There is so much to Taylor Dumpson. She is a law and society major at American University, originally from a small community. She has her sights set on law school, and has dreams of one day opening a nonprofit community center, kind of like a one-stop shop that brings resources together. She likes to paint. She likes to draw.
That is not what you’d find if you Google her, though.
“The first thing that comes up is a hate crime. It comes up with bananas and nooses,” Dumpson said. “That’s a lot, you know?”
Dumpson is the student government president at American University, which was jolted by a racial incident on May 1 when bananas were found hanging from strings fashioned in the shape of nooses on three locations on the Northwest Washington campus. The university has said the incident is being investigated as a hate crime.
In the aftermath, Dumpson was thrust into a very public spotlight, dealing with news conferences, town halls and meetings. She became the latest student leader to confront tensions over racially charged incidents on campuses across the country.
“I would like to say it would just be limited to college campuses,” AU President Sylvia M. Burwell said in an interview. “But I think these are issues that we as a nation are continuing to work on together.”
For the 21-year-old Dumpson, from Salisbury, Md., the entire matter has been deeply personal. The bananas were marked with the letters of a sorority with predominantly African American membership.
Dumpson is a member of that sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA). What’s more, the fruit was found on her first full day in office. Dumpson, the first black woman to serve as AU’s student government president, had been sworn in April 30. She had planned to spell out her goals to students in a welcome message.
“Instead, I had to send a letter to the student body explaining to them what happened,” she said.
For student government leaders, summer offers a chance for long-term planning and big-picture conversations. Most students aren’t around. There are opportunities for outreach, chances to meet with officials. For Dumpson, though, these months not only allow for a chance to examine what the 13,000-student university might need going forward, they also give her a chance to regroup.
“The summer, it’s really big, because it’s me setting the tone, but it’s also me learning how to deal with my new normal,” Dumpson said. “I’m grateful that this happened at the end of the semester, not the beginning or middle of the semester. Because it allows me space.”
Dumpson believes it was no fluke that the bananas were hung just as she stepped into her new leadership role. She had just gotten back from an AKA conference. The coincidences were too much for her to ignore.
“While yes, it was a target at AKA,” she said, “I, from the bottom of my heart, believe that the person wrote that because they didn’t want to say ‘Taylor.’ ”
The discovery was followed by a flurry of activity for Dumpson and the campus. One day, masses of students requested withdrawal forms in protest, a demonstration covered by the Eagle, AU’s student paper. Then Dumpson learned a self-proclaimed white supremacist was encouraging followers to troll her on social media, which sent her into a panic.
“You know when they tell you when there’s a hurricane or a tornado, they tell you to go between the walls, and you sit on the floor, you’re low to the ground, you close the doors and the windows,” Dumpson said. “I closed all the doors in my house, locked everything, turned all the lights off and literally sat in the hallway. I just sat there. I finally cracked.”
Other student leaders in recent years have dealt with racial tensions on campus. Payton Head, the Missouri Students Association president at University of Missouri, in 2015 spoke out about racial slurs that had been directed at him — part of a chain of events that ended with the resignations of the University of Missouri system president, and the chancellor of the flagship Missouri campus in Columbia. The same year, Rini Sampath, student body president at the University of Southern California, said someone yelled a racist comment to her as she walked from a friend’s apartment.
This spring, a noose was discovered at a University of Maryland fraternity house, and white supremacist signs were found on George Washington University’s campus.
“The way that any student government president responds to a crisis like this absolutely affects the way that the university administration responds and moves forward,” said Sophia Wirth, a former AU student government president. “Not only with the conversations that they have with the student body at large, but also with the policy decisions that they make.”
The recent AU incident occurred as the university’s leadership was in transition. Burwell, who was health and human services secretary during the Obama administration, assumed her post in June as the first female president of AU.
Burwell and Dumpson have already met. The two have spoken not just about the noose episode, but also about Dumpson’s agenda as student government president, Burwell said.
“I am sad, and upset that the staff, the students, the faculty, that this community had to experience what was an act that was clearly set out to intimidate and frighten,” Burwell said.
Incidents like what happened at AU raise broader concerns about diversity and inclusion, Burwell said.
“Right now, I am in the place of talking to folks across different perspectives of the campus, from faculty to the staff to the students, about how they’re thinking about those issues on this campus, how they think about progress that has been made, and where we need to go, and what kinds of things we need to do,” Burwell said.
AU, which in June launched a new diversity and inclusion website, has had this conversation before. In 2015, there was outcry at the university over racist messages that had been posted to social media. And in September, a black AU student reported a banana was thrown at her in a dorm.
“It’s hard, because it’s a school I do love and I wish that I didn’t have to worry about these things, and I could just enjoy American University for what it was,” said Sydney Jones, 20, the president of the university’s NAACP chapter and a justice and law major from Miami. “But unfortunately, I can’t.”
Before all this happened, Dumpson was already focused on how to make the campus more inclusive. The May 1 incident gave her more reason to keep pushing, she said. She’s working on a proposal for a space that would serve as a multicultural center, where students can gather, plan, organize and relax.
There are moments when Dumpson still struggles. Her hands get clammy. Sometimes she cries. Many have asked if she was all right. Initially, she would say that she was fine, that she’d keep them posted.
“What I’ve learned is, it’s okay to say, ‘You know what, I’m not okay,’ ” she said. “Or, it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t want to talk about this right now.’ That’s what I’m learning.”