Kemoni Farmer, a junior psychology major and Slippery Rock Univeristy Chapter President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), heard about a flyer promoting Black History Month being defaced with racist comments, his intial reaction was one of frustration.
“I was just filled with anger,” Farmer said. “I took the flyer and read over the comments and couldn’t stop asking myself how someone could do this. I said to myself immediately ‘We’re doing a blackout.’ I knew then that we had to pursue this incident peacefully, but in a way that showed unity. Whoever did this had to know that we weren’t just going to ignore it.”
The blackout took place on Feb. 13, as a group of predominently black students wore all black clothing in solidarity. The protest, and the incident of racism that caused, caught the eye of Univeristy President Dr. William Behre, who announced the next day that an open discussion would be held in order to start the conversation surrounding racial tension at SRU.
On Monday, an audience of nearly 600 students, staff and community members gathered in the Smith Student Center Ballroom for that discussion. Prominent groups like Black Action Society (BAS), NAACP and the Kings Organization all had representatives in attendance, including Farmer.
“It was a good beginning for a conversation that needs to be had on a more consistent basis,” Farmer said. “The first amendment is important, but we need to ensure that people are held accountable for their actions. People need to evaluate how what they say and do affects other people.”
Farmer offered praise towards Behre, commending his willingness to allow black students to answer questions that, as a white administrator, he would not have the insight to address. He was encouraged by the student engagement at the town hall, but fears the point of the discussion may have been lost on some in attendance.
“When I say that ‘black lives matter,’ that is in no way saying that white lives, or anyone else’s life doesn’t matter,” Farmer said. “They’re not understanding the purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish. Even with the NAACP, I think many people are turned away by the word colored. But that just means we’re for the advancement of people all colors. We want life to get better for everyone.”
Lauryn Greggs is a second-year graduate student pursuing a degree in clinical mental counseling. Greggs also serves as the graduate assistant for BAS, something that comes as a surprise to many because she is white.
“Whenever we give presentations during FYRST Seminar and I tell everyone who I am, I see some kids snicker and laugh initially,” Greggs said. “A lot of students get confused, but you don’t have to look like someone to be involved in helping them. It’s okay to get in a room with people that don’t look like you do.”
Greggs shares Farmer’s belief that while Monday’s session was productive, Slippery Rock has a long road ahead in order to properly address racial issues on and off campus. She said she feels mad that the student who defaced the poster is lacking so much in their personal life that they would resort to attacking the black community.
Acts of racism like the vandalized poster are just the tip of the iceberg according to Farmer. He said that he has experienced a lot of what he called “indirect racism” during his tenure at SRU.
“I understood when I came to Slippery Rock that it was a predominantly white institution,” Farmer said. “Within my first semester here, I had my photo taken just walking through the quad and around areas on campus on several occasions. I realized that they were using my image to promote the university. This is not how Slippery Rock really is.”
Farmer said that several black students he knows did not return for the spring semester because of racial discrimination they faced on and off campus. Greggs echoed this sentiment, criticizing the university for presenting a false image of a multicultural campus.
“[Minority students] think that they are coming to a diverse campus,” Greggs said. “When they arrive here, they end up not receiving the support that they need from administration. I want to help students find a voice and treat other people with respect. Part of the reason I came here was because of their counseling program, and I’m glad to be in that position now.”
Despite these criticisms, both Farmer and Greggs were encouraged by the number of faculty who turned out on Monday night. Farmer said that he typically only sees administration and staff members turn out for the larger scale events, but seeing so many attend the open discussion filled him with some optimism moving forward.
Greggs said that she would tell incoming students that the vandalized poster does not represent everyone at Slippery Rock, and that going here will benefit you for when you enter the workforce.
“You can really start to appreciate and build an understanding of what others go through,” Greggs said. “You can become an ally to those who are marginalized by showing them love and keeping an open mind. Just allow yourself to step back and realize what that person can add to your life in helping you grow.”
Farmer said that he would still encourage black high school students who are considering to enroll at Slippery Rock, but to not expect the transition to be an easy one.
“You’re not always going to feel as though you are welcome; that’s just the truth,” Farmer said. “It can be hard at times to feel like you belong. If you really want to grow, I think that coming here is a great step towards meeting that goal.”
President Behre remarked during the open discussion thartit would be a disservice to future students if that was the last conversation had about race relations at the university. Farmer and Greggs concurred with that sentiment, and said they will work within their respective organizations to keep the dialogue going in a positive direction.