Photos by Danielle Romeo
On the heels of a student-led protest regarding race and diversity on campus, President Andrew K. Benton addressed a packed crowd Monday night in Smothers Theatre. Benton’s speech covered a multitude of subjects related to race, but focused on areas in which Pepperdine can make improvements.
The student protest on Nov. 13 was in part sparked by a series of racist Yik Yaks that went viral on Pepperdine’s campus just weeks prior. Benton said he was proud of how the protest was conducted, and that that type of “pure speech” communicated important truths well.
However, Benton acknowledged a larger discussion of race taking place in the United States and among universities. “Our nation is changing,” he said.
Benton touched on his childhood school experience in Lawrence, Kansas, and said the city’s neighborhoods were divided up along racial lines. Benton said the only point where the races really had to integrate was at Lawrence High School, which Benton attended.
“It was a lousy time to learn, but it was a great time to grow up,” Benton said, explaining that the segregation and clashing of races at the time disjointed academic education, but was a wakeup call for those living in that place and time. “I was not taught to be racially exclusive, but I was also not taught to be racially inclusive,” Benton said, explaining that being proactive in what we’re learning and teaching is important.
Benton’s address also had an apologetic tone toward the end, touching on the lack of proactive communication regarding the controversial Yik Yak posts.
“We could have done better,” Benton said, adding that hateful speech is a university issue. Benton went on to discuss the growing diversity of the Pepperdine faculty and staff, a growth he said has been slower than the growth of diversity in the student body, but is happening nonetheless.
Junior Class President Omari Allen, who attended and helped organize the sit-in, said he was pleased with how Benton vocalized that his speech wasn’t the end of what needed to be done to eliminate intolerance on Pepperdine’s campus. Allen also explained that he believes the problem isn’t necessarily racism, but a lack of cultural competency and awareness.
“I also think there’s a problem with cultural appreciation,” Allen said. “I think this school exploits our cultural heritage and diversity. They love to put it in the statistics and put us on their postcards and brochures, and show that there are so many different walks of life at our school. But when it comes to appreciation and celebration of the diversity that’s on this campus, I think we’re lacking in that.”
Senior David Hylton, vice president of SGA, also attended the sit-in. Hylton said he believes Pepperdine needs to focus on the actions of the student body in regard to minorities, as opposed to only focusing on the outward image it portrays.
“Pepperdine wants a diverse community, but they’re not really willing to give the resources that will actually bring a diverse community to existence,” Hylton said. “I think it’s nice to have brochures that have different colored students and statistics saying that we’re very diverse, but if you don’t have a student body that is embracing and accepting of that diverse community, then it’s pointless.”
Allen said the problem stems not from a lack of diversity necessarily, but from a lack of urgency to actually get to know students of diverse backgrounds.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that everyone doesn’t look the same at Pepperdine,” Allen said. “But does that mean I’m going to take the time to get to know you because you’re different than me? Or does that mean I’m going to sit behind a closed door and talk about how different you are than me? That’s the issue.”
Allen went on to compare life in middle and high school with life in college, and explained that although Pepperdine is already a good university, it does have the potential to be an even better institution of higher education.
“Does this institution want to be a place where we just foster to the same secondary ignorance that takes place in high school and middle school, like you’re in the same community and haven’t really branched out from people?” Allen said. “No, because now you’re in a place where you’re around people from all over the country and world, and I feel that no higher academia should ever allow a student to walk out the same way that they walked in. That, to me, is not a good university.”
Hylton said Pepperdine students need to recognize that there is room for improvement.
“I think it’s easy for us to get caught up in the fact that we have such a nice life here, when we could make it so much better for the future students if we just band together and recognize what’s currently wrong with our community,” Hylton said.
In response to the recent surge of racist Yik Yak posts at Pepperdine, Allen said that, more than anything, the hurtful comments lit a fire that he felt needed to be lit.
“I have to be completely honest and say that, in a weird way, it was motivating,” Allen said. “Because when I hear those type of comments, it makes me say, ‘Well, I want to prove you wrong. I want to show you that I’m not a primate. I’m not an animal. I’m a human being. And not only am I a human being, but I’m a human being that has the power and ability to be better than what you’re showing me you are right now.”
Hylton said he believes that taking Yik Yak away as a response to the racist posts may be taking away the students’ freedom of speech, and that he wouldn’t personally make the decision to do that. He said even if Yik Yak was banned, it wouldn’t take away the thoughts behind the hateful comments, which are the real problem.
“I think in some ways, we should be grateful for Yik Yak because if it wasn’t for that, people would think that race wasn’t an issue on campus and that everything is fine,” Hylton said. “That was straight-up evidence that people, if given the opportunity, will say very hurtful things about other students. So I think dismissing it is almost trying to sweep the problem under the rug and just kind of ignore that fact that we do have racist people on our campus, we do have homophobic people on this campus, because that’s what Pepperdine needs to realize.”
Allen explained how he loved that the sit-in included people of various walks of life as opposed to just African-Americans and Caucasians.
“I feel like that sit-in represented that we are students and we are grouped in a community that has a power to be a huge example to this country and this school,” Allen said. “But I also think it showed that this is not a finger-pointing game. People often misconstrue this into a black and white thing, like it’s the black people versus the white people. Yik Yak is an issue that goes way beyond race. It has hit the LGBTQ students here, the women here, the Hispanics here and the Hawaiian students here. I think we need to acknowledge that at least for Pepperdine, this is not a black and white issue. This has hit so much more. And that’s what I loved about the sit-in. It showed what needs to change, and it showed the faces of all the people that want it to change.”
Hylton said he believed that Benton’s address was a good first step for the university, and that Benton did a good job of being true to himself and his own personal experiences with students.
Hylton said he believes there is a discrimination problem on campus, and that it’s not only regarding African-Americans, but other minorities including the LGBT community, Latinos and Asians.
“I think the majority of students try to ignore that and they try to think everything is fine when they don’t realize, either just out of non-exposure from their childhoods or just plain ignorance, that things they do make others feel unwelcome,” Hylton said.
Hylton said the negative reactions that some students had to the sit-in is comical, considering they are contradicting their own statements. He said some of these reactions included students saying that the members involved in the sit-in were “Fergus-ing” and “bringing unwanted spirits into Pepperdine,” regardless of the fact that the sit-in was peaceful.
“I think it’s really funny when you have a peaceful protest where we’re just standing there, and people are getting mad about it,” Hylton said. “If they didn’t have a problem with it, they wouldn’t be mad that we’re standing there. I just think it’s an issue where people like to deny it. A lot of people think they’re fine with race, but their behaviors show otherwise and it’s just a matter of them recognizing that.”
Hylton also spoke on the importance of being tolerant and open-minded in regard to being an adult after graduation.
“You’re a college student,” Hylton said. “You should know how to deal with conflict and understand that people are going to have different views than you. You’re going to be going to the workplace with a minority boss, a gay boss, and if you don’t know how to deal with that as a 22-year-old, you’re not going to get very far.”
Allen said he believes that Yik Yak should be restricted on Pepperdine’s Wi-Fi and that a cultural competency training should be required. He also said he believes, like Hylton, that Pepperdine should implement a mandatory GE course regarding diversity and equality.
Hylton touched on what he believed were the necessary moves the university needs to make to begin to fix the issue. Like Allen, Hylton said he believed there should be a GE course, because it’s important to expose people to both sides of the issue.
During Benton’s recent speech, he hit a key point in regards to racism on campus and the definite need for change.
“Change is hard, but it is necessary, or we are part of the problem,” Benton said.
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