SGB discusses white supremacy, racism on campus


Zoom screenshot

SGB’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee hosted a Sunday workshop on Zoom titled “The Butterfly Effect and Reflecting on White Supremacy.”

By Allison Radziwon, Senior Staff Writer

White supremacist propaganda reached an all-time high in 2020, according to the Anti-Defamation League. For Kayla Henderson, a member of Student Government Board’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, this statistic wasn’t shocking.

“I know for myself these stats weren’t super surprising, just paying attention to what I’ve noticed in the news and even here on our own campus,” Henderson, a senior communications major, said. “It’s really affecting us as students and we should be paying attention to it because it’s such a big deal.” SGB’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee hosted a workshop, titled “The Butterfly Effect and Reflecting on White Supremacy,” on Sunday over Zoom to discuss white supremacy and how to combat it.

Committee member Ivy Chang said microaggressions — everyday subtle, intentional and often unintentional interactions that communicate bias toward marginalized groups — may cause allies to “falter” in their activism. Microaggressions can include colorblindness, when a white person does not want to acknowledge race, and tokenization, the act of including a small number of people of color only to appear more diverse, according to Chang.

“The kicker here is that sometimes people aren’t aware of them when they accidentally perform a microaggression,” Chang, a sophomore economics major, said. “So they can subconsciously hurt others if they’re just not mindful of what they’re saying or doing.”

Alexa Pierce, a fellow committee member and president of Planned Parenthood Generation Action, said “everyday instances” of discrimination — such as indifference to and minimization of events such as microaggressions — eventually lead to a much larger issues, such as violence and genocide. She said this is a “butterfly effect,” where seemingly small events lead to big outcomes later on.

“We can see here how everything contributes to something else, like how indifference — all these little things that are mentioned under that word — build up to eventually minimization, and then veiled racism, discrimination and so on,” Pierce, a sophomore double majoring in political science and law, criminal justice and society, said. “This also contributes to what we’re going to be talking about today — the butterfly effect of one event to another one.”

According to Pierce, many concerning incidents occur at Pitt. For example, Pierce said former Pitt student Ethan Kozak sent what she described as “threatening messages” via Snapchat to D.J. Matthews, a Black Pittsburgh resident, in June 2019. Matthews posted screenshots of these messages on Twitter. Kozak told The Pitt News at the time that he had been placed on interim suspension, and later pled guilty to two counts of harassment and one count of terroristic threats.

Pierce noted that several student leaders and activists pushed for Kozak’s expulsion and advocated for Pitt to update the Student Code of Conduct. Pierce referenced a part of the Code which states “just because the expression of an idea or point of view may be offensive or inflammatory, it is not necessarily a Violation of the Code.”

“Here we see the University take a more liberal stance to addressing this issue, in that they’re kind of placing themselves in the middle in saying that just because these instances may happen to be harmful to some people does not mean we can necessarily punish them,” Pierce said. “So we see the setback in this policy — it could be considered some inaction, or just the inability to act. Part of what I was thinking was … where do we draw the line?”

Anushay Chaudhry, a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, said the Kozak incident was “horrifying.” She said Pitt should have been “more transparent” on how they were handling the situation.

“Another thing I noticed was that there was very little transparency that was provided on the incident. They were point blank, not saying anything about what the next steps were,” Chaudhry, a senior double majoring in psychology and politics and philosophy, said. “That was a little bit frustrating as well, because a lot of students were organizing around this issue and student leaders were creating petitions just due to Pitt’s silence around it.”

Pitt spokesperson David Seldin responded to these critiques in a Wednesday email.

“Upon learning of this incident in 2019, University officials moved swiftly to engage local law enforcement and our Student Conduct Office in taking the appropriate next steps,” Seldin said. “While we understood students’ desire to know more about what was happening, our public comments were reflective of the Federal law that restricts universities from discussing or disclosing details of open investigations or student disciplinary proceedings.”

Seldin also said the University is committed to making sure everyone feels safe and respected on campus.

“In the years that have followed, our commitment to promoting a campus environment where every member feels welcomed, respected, supported, and safe has remained both immutable and ongoing,” Seldin said. “All bias incidents should be reported to the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion or to the Pitt Police.” 

Pierce also referenced another incident that occurred in October 2020, where a Pitt law professor resigned after using the “n-word” in class during a discussion of a case involving offensive language. This followed a similar incident at nearby Duquesne University where an undergraduate professor was fired for using the same word.

“This can possibly fall under minimizations, thinking of the usage as of the past and not as harmful as it truly is. People still do weaponize this language, and it’s not left in the past like we like to think,” Pierce said.

In order to prevent similar incidents from happening again, Henderson said everyone should note microaggressions and minimizations and discuss them openly. She also said students and faculty should “recognize our own privileges” in order to help facilitate discussion.

“It’s really important that you respond to racism expressed on campus by documenting, reporting and discussing incidents, even if it’s just among your friends. It’s important to note what behaviors are going on so we can combat it,” Henderson said. “Documenting and reporting is equally as important because you’re getting administration involved, and that’s the only way we can see true change occur.”

Henderson said it’s important to “demand accountability” from the University in order to foster change on campus. She said it’s important to speak up if you feel uncomfortable on campus due to bigotry. 

“This is your space, and you should feel welcome here,” Henderson said. 

Chaudhry is a former writer for The Pitt News.