The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students take racist comments and spread them all over campus

American University in Washington D.C. (Photo by Jeff Watts, courtesy AU)

Some students at American University got so fed up with the racist comments they were reading on social media that they decided to spread them.

They launched an online campaign, #TheRealAU, to blast out the racism they see, in hopes it will make it more difficult to ignore. They have been posting and sharing screenshots of slurs. They plastered them on the school’s front gates. And they are demanding that the administration do something.

[American University official responds to racist comments]

“It has been getting worse,” said Daniel Marks, a senior from Atlanta. He noticed a change after a black teenager was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. At a campus protest last fall mourning the death, he said, white students walking by on the quad called some of his friends a racial slur. At a larger gathering the next week, it happened again, he said.

Racial tensions have been amping up on the D.C. campus since, Marks said.

Much of it simmers online. Ugly comments, threats and bigotry on social media have been an issue on many campuses — especially since the rise in popularity of Yik Yak, the mobile app that lets people within a community chat anonymously.

[Race relations on campus and Yik Yak]

For example, on Tuesday, while twin sisters Kiera and Kayla Wilmot were being honored at a White House event — Kiera became nationally known after her high school volcano science experiment malfunctioned and she was arrested — people were writing on Yik Yak that they were terrorists who had tried to blow up their school. On Tuesday evening, Florida Polytechnic University issued a warning to its campus saying that it was aware of comments on Yik Yak that appeared to be threatening to the community, saying police were monitoring the situation.

[How do you solve a problem like Yik Yak?]

Some students are dismissive of these controversies; much of what’s said on Yik Yak is dumb and crass in all sorts of ways. Anonymity brings out the trolls. And there’s a lot of sarcasm there, too.

But some of the comments at AU are shocking to the point that black students don’t feel safe on campus, Marks said.

Such as:

“First you bring Ebola here, then you start riots and destroy our cities. … Go back to Africa.”

“If the blacks spent more time fixing their people instead of fixing their hair we wouldn’t be in this situation. #rugs #thugs #drugs”

Or unspeakable responses including racial slurs to “BlackLivesMatterAU.”

Students began a group — TheDarkeningAU — to amplify their complaints.

“We really want American University to have a mandatory education program so white students and students of privilege have a space to understand issues that affect students of color and marginalized students,” Marks said.  Every time they have a protest, he said, some white students dismiss it and say there isn’t really a problem on campus.

After complaints in the spring, AU president Neil Kerwin wrote a letter to the campus community that read, in part:

Recently members of our campus community were subjected in social media to racist, offensive comments that were reprehensible. Similar experiences are occurring with disturbing frequency nationwide at other colleges and universities, but they are especially unwelcome at our university, which so actively strives to be diverse and inclusive.
In the wake of such acts, demonstrations and discussions have empowered members of our community–from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds and political perspectives–to recount numerous experiences that left them outraged and disappointed. Insensitive comments, attitudes, and academic interactions with faculty and other students have left many AU community members feeling marginalized and disrespected.
To keep the promise made in the university’s strategic plan to “reflect and value diversity,” we must recognize acts like these and call them what they are–bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance. Like all institutions devoted to learning, we face a great challenge in balancing conditions that make it possible for every member of the community to learn and work in a respectful environment that also supports free academic inquiry and unfettered speech. Since the strategic plan also articulates a promise to “promote civil discourse,” we will promote venues to express our differences in ways that encourage responsibility and accountability, while we condemn venues that invite anonymity, irresponsibility, and incendiary speech.


Activists with “the Darkening” student group wanted more, especially as they said they saw more offensive messages in September and October. So they kept sharing:

One student wrote on Twitter, “Effectively address race as an institution or be complicit to the harassment of black students here #TheRealAU,” with screen shots of these comments:

“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.”

And: “We, the white people oppose the protests because you all are attacking us. KKK should be here to defend us.”

Read more:

Emory student arrested for shooting threat posted on Yik Yak

Feminists say they were threatened on Yik Yak

What students had to say on Yik Yak when Ted Cruz announced his presidential bid there