A smattering of bias incidents this semester has caught the attention of student leaders and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Last week, Deans Melinda Aquino and Terry Martinez from the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Community Development stopped by a Columbia College Student Council meeting to address reports that the OMA has received an increase in the number of reported bias incidents. Aquino told Spectator that this increase should not be cause for alarm.
“Most of the incidents that have been brought to the attention of the Bias Response Team recently are situations that probably would not have been officially reported in previous years,” she explained. “In the past two years, I have found more students taking ownership of their campus community and wanting to address actions and behaviors that they feel are hurtful, offensive, and inappropriate.”
Aquino and Martinez recently met with student leaders and students from the Native American Council to discuss an incident at the Homecoming football game, in which a group of Native American students approached an individual wearing a headdress, which they found offensive. Instead of taking the headdress off, as the students asked him to, the individual’s friend greeted the Native American students with a “tomahawk chop,” according to a statement from NAC.
“It mocks Native Americans and their cultures and traditions,” the statement to Spectator said. “It historicizes Native Americans and turns them into a joke.”
At a CCSC meeting last week, Aquino said students rarely hear about reported bias incidents because of confidentiality concerns. She said that publicizing such incidents can be a way to “unintentionally re-victimize” the targets of those incidents.
But students from the Native American Council, who declined to give individual interviews, said it was important to make the incident at Homecoming known to the student body.
“This incident is among many that Columbia’s multicultural community has endured,” NAC said in the statement. “We would like to bring this issue to the attention of the larger community in order to raise awareness about the importance of respecting the various cultures that exist on this campus.”
The CCSC, Barnard’s Student Governing Association, NAC, and various other cultural groups, Greek organizations, and residential advisors attended the meeting with Martinez and Aquino to discuss this incident and how to address cases of discrimination in general.
“We discussed how we as a community must step up and make sure this doesn’t happen again. We are working on building a coalition of student leaders to be visible talking about solidarity and anti-discrimination,” said Virat Gupta, CC ’12 and CCSC representative.
Gupta said he feels CCSC is taking the initiative against bias incidents on campus. “The CCSC should be the first to stand up against discrimination … we sent out an email to the student body mentioning the rise of bias incidents and urged people to be more careful of their words and actions.”
The message, from CCSC President Aki Terasaki’s weekly AlmaMatters email, stated, “CCSC would like to remind all of you to be respectful of the many ethnicities, cultures, and identities that make up our diverse community. We encourage you to be mindful of your words and actions and careful in your conduct.”
Aquino said the meeting “reinforced our commitment to greater education of the campus community on Native experiences and on bystander training, and launched a poster campaign directly related to our campaigns.”
That poster campaign, launched just before Halloween, urged students not to dress up in costumes that ridicule or belittle minorities.
Bias incidents and hate crimes that violate University policy or state laws are dealt with by the OMA, Public Safety, and sometimes outside authorities. In 2005, a pair of Columbia College students were arrested after spray-painting a Ruggles common room with anti-semitic, racist, and homophobic slurs. The New York Police Department was called in, and both students were charged with one count of fourth-degree criminal mischief as a hate crime, a class E felony.
The OMA maintains a Bias Response Team, composed of deans from across the Office of Student Affairs, to respond to reports of discrimination or harassment.
“First, in addition to formal documentation, we provide any immediate and ongoing support to individuals and communities who may be impacted. Modeling after restorative justice practices, we then work closely with these individuals and communities to determine appropriate notification, community support, educational programs, and follow up with students who may be responsible,” Aquino said.
Much of the University’s bias response protocol is geared toward education, support, and outreach, Aquiano said.
But some students said they feel the University doesn’t always take bias incidents seriously enough.
“I definitely support the OMA, but this is a problem that is bigger than the OMA alone can address,” said Cindy Gao, CC ’12 and political chair of the Asian American Alliance. “It’s not like we can just say, ‘Oh, let’s have diversity training’. The problem is much broader.”
She cited the lack of classes that educate students on cultural differences, limited funding for the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, and a deficiency of wider administrative awareness on bias incidents.
“Administrators need to be knowledgeable about things that are going on,” said Gao. “Because outside the OMA, we talked with administrators, and they themselves don’t have a handle on what’s going on, what are the resources, and that it’s even a problem.”