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Taylor Dumpson has spent eight semesters at American University. Not a single one has gone by without a racially-charged event.
For months during her freshman year, she called her parents crying, telling them that she wanted to transfer schools because of tension on campus.
“They said, ‘You’re going to grow where you’re planted because you never know where you’re going to end up,’” recalls Dumpson, who became AU’s first black female student government president in 2017. On her first day in office, the senior was the victim of a hate crime that thrust her into the national spotlight.
Dumpson’s journey has unfolded as the nation has seen an increase in hate crimes. Universities have not been exempt. Racial harassment complaints at academic institutions increased nearly every year from 2009 to 2016, starting at 98 and rising to 198, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The Anti-Defamation League has also found an alarming increase in white supremacist propaganda targeting U.S. colleges since 2016.
Though their experiences may vary, life for black students at predominantly white institutions can be a matter of survival. While their education is marred by frustration with other students and administration, black students find strength in one another.
Of American University’s current full-time undergrad population, about 503 students are black. They make up about 7 percent of the student body at the predominantly white institution (PWI) in Northwest D.C.
Being black at a PWI is “a love-hate relationship,” says Dumpson, a law and society major who grew up in Salisbury, Maryland, where she was first confronted with unabashed racism after a white student said “the n-word” in the seventh grade. After Dumpson called the student out for it, her teacher made her read the dictionary definition of the word to the class. “I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” she recalls. “I’m age 13 reading some bullshit.”
Years later, Dumpson experienced a rash of racist incidents in college. It began in November 2014, when a grand jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson, a police officer, for taking the life of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
As black students protested in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, racial tension on campus thickened. Some students began posting hateful comments to Yik Yak, a popular app among college students at the time that allowed users to post anonymous messages that reached other Yik Yak users within a five mile radius.
While protesting the Brown case, Dumpson recalls reading racially insensitive Yik Yak messages like “students are trying to study here—go yell somewhere else.” But black students didn’t have the luxury of moving around freely on campus, she says. It didn’t feel safe when the rise of anonymous messages could be coming from anyone—your roommate, your classmate, your professor.
“That wasn’t a concern for a lot of white students,” she says. “They were comfortable with the messages, and that was very jarring.”
In early December, former AU president Neil Kerwin released a memo about the campus climate. “We must hold up the university as a home for safe and respectful exchanges about the full range of risks that people face and how that makes us feel,” he said. About two weeks later, he released another memo addressing the Yik Yak posts specifically. “While we embrace freedom of expression, I strongly reiterate that bigotry and racism have no place at American University,” he wrote.
He ended the memo by ensuring students that campus leaders were responding to “these important issues.”
The racist Yik Yak commentary continued.
Since taking her parents’ advice to not withdraw from AU, Dumpson searched for solace. In the spring semester, she was inducted into Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, a historically black Greek-letter organization. “I was able to find a community of black women who were working to create programs on campus to help the experiences of students of color,” she says. Many black upperclassmen also became her mentors, and she forged friendships with other black freshman.
“The black community were people who I didn’t have to explain myself to and people who understood what I was experiencing,” Dumpson says. “The black community was really where I found my home.”
The Yik Yak attacks continued well into Dumpson’s sophomore year. One of the biggest campus rallies during that time was to protest the app. Students called on administrators to block it from the university’s Wi-Fi network, which other colleges had begun to do.
Black AU students launched the #TheRealAU campaign on social media in October 2015, and a new student movement called The Darkening screenshot Yik Yak messages from the AU campus.
“Anyone up for a counter protest? If you’ve got the rope, we’ve got the crosses ready to burn.”
“Black people are so weird. So sensitive. Isn’t there some cotton that needs to be picked?”
“If black people spent more time fixing other people instead of fixing their hair, we wouldn’t be in this issue. #rugs #thugs #drugs”
“We, the white people oppose the protests because you all are attacking us. KKK should be here to defend us.”
There was even a post about Michael Brown.
“There once was a thug named Brown, Who bum rushed a cop with a frown. Six bullets later, He met his creator, Then his homies burned down the town.”
Dumpson recalls more than 100 such Yik Yak posts by the end of her sophomore year. Administrators continued to denounce the racist posts in statements, but never blocked the app from the campus Wi-Fi. (Yik Yak shut down all of its operations in the spring of 2017.)
Many of the black freshman women in 2016 were part of a private group chat through another app. This is how Isabella Dominique, a political science major, found out about a race-related incident during her first month on campus.
A black female student said that a banana was thrown into her dorm room in Anderson Hall, and another black freshman in the same dormitory said she found a rotten banana outside of her room and penises drawn on a whiteboard that was attached to her door.
“A lot of us didn’t know if we were supposed to tell anyone or if the girl already told someone,” says Dominique. The victim did report the incident to authorities, but didn’t get the response she felt she deserved.
Students say that it wasn’t until protests erupted that the university released a statement about the incident, which it did not characterize as bias-related. The statement said that the Dean of Students’ office was processing charges against the two white male students who were accused of the crimes.
“I don’t think AU handled it well at all,” says Thery Sanon, a senior psychology major from Baltimore. “The main reason these protests popped off was there was no accountability, and AU was doing everything in their power to sweep this under the rug like it didn’t happen.”
The university hosted a town hall meeting, which Kerwin did not attend. Instead, he did what students say had become a routine: He sent a memo to denounce the incidents.
Dominique, whose dad is black and mom is white, hadn’t encountered many racist incidents before this. In Colorado, where she grew up, most people acknowledged that she was “black or some kind of a person of color,” but her race was never actually discussed. At AU, it’s different. “Black people can have white friends, but it’s more common that all the black people hang out with other black people on campus and usually white kids just stick to their white friends.”
Having two black roommates during her freshman year was an eye opener. “I’m black, but I really didn’t understand what it meant or how it impacted me or why it’s important to find that part of myself,” she says.
As she immersed herself in black culture at AU—parties, students organizations, friendships—she became an advocate for racial equality on campus. That meant joining the protest held for those two freshman victims.
It also meant speaking truth to white students, face-to-face. She recalls one lunch in the cafeteria, after another race-related incident on campus, when white students voiced their frustrations about demands made by black student leaders. “I had to use my whiteness to say, ‘I understand where you’re coming from but also you’re an asshole, please just listen,’” says Dominique.
“That was a terrible lunch.”
Amanda Nyang’oro, who was also a freshman in the fall of 2016, was startled when she learned of the banana incidents.
“After it happened, I was going to class and I saw a white man with a banana outside of my dorm room and my heart started racing,” says Nyang’oro, a public relations major who was born in D.C. but raised in Tanzania. “I really wanted to talk about it [publically] … I thought, ‘How can this be happening?’ ‘How can we just let this go by?’”
While she considers herself black, Nyang’oro understands that she had a very different experience than that of her black peers who grew up in America. She attended an international school in East Africa, and though her mother graduated from AU, Nyang’oro was nervous about attending a PWI in the U.S. “I hadn’t been around that many white Americans in a long time so it was nerve-racking in the beginning.”
Her freshman roommate was a white student who asked a lot of questions. “Does that girl have a weave on? Do black people have problems with pigmentation?” But Nyang’oro took it in stride. “Those are the types of questions that you kind of have to get over because she hadn’t experienced meeting people like me,” Nyang’oro says of her roommate, who became a great friend.
There’s another form of ignorance, though, that she finds less permissible. After the banana incidents, Nyang’oro says it was “very annoying” to hear white students say “‘Oh, we don’t understand why this is a problem,’ or ‘Why are they making it into a race thing?’”
She tries to block herself from those types of white folks. “If you don’t know by now, I don’t know what else to tell you—Google is free, you can search it yourself.”
There were six hate crimes on record at American University that year, according to a university public safety report, which defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense that manifests evidence that the victim was intentionally selected because of the perpetrator’s bias against the victim.” The banana incidents at Anderson Hall were not recorded in the figure. Still, the number of hate crimes doubled from the previous year.
On campus, there were multiple “healing spaces” organized for black students to express their concerns, according to Dumpson, who was a junior when her freshman classmates faced bananas in their dorm. But the meetings weren’t without friction. “I saw students yelling at members of administration and I looked at administrators mentally check out,” she says.
By this time, Dumpson had several leadership positions on campus. She was the inaugural president of Intercultural Greek Collective, which represents eight multicultural Greek organizations on campus. She’d been a program coordinator for the Explore DC through Social Justice program—part of the welcome week for incoming first-year and transfer students. And she lead a group during an alternative break session to study systemic racism and oppression in Baltimore following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.
She was able to leverage her role as a student leader to have conversations with administrators. “You need students who are going to agitate, but you also need students who are able to code switch and explain what other students are saying,” she says.
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Dumpson penned her thoughts in an editorial for student-run newspaper The Eagle. There, she wrote about the resilience of her black peers. “Despite the challenges, black girl magic and black boy joy were everywhere on campus—people were doing their things,” she says. “There was so much amazing talent and so much that the community could offer and that was important—we were still continuing to thrive.”
In February 2017, Dumpson considered a new challenge: campaigning to become AU’s first black female student government president. If she won, she would succeed the student government’s first African-American president in recent history, Devontae Torriente.
“I recognized that what I was about to embark on was something that was going to be drastically different,” she says. “This was uncharted territory—there was no standard by which to be held, so I feel like people were just making up their own standards for me.”
Dumpson didn’t want to be perceived as an “angry black woman” in certain situations. She wondered how students would respond to her kinky hair. She thought she may be considered uneducated or have to deal with mansplaining. She wondered if students would discount her experiences as a leader because she’d never been a part of student government.
“I felt like I needed to be absolutely perfect, that I couldn’t mess up, and I had to work ten times harder because it’s a predominately white institution.”
Dumpson was one of four student government president candidates, including two white male students and one white female student. She ran a campaign tied to her personal experiences on campus. Her slogan was “A[Different]U.”
“There’s not one AU experience and there’s not one kind of AU student,” she says. “At the end of the day, we are all part of the American University community and because of that, we needed to shift the university and student government into a different direction.”
Her platform had five target areas for university improvement: accountability, accessibility, inclusion, support, and transparency.
Then, she and her team hit the ground running to get out the vote. “I was able to help to give voice to the experiences of students who felt invisible or felt seen and not valued, which I believed was an asset to me,” she says. “I was able to motivate these students to vote.”
The late-March election was close between the two female candidates. Dumpson won by about 130 votes, with nearly 1,115 students casting their ballots for her. “I was so ecstatic—I literally just dropped to the floor,” she says.
It was also impactful to see the reign of consecutive black student government leadership. “No one saw that coming. I was like, ‘How are we going to get two black students back-to-back as student government president at a predominantly white institution?’… How the heck did that just happen?”
Her term would begin later that spring.
A black high school senior attending a boarding school in South Carolina sent in his enrollment deposit to American University on the morning of May 1, 2017. Hours later, Joshua Dantzler watched as his social media timelines flood with news of a hate crime at AU.
Bananas hanging from string in the shape of nooses were found in three places on campus. Some of them were scrawled “AKA Free,” which officials believe referenced Dumpson’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Other bananas said “Harambe Bait,” referencing the gorilla that was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo the previous year. The incident was categorized as a hate crime; it was later investigated by the FBI.
After Dantzler’s friends confronted him about attending AU, he sought advice from his parents. “They said, ‘Joshua, you aren’t someone who runs away from tense situations. You’re going to go to American and you’re going to change that campus.’ They said, ‘What if Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis all decided to run away in the face of racism or hatred? They had that decision, but where would we be as a country?’”
Meanwhile in D.C, Dumpson found out about the hate crime from a friend who sent photos of the hanging fruit. Though she didn’t expect this kind of attack on her first day in office, she says she wasn’t surprised that it happened, given the string of racial-bias incidents at AU and the rise of hate crimes being committed by white supremacist groups at other colleges across the country.
“I remember that entire week like it was yesterday,” says Dumpson. “It’s something that I’ve thought about every single day since then.”
One of the first things she did was call her parents, who came to D.C. in a matter of hours. She then sent an email to her fellow students. Within days she was nationally known—the de facto spokesperson for AU students. Dozens of print publications, online outlets, and television news stations wanted her to comment. “It was difficult to deal with the media attention because while I was wearing the student government president hat, I was worried about students and myself,” she says.
By Thursday, she was running on few hours of sleep with no chance to process what happened. She also hadn’t had a full meal. “I had absolutely no appetite,” she recalls. After leading a two-hour, standing room only press conference, her mom bought her Chinese food and told her to get some rest. In proper millennial fashion, she settled down with her phone.
In her emails, she saw an alert from the Anti-Defamation League. It said that she was being cyber trolled by a known neo-Nazi, the same guy who published the manifesto of mass murderer Dylan Roof. His message told followers “to give me a warm welcome in my newfound position,” she recalls.
Dumpson read articles calling her a “nigger agitator,” “nigress,” and “monkey,” among other derogatory names. There was a Pepe the Frog meme in which the frog held a gun next to the head of a black cartoon figure with braids. “I took that as a threat to my life,” says Dumpson, who was given police protection until she went home to Salisbury for two weeks to decompress.
Over the next month, she continued to consume the hate reads. “My mom wanted me to stop immediately, but I didn’t feel safe if I didn’t know what was being said about me,” she says.
She read articles and browsed hundreds of comments from white supremacist supporters. The messages began to take a toll on her. “Post traumatic stress disorder is not just something that veterans or sexual assault victims have—it’s not something for a specific demographic,” she says. “I don’t think people recognize that racism, racial trauma, and discrimination have major implications on mental health.”
It’s also something that needs to be talked about more in the black community, she says. “If I’d not had the support of healthcare professionals, family, and friends, there’s no way I’d be here talking to you today—I mean that wholeheartedly.”
While Dumpson was on hiatus from campus in May, she got an unexpected call from Sylvia Mathews Burwell. AU’s board announced in January 2017 that Burwell would succeed president Kerwin, who announced his retirement in March 2016.
Burwell wanted to have a candid conversation about how she could be of support, personally and to the entire student body, Dumpson says.
She was impressed that Burwell called, considering she didn’t officially start her tenure as university president until June 1. She also appreciated her style of communication. “She’s very succinct and she can get a lot out of a short interaction,” Dumpson says of Burwell, who previously served as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama.
On her first day in office, Burwell hosted a jam-packed open house at the President’s Office Building. Over the next couple of months, she held a listening tour. “The biggest part of the summer is engaging and listening and learning across the campus and across the community, both inside and outside, to make sure that I’m understanding the priorities of the institution,” she told The Eagle in a July interview.
The difference between President Kerwin and President Burwell? “It’s day and night,” says Dumpson, who saw Burwell make diversity and inclusion a priority, not just a talking point.
After the pep talk from his parents, Dantzler headed to American University on a mission in the fall of 2017.
“They reaffirmed my decision and I knew that when I came to AU, I wanted to be committed to making this campus safe and making this campus feel like a home away from home,” says the Rock Hill, South Carolina, native, whose parents prepared him early on for racism in the South. “It wasn’t a shock when growing up I would deal with a classmate calling me a monkey or not being invited to certain things because of the color of my skin,” he says.
Like Dominique and Nyang’oro, he learned that being black on a predominantly white campus means constantly having to educate his white peers. He finds himself doing that often in the classroom.
In a recent political science class, his professor asked students if elections in America have always been fair and free. After one of the students said yes, Dantzler spoke up as the only black student in the room.
“For a time, blacks couldn’t even vote, minorities couldn’t vote, women couldn’t vote,” Dantzler recalls telling the class. He brought up gerrymandering and redlining among other discriminatory practices. “No, elections aren’t fair and free—they’ve never been fair and free.”
During his first semester at AU, in September 2017, Dantzler got his first dose of publicized racism on campus. Nearly a dozen Confederate flag flyers with chunks of cotton attached to them were posted at several buildings around campus.
As protests erupted again, the hate-bias incident also served as Dantzler’s welcome into AU’s close-knit black community. “There were so many people who I hadn’t even met yet,” Dantzler says. “I didn’t know them, but we all were there for each other and supported one another.”
For him, being black at American has also been about connecting with peers who become “brothers and sisters—who know the struggle, want to succeed with you, and are trying to help you succeed—so it’s a family dynamic.”
He also recognizes that America and the workplaces ahead of him are diverse. “In order to become a better person, it’s important to constantly branch out—there are things that white people can teach you that black people can’t and vice versa,” he says. “I’ve definitely learned a lot of lessons dealing with white folks and how to work with people who don’t look like you.”
Dantzler went on to run for a student government position, senator at-large, and won. In this role, the freshman advocates for improved campus safety and climate, as well as more diversity and inclusion.
“I wanted to make sure that this could be the best four years that I can make it, and it starts with me,” he says.
The Confederate flag flyers with cotton were hung on the night Dr. Ibram X. Kendi introduced the university’s new Antiracist Research and Policy Center.
For Kendi, an author and professor, one of the greatest acts of racism toward black students at predominantly white institutions across the country is administrators who don’t seriously implement zero tolerance policies when it comes to racial bias incidents.
“Because there’s not a strong institutional response to those incidents that students face, they sometimes wonder whether the institution really has their back while simultaneously facing these many forms of racist abuse,” he says.
In November, AU police held a community meeting to explain that they had increased their presence on campus. And in January 2018, President Burwell—who convened a town hall meeting immediately after the Confederate flag flyers were discovered—introduced her two-year “Plan for Inclusive Excellence.”
“American University can only thrive when we affirm the dignity of everyone, when we demonstrate cultural competence, when everyone—especially students, faculty, and staff of color—feel included,” Burwell said in a video message introducing the plan. “I hope you will engage in it, read it closely, and find your own role in it.”
Burwell also tells City Paper that the university is working closely with the AU police department, students, alumni, and the Anti-Defamation League. “We’ve learned how to better anticipate, deter and respond more quickly and effectively to hate crimes and bias incidents,” she says.
Former president Kerwin says, “I offer my strong support for AU’s exceptional plan, for which there is evidence of a deep commitment across the university.”
As Burwell starts her journey toward change, Dumpson has as well. The graduating senior announced her resignation as student government president in February 2018. In December 2017, she was suspended from Alpha Kappa Alpha for one year. She declined to comment on what led to the sorority’s decision. An AKA spokesperson told City Paper that it was the result of an “internal investigation.”
“This past year was really rough,” Dumpson says, adding that she lost 20 pounds last semester. “I felt like I needed to take a step back and I had done the best I could with what I had.”
One of her proudest achievements as student government president was creating a designated space on campus for students of color. In November 2017, the Hub for Organizing, Multiculturalism and Equity, or HOME, opened in the Mary Graydon Center. “It’s something beautiful about seeing something that was once an idea become something tangible and being able to see the mark that you visibly left on your school.”
It’s been a place where she’s seen students grow together and be themselves, unapologetically. “It’s a space to go if you don’t want to be around racist stuff or you don’t want to deal with everyone’s drama—you can go to HOME and literally feel at home.”
As she fields acceptance letters from law schools, Dumpson continues to advocate for students. And she’s come to another realization about being black at a PWI.
“We recognize that predominantly white institutions were not designed for students of color, so we try make these institutions work to our benefit,” she says. “But we don’t need to fit into things because we are already what we’re trying to fit into. Things need to fit to us.”