In the emotional hours after five police officers were shot and killed during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas last month, Rohini Sethi vented on Facebook.
“Forget #BlackLivesMatter;” wrote Sethi, the vice president of the Student Government Association at the University of Houston. “More like AllLivesMatter.”
The post was deleted shortly afterward, but not before word spread through the campus of nearly 43,000 students.
Minority student organizations denounced the post as hateful and inflammatory — unbecoming of a student leader elected to represent the entire student body and who receives a stipend from student fees.
In the ensuing days, minority student organizations would call for her to resign or be ousted from office. A hashtag was born: #RemoveRohini.
“Her post and subsequent actions were very divisive,” student body President Shane A. Smith told The Washington Post. “It caused some in our student body to become very upset with her. They lost faith in her ability to represent them because they felt that she did not understand or respect the struggles in their lives.”
On Wednesday, in a crowded Student Government Association meeting, student leaders gave Smith temporary power to sanction Sethi. Smith complied with their request that he suspend her. Sethi also offered to take a three-day cultural sensitivity workshop, Smith said.
"We must do something – and we must do it together." pic.twitter.com/aRfRFIKLrq
— UH SGA (@UHSGA) July 9, 2016
In later, public posts on Facebook, Sethi disagreed with the the SGA’s decision, saying she’d worked to address the criticism. In one post, she talked about the need for a greater dialogue about race and cultural sensitivity.
UH SGA has made its decision. I disagree with the sanctions taken against me by my SGA because I believe I have done a great deal to better understand the controversy I caused. I have also apologized for my words because no student should feel as though I do not have their best interests at heart. Even so, I will abide by the sanctions for as long as they are in place.
Her post has already sparked a larger discussion about cultural sensitivity and inclusion at the University of Houston, where 10 percent of the students are black, said Kadidja Koné, 19, a marketing major who is the president of the university’s black student union.
“I would never want her to have to experience the fear I have every day that my brother could die during a traffic stop, but it is something that as a representative of me that I expect her to understand,” Koné said. “For her to say on her social media ‘forget black lives matter,’ it’s almost as if to say if all of us were to die tomorrow, she wouldn’t care.”
Koné said minority organizations sought to meet with Sethi, but, afterward, still felt uncomfortable with her in a leadership position.
“As of today, African American students do not feel welcome, comfortable, represented, valued or even acknowledged at the University of Houston,” according to 100 Collegiate Men, an organization for black students. “Students at the University of Houston want to feel adequately represented. They do not feel that this is being accomplished as long as Rohini Sethi is in office.”
Sethi, who did not immediately return phone or Facebook messages from The Post, sought to mend tensions — and defend her actions — before she was sanctioned.
As student body vice president, I was elected to represent the voice of every single one of you. When I took this position, my intention was and still is to advocate for you and make you feel heard. I am a friend to some, a passing face for others but an advocate for all.
Thursday night as our nation recoiled in shock, I took to Facebook and shared in a way that was inappropriate given the context and my position. In that moment, I did not act as your vice president, I acted, in my own flawed way, as many do when presented with a tragedy from afar. My response has caused enormous pain for many members of our community, and I think it is high time that I clarify my statement.
Visually we are black, white, tan, and a hundred shades between but we are all human, thus I believe that all lives matter. Let’s all come together through conversations to reach unity. This is how we begin to set the standards for ourselves and our future, especially in times of adversity.
Our community is the most diverse in the nation, and we should cherish the lessons that it teaches us. I hope to embrace language that binds us together rather than language that singles some out. This is the perfect opportunity for us to rediscover each other, to learn about who we are, and what our experiences have been.
She ended the message: #LetsTalkUnity