Only afterward, when the moderator showed the panelists some of the questions they had not seen, did they realize something was amiss, panelist Tendela Tellas told The Washington Post.
Among the questions:
“Why don’t we have any white people on stage?”
“What is the percentage of African Americans on food stamps?”
“Why do African Americans hate the police? If they would obey the law and do what they say we wouldn’t have this problem."
“How is it to be black? I don’t See color.”
“Why don’t we have a white history month?”
The panelists discovered the comments after the event ended.
“Once I found out,” said Tellas, a sophomore studying sociocultural anthropology, “I was very heartbroken because the stories we as panelists were telling were very personal and very dear to our hearts.”
Several anonymous attendees flooded the event page used to collect questions with comments the university characterized as “racist.”
BYU officials quickly condemned the questions on Friday in a lengthy statement on Twitter, followed by videos of several students and faculty members discussing tolerance, diversity and discrimination.
“We are aware of an incident last night on campus where racist, anonymous comments were submitted at a public panel discussion about race and immigration,” the university said in a statement. “We reaffirm BYU’s stance of condemning racism in any form. We are committed to promoting a culture of safety, kindness, respect and love.”
But BYU officials also said they could not discipline anyone because the school could not identify who had submitted the offensive questions.
The incident highlighted a difficult history of racism and discrimination at BYU and within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the university.
Only about 400 black students attend the university and make up less than 1 percent of the student body, the Tribune reported. Black students at BYU have reported incidents of racism for years. Stickers promoting a white supremacist group were found on campus just before Thanksgiving, according to university officials. In 2017, a black student crafted a lengthy video interviewing his classmates about insensitive and ignorant comments they received on campus.
The Mormon Church restricted the roles and rituals black Mormons could participate in until the late ’70s. Despite a complicated history, the Mormon Church has publicly denounced white supremacy in recent years.
“White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them,” the church said in 2017 after a woman was killed during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. “Church members who promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.”
Thursday’s panel, led by several black immigrant students, was part of several events on the campus celebrating Black History Month.
David-James Gonzales, a history professor at BYU, said on Twitter Monday that behavior at last week’s panel was not an isolated incident.
“Since my arrival @BYU in fall 2018, not one week has passed w/out a student (typically identifying as POC, female, or LGBTQ+) sharing an experience where #racist, #sexist, or anti-LGBTQ+ comments have been made in classrooms & commons areas,” he wrote.
Jacob S. Rugh, the faculty member who sponsored the panel, said on Twitter he would be reporting the incident.
“This is racist harassment and against the honor code,” the sociology professor wrote. “So frustrating.”
There are more examples, just see: @HeardAtBYU, but the point is, the campus environment @BYU is such that students (and sadly some faculty & staff) feel comfortable about openly sharing #racist, #sexist, & anti-LGBTQ thoughts publicly w/out fear of reappraisal.— David-James Gonzales (@djgonzoPhD) February 10, 2020
Another BYU student at the panel, Grace Soelberg, wrote on Twitter that she went home and cried after finding out about the offensive questions asked on Thursday.
“I’m crying because I know that tomorrow I am going to have to go to class and be on campus with people who generally believe I am inferior to them because of the color of my skin,” she wrote. “I hope that everyone who reads this feels prompted to check in with themselves and ask what they are doing to fight racism. It is not enough to just ‘not be racist’ and watch idly by as POC suffer every day from micro and macro-aggressions.”
Tellas said she felt the university had applied a “Band-Aid” to the situation by condemning the comments. She said the university should do more to help faculty recognize and address racism on campus.
“The black students no longer feel that the campus is a safe space anymore,” Tellas told The Post. “This is a white space and we are just living in it.”