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Racial graffiti at Sonoma State University prompts new efforts for tolerance

Justin Bell, right, and Kamryn Rayson move their Black Scholars United table to another part of campus at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013.

(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Published: Friday, February 22, 2013 at 6:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 22, 2013 at 6:04 p.m.

When Kamryn Rayson turned over the small piece of paper, left face down on a table at a dining hall at Sonoma State University, she felt that what she saw was an attack on who she is.

On the paper, a simple flyer inviting students to a Black History Month dinner hosted by the Black Scholars United club, was scrawled the infamous N-Word in a firm, flowing script.

Rayson, a second-year biology student, is an employee of the dining hall, where she tries to be a warm and friendly presence to her fellow students, and a board member of the BSU. She found the flier while cleaning up after the annual event, held Tuesday in the hall known popularly as Zin Café.

“I was thinking: is that what they think of me,” she said Friday. “Is that what they see?”

The incident quickly went viral on the Rohnert Park campus of about 9,000 students. Within 13 hours, student government leaders and the school's multicultural center, recently renamed The Hub, had convened a meeting that drew nearly 400 students and faculty to discuss how to promote tolerance.

“You could tell that people have been angry, they have been frustrated, they have been experiencing this," said BSU president Justin Bell, a third-year communication studies major. “And it got busted out in a big ball.”

Participants at the meeting say members of normally separate groups — divided and defined by ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation — saw that they were united in their experience of what they describe as a nagging, persistent trickle of intolerant and offensive conduct by some members of the broader campus community.

Bianca Zamora, a second-year women's and gender studies major, said she was motivated to become the “diversity senator” in the student government this year after she attempted to hand two white students a flier for a Hispanic club. One of the students threw the paper to the ground, she said, and he pointedly said “I'm glad I am white.”

Such incidents, she said, are rarely discussed outside of the discreet minority communities. Seeing the posts by Rayson and Bell, however, mobilized these separate groups, along with a fair number of non-minority students, to attend the meeting to discuss ways to promote tolerance.

“It's not right and it is continuing to happen and we don't do anything about it,” she said, a condition she hopes will improve after Wednesday's meeting.

The university administrators doesn't deny that there are occasional incidents of racial, religious, or sexual harassment on campus, but they say they are working to educate students and staff on how to respond.

“I am pleased of the efforts our administrators, faculty and staff have and continue to make to cultivate a tolerant campus and to ensure student success,” President Ruben Armiñana wrote in an open letter read at the meeting Wednesday, which he was unable to attend because he was out of town. “Unfortunately, incivility isn't new, and we all need to continue to collectively address the causes of this unacceptable behavior. And we will,“ he wrote.

This is not the first time the issue has surfaced at the school. In 2008, campaign posters for a black candidate for student body president were defaced with racist graffiti. The signs for his white rival, whose last name happened to be White, were also defaced, with vandals adding the word “power” after the candidate's name.

After the election, the two candidates co-hosted what press reports described as an emotional meeting at which minority students and staff complained about a climate of hostility at the school. They told of being singled out and belittled for discussing minority topics, and of experiencing a sense that they were unsafe on campus.

Sonoma State is among the least diverse campuses in the California State University system, with almost 58 percent of students reporting as white, compared with 31 percent system-wide. Only Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the Maritime Academy exceed that figure among the 23 campuses.

“A lot of people don't have a filter,” because minority populations are relatively small and out of sight, said Cotie Galloway, a second-year communications studies major and events coordinator for the BSU. “They don't know what's OK to say to someone.”

Cyndie Morozumi, director of residential life for SSU, said she came away from Wednesday's meeting heartened that students seemed to understand that the need to confront intolerant behavior themselves: to “interrupt prejudice when you hear it.”

The university has a variety of mechanisms to handle complaints of prejudice or harassment, she said, ranging from mediation to formal disciplinary proceedings.

“But only when we start calling each other on our behavior” will the kind of thoughtless and hostile acts the students describe end, she said. “But people are reticent to do that.”

Justin Bell, too, seemed hearted by what he had heard. In a lengthy Facebook post about the racist graffiti, which launched the campus-wide wave of outrage, he sounded a somewhat defiant note, concluding with “I'm black and I'm proud.”

Two days later after the meeting, he was in a reflective mood, moved by what he had seen.

“After that,” he said, “I actually felt proud to be a Sonoma State student and a Seawolf.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)

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