the forum. The audience — the majority of whom were White — listened in uncomfortable silence.

But speaker after speaker said the problem goes much deeper than one incident.

“It happens every day, and the only thing these students did differently was they were stupid and they put it on the wall,” said Njoki Kamau, a Kenyan who is on the faculty in the Department of Women’s Studies. “And we are here because we are embarrassed.”

Numerous speakers faulted the university on several counts; among their concerns was that there are no minority counselors on staff. “Someone who has been subjected to racism may not want to speak to someone who is White,” said Janet Haynes, who is on the faculty in the Department of Social Work.

Anderinsola Gilbert, a senior from Nigeria, drew the most applause when she called on Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin — who was not present — to address the situation publicly, in person.

“We must hear her voice, and it must be hers and no one else’s,” Gilbert said. “Until she buys into it, why should anybody else?”

Hannah Bengtson, a junior from Lino Lakes, Minn., expressed skepticism that people not taking part in the forum would get the message. The school can offer opportunities to its students to learn about tolerance, but “not everyone wants to. So — force them,” she said, to laughter and applause.

The situation is getting attention on campus. The Facebook episode was the banner story in Wednesday’s edition of The Statesman, the UMD student newspaper. A student “shout out” on the topic is scheduled for 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. today in the Kirby Student Center lounge.

Kamau said she was happier at the end of the forum than she was at the beginning.

“The good news is you are here,” she told the group. “You are hearing our rage. … We will hold you accountable.”

Characterizing the Facebook incident as “horrendous and despicable” Chancellor Martin’s voice broke often as she spoke to a Duluth News Tribune reporter on Thursday.

“I am deeply saddened for the young woman who was the victim of this,” she said. “I can’t believe … people could cause the severity of pain and hurt this young woman is feeling. We want to do everything we can to make sure she understands how supportive we are of her.”

Martin said the university needs to work with the Student Association to address the issue. UMD — which has 130 Black students this year out of a total population of about 11,000 — hasn’t been as consistent as it should be about following up on racial incidents through the years, Martin said.

Additional reporting by Duluth News Tribune reporter Jana Hollingsworth is included in this story.

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