Just a few blocks away from New York’s iconic Central Park, Fordham University students gathered outside in the November chill on Friday to echo the same cries of racial insensitivity and administrative neglect heard across the country from Connecticut to California.
Two days after a swastika and a “white supremacist reference” (which was not specified in university press releases) were found scrawled on a bathroom dispenser at the Lowenstein Center of Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, students of all races and sexual orientations shared their frustrations with being at a predominantly white university.
According to the Fordham website, under five percent of the class of 2018 is black.
That number is actually comparable to nearby New York University, whose student body for the 2013-2014 year (the most recently available numbers) was 4.8 percent.
Overall, though, Fordham is a far whiter school, with more than 70 percent of the 2018 class comprised of white students, compared to 38.5 percent of NYU students for the 2013-2014 year.
The anti-Semitic graffiti in the Lowenstein Center was the third incidence of hate speech inscribed on Fordham property this year alone.
In September, the n-word was written on a black student’s dorm room and a swastika was scratched into the stairwell wall of a residence hall later that month, according to the Fordham Observer.
Student organizers, juniors Sinclair Spratley and Lexi McMenamin said the protest, which they referred to as a “black out,” was actually planned prior to the discovery.
It was driven by the recent college protests at schools like the University of Missouri and Yale and was being planned before the swastika was found.
“We have friends at every single college they’re have been protests at. We wanted to stand with those other schools. Things have happened at Fordham. We wanted to make it clear it’s not just happening at other schools,” Spratley told The Daily Beast.
However, the swastika incidence galvanized students, they said. “It spurred the power behind everyone who had to come out,” added Spratley. “It’s unfortunate that was needed to power people.”
During the “black out,” students of all backgrounds came forward to share their experiences of oppression and marginalization, many of which were not directly connected the swastika or other specific instances of hate speech graffiti or even necessarily life on Fordham’s campus.
One black male student talked about how important it was for students to mobilize in grassroots action.
“It never came from upstairs. It came from down here,” he said.
However he concluded by talking about how The Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry died in her thirties as proof that “racism does not need bullets to kill.” Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer.
One female student who identified as Afghan American spoke about how she had a crush on a white Jewish boy in high school, but a classmate told her “he’d never date a brown girl like you.”
She did not say anything about whether they actually interacted in a way where he expressed racism towards her.
Still, she grew emotional as she recalled for the crowd that he goes to Columbia University now and when they occasionally run into each other, “I feel just as brown around him.”
A female Jewish student expressed disappointment that a friend bought her a menorah as a birthday present. “It’s a gift, so that’s kind, but is that all you take out of me as a person is that I am a Jew?” she said.
In light of the very recent incident involving a Swastika on campus, one would think larger concerns about anti-Semitism would be voiced.
A repeating theme of the talks, though, were “microaggressions,” which is roughly defined as more colloquial and everyday expressions of racism.
One female student named Beatriz Martinez-Godás focused on the importance of calling out fellow students, faculty, and people in larger society when they commit microaggressions.
“I suffer issues of microaggressions every day,” she said, describing how she encounters it “from my professors who say I’m a little too enthusiastic about the issue of the Puerto Rican debt and need to tone down my anti-American sentiment in a class about U.S. foreign policy” and when people who tell her, “You speak so well. You’re white. You’re not Puerto Rican.”
These racially insensitive exchanges were coupled with other encounters that seemed more innocuous.
Martinez-Godás described how she and her freshman year roommate met in a way that was “ridiculously racist”—the roommate, who is white, mistook her as also white instead of realizing she was Puerto Rican.
Martinez-Godás spoke about how “that same girl who caused so many microaggressions is completely different,” and, in fact, she considers her a best friend after a year of pointing out these insensitivities.
As a result, Martinez-Godás urged her peers to “feel free to tell people when they are causing microaggressions.”
A black male student also spoke about how it was critical to be constructive in addressing similar microaggressions. “Why throw so much hate when you can teach them that what they’re doing is wrong? A lot of people don’t think of the things they do as racist,” he said.
He offered an example that occurred during his time working at the school library.
Once when he “was working on a little Afro” as he described it, he left his pick comb behind by mistake. “One of the ladies who worked there said ‘hey, you forgot this.’ I said ‘Thank you so much—but wait, you weren’t here. How did you know it was mine?’ She was like ‘We don’t have a lot of workers here like you.’”
Many in the crowd grew horrified at this anecdote, and others murmured in disappointment.
Still, the student speaking did not show such offense. “You can’t always think of a person as being racist. It's our job to tell them they’re wrong,” he said.
However, he was quickly contradicted by the next speaker, a female student.
“As a person of color it is not my job to teach white people about oppression,” she said, eliciting claps and cheers from the audience. “It is not my job to take time out of my life of being already oppressed to teach you about my oppression.”
There was also backlash when the Jewish student who spoke about the menorah made the point that “every single race has the ability to be racist. Every person can be racist, sexist, biased. It’s important that we remember every single person faces racism, faces sexism.”
The next speaker attacked this sentiment.
“I’m sure it came from a good place, but the idea that all races can be racist is false,” the student, who qualified herself as “not exactly white, but very white-passing,” said. “I don’t think a person of color could ever affect me the way white supremacy affects their lives. How can you say white people feel racism like people of color?,” she said through angry tears. The crowd broke into cheers and claps.
“I understand the idea that everyone does feel prejudice at some point for different things, but that’s a lot different than racism,” she said later on in her speech, which was also met with claps from the crowd.
While the students expressed their desire for larger societal changes to fight racism and minority oppression, it was not wholly clear from the speeches alone what concrete changes they wanted Fordham administrators to make.
In fact, the anger was not always directed at Fordham, and the organizers noted that to an extent, they felt the university supported them.
“Almost every single college dean was present today. The school sent out a post uplifting this in general. It was important to feel the institution was in solidarity, They even made a point to reach out to us. Individuals are willing to support us,” McMenamin said.
“We’re waiting for the institution as a whole. What that would look like is [Fordham University President] Father Joseph M. McShane would stand in solidarity,” she said. She also mentioned McShane was meeting with students of colors as we spoke.
McShane also quickly released a statement denouncing the swastika on campus.
“We may never know what was in the mind of its author, but it is hard to overstate the perversion of someone who would casually embrace such a symbol. In its modern form, the swastika stands for the deliberate destruction of six million Jews, and an ideology that launched the most destructive war in human history,” McShane stated in an address to the university. “We will continue to repudiate such actions whenever they occur, and rise above them.”
However, when asked if they felt Fordham University took their concerns seriously, the organizers were more skeptical.
“With the protests happening, a lot of it is anger and rage at those schools for inaction and not activating when things like this happen. The administration does not want to become one of those schools that don’t act,” said Spratley.
“They don’t want to be in the news for being the next Claremont McKenna,” added McMenamin.
Video reporting done by Sara Sayed