In The Dwight student residence, free expression is championed in a graffiti room where students can freely draw on the walls without restriction. That free expression was used for hate imagery, however, when students found multiple swastikas drawn on the floor, as reported on Page 3.
After the discovery, Dwight residents were notified Feb. 2 via email that the graffiti room would be closed for repainting without further explanation.
Dean of Students John Pelrine released a statement to residents Feb. 7 acknowledging there was offensive graffiti and emphasized that the college found the imagery unacceptable, but the statement failed to specify that the symbols found were swastikas. Omitting that key detail is concerning when specific groups of people are targeted by Nazi symbolism and rhetoric, and the statement by the college made no act to show support for students who are directly affected by such hateful imagery.
Considering the student who found the swastikas was Jewish, it is especially worrisome that the administration has not reached out to show solidarity with students and could only muster a vague email to residents.
The college must be fully transparent when acts that make light of or support hateful ideology appear on campus. Otherwise, students who have the privilege of not being hurt by hate symbols will continue to live in ignorance of what those targeted face.
The college says it encourages an inclusive, safe environment for students. Beginning with new student orientation, incoming freshmen are told Columbia is a haven for diversity as they are encouraged to use their preferred pronouns on name tags. And at 2017’s New Student Convocation, President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim said that hatred “is not tolerated” at Columbia. This message is continually promoted, as shown through the creation of the Student Diversity and Inclusion Office. But Columbia is not as diverse as it claims to be.
For years, the majority of incoming freshmen and transfer students each fall term have been white. Based on the college’s New Student Profile reports published by the Institutional Effectiveness Office, the percentage of white students enrolled in Columbia since Fall 2013 has remained at more than 50 percent of the total.
The college continues a façade of diversity that is perpetuated not just by the administration or faculty but by students as well. Many claim to be socially aware—yet ignore the reality that they hold privilege over many of their classmates. Because of this, students must know when self expression encouraged by the school is corrupted by hate speech. Otherwise, students become complacent and fail to support their peers who are directly threatened by an act like swastikas brazenly drawn in a public space.
In searching for answers, some have wondered whether the perpetrator had a benign motive, such as testing the school’s ability to respond to offensive conduct. Speculating on the intent of the person who drew the swastikas is useless because it shifts the focus off helping the victims and onto justifying the victimizer.
Others will say this conduct is the price of free speech and part of the assumed risk of having a graffiti wall. This amounts to excusing the conduct and failing to address why it was found at Columbia. Along with repainting the graffiti room and notifying students what occurred, the college must stand in the shoes of those being threatened whenever such hate appears on campus. To do otherwise is an implicit invitation for similar acts to occur.