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Racist Snapchat post sparks race conversation at UND

UND senior Lajaun Willis, talks Wednesday afternoon about his experiences as a student on campus and his reaction to the Snapcat photo that ended up going viral. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald) 1 / 3
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For LaJaun Willis, a senior at UND, there are more days than not when he sees racism on UND’s campus.

Though it’s gotten better since he was a freshman, there still are incidents that affect his daily life, he said Wednesday.

Earlier this year, Willis moved out of a house he was living in because somebody had drawn a swastika on a dog with a permanent marker. As the only minority in the house, Willis moved out because he no longer felt comfortable living there.

“When I came here as a freshman, after only being here for about three months, I was going to drop out because it was just so bad,” Willis said. “There were people being extremely disrespectful to my culture. There were people using the N-word all the time.”

Willis and others at the Era Bell Thompson Multicultural Center on UND’s campus want to see the university adopt a zero-tolerance policy when dealing with racist behavior on campus. This comes after a photo posted on the social media platform Snapchat showing three UND students and a caption with a derogatory racial comment went viral Wednesday.

Ifrah Esse talks Wednesday afternoon about her experiences as a student on campus

“A majority of us were not surprised by the actions,” said Ifrah Esse, a third-year law student at UND. “We felt like we have seen a lot of this type of behavior over the years. Almost every one of us can think of a time when we’ve experienced something similar.”

UND is investigating the photo posted on Snapchat, a popular mobile app used to post videos and images, which depicts two women and one man wearing UND apparel smiling in what looks to be a residence hall. The photo is captioned “Locked the black b**** out.”

The snap has triggered outrage on social media, with some saying racism is “alive and well” at the school. Others have demanded action by the university’s administration.

The image started circulating after a public Facebook post Tuesday night by a UND student who alleged her friend left her cellphone in her residence hall and three UND students took a photo of themselves and captioned it with the racial slur.

The photo then went viral after Shaun King, a social justice writer with the New York Daily News, tweeted it out, saying “Dear University of North Dakota -- your very few Black students need you to address this right away please.” King’s tweet had been retweeted almost 6,000 times as of Wednesday afternoon.

Administration response

UND Police responded to a call for service at about 10:45 p.m. Tuesday for a harassment complaint, and began investigating the incident, department spokesman Sgt. Danny Weigel said.

Criminal charges could be filed in the incident, but that is up to the complainant, Weigel said.

The UND Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities also is investigating the matter for any “legal or Code of Student Life violations,” and the students could be expelled if found in violation.

In a statement, UND President Mark Kennedy said he and university are committed to educating the campus community about diversity and inclusion.

“I want to make clear that whatever the intent, the message included in the photo is not consistent with UND’s values,” Kennedy said in a statement. “I am personally shocked that anyone would be so naive as to think that this could in any way be considered a joke.”

None of the individuals involved are current or former student athletes, contrary to posts on social media, and all three in the photo are UND students, Peter Johnson, a spokesman for the university said.

There also were people on social media platforms who thought the incident was was being overblown, calling the incident an overreaction and saying nobody was hurt by the photo.

“Just so we’re clear, it’s not against the law to say something stupid or even racist,” one person wrote. “They’re investigating a private citizen who said something that the school finds potentially offensive.”

The incident comes less than a week after a student was kicked out of Kansas State University for a photo of two students wearing mud masks and captioned with a racist term referring to African Americans. A student at Belmont University in Tennessee also was expelled for a social media post using the same word to describe black NFL football players who have protested during the national anthem.

The UND campus has seen controversy over insensitivity in recent years, with the Gamma Phi Beta sorority hanging a banner referencing the school’s old Fighting Sioux nickname and students wearing “Siouxper Drunk” shirts at the Springfest celebration in 2014.

Esse said issues involving race insensitivity are much more frequent on UND’s campus than many people realize.

“People live in two different realities, and that is what really hurts the most,” Esse said. “When this is your reality and you’re aware of this kind of discrimination and then you try to express to someone and say ‘Hey, this is happening to me. This is going on.’ Then they say, ‘No, it’s not really happening. Discrimination on this campus is not really a thing.’ ”

Those at the multicultural center Wednesday said they would like to see UND have a mandatory diversity class for freshmen, a committee students can go to when issues of racial insensitivity arise and for the university to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to racist behavior.

“If there are no consequences for these types of actions, and there isn’t anybody who cares to investigate it or stand against it, then you feel you feel as if the university supports this type of behavior,” Esse said. “The university has said over and over again that they do not, but where’s the action that states that you do not? Where are the policies? Where are the committees? Where are the people that are aggressively standing against this and letting us be heard?”

Wade Rupard

Wade Rupard is a reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. Rupard is a 2014 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and is originally from Normal, Ill. 

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