I am a white, Christian, heterosexual, middle-class woman. While I have no idea what it feels like to be a minority or profoundly disadvantaged, Vanderbilt has provided me with ample opportunities to meet people from different backgrounds. While I am neither a minority nor a disadvantaged part of the Vanderbilt landscape, I have spent the past three and a half years in pursuit of understanding multiple perspectives. And I am still learning to expand these perspectives.
On Wednesday afternoon after the election, I was working at the Commons desk with a friend, Merna, who is an Egyptian Muslim student. We were discussing the election when she brought up some things that had happened to her and her friends overnight.
One of these occasions involved two of her female Muslim friends joining other students in the Commons Center lobby to watch the election results at around 1:30 a.m. When Trump was announced President-elect of the United States, the Trump supporters at Commons celebrated. Even though I fundamentally disagree with most (if not all) parts of the Trump campaign, I understand that these students have the right to celebrate the victory of their candidate. However, in the midst of their celebration, a few students began antagonizing the two Muslim students. They yelled “Build a wall!” and “Make America great again!” Looking back at the girls to make sure they heard, they said, “Look at all the white people on television!” Then they jeered, mocked and laughed at them to the point that they left Commons.
On a separate occasion, someone else had called Merna a “fucking immigrant hoe.”
This is about how Vanderbilt students treat other Vanderbilt students, not about what identification labels we stick on them.
Aren’t we some of the happiest university students in the United States? Aren’t we a top 15 university? I think Vanderbilt has done a pretty good job of promoting diversity on campus, whether by hiring Vice Chancellor George Hill as the inaugural Chief Diversity Officer, implementing programs such as Greek Member Experience and Experience Vanderbilt or hanging the LGBTQI+ flag around various parts of campus. Vanderbilt has always encouraged conversation continuing the dialogue of campus, national and international issues. Even if students don’t change their stances on these issues, discussion is both available and encouraged.
Merna and I have extensively discussed ethnicity, religion and diversity within the university and Nashville communities this past semester— in fact, the first question I asked her was, “Does your headscarf ever make you hot when it’s 90 degrees outside?” Instead of recoiling in offense or derision of my ignorance, she initiated a discussion. She is warm and compassionate and has never drawn invisible ethnic or religious lines between us.
This university-wide culture of open conversation is the reason why I would have never predicted that Vanderbilt students would treat their peers in such a demeaning, contemptuous and antagonistic manner. Regardless of politics, the behavior that these Vanderbilt students showed toward their peers is disheartening and unacceptable. Merna’s friends were judged and ridiculed because of their religious affiliation and their physical appearance, not by the content of their character. This is about how Vanderbilt students treat other Vanderbilt students, not about what identification labels we stick on them.
What does it mean that there were other people in the room who stayed silent?
“But they were just a few isolated events!” Sure, but despite our generally accepting environment, these events still happened.
The most heartbreaking part of this is that I am writing the article to expose what happened, not the individuals who experienced it. Because of my background, I will likely not be targeted because of my beliefs or skin color by reporting on this eschewal of human decency. The Muslim Student Association will be publishing an article about the political climate on campus, but I was nonetheless encouraged to write this by Merna as a white student coming from a different perspective.
What does it mean that there were other people in the room who stayed silent? What does it mean that these girls remained silent in the face of religious harassment on campus? What does it mean that this is now in the public view because a third party is their proxy storyteller? What does this say about the Vanderbilt community?
As a non-minority or non-disadvantaged student, you can send a message, give a hug and offer support to people being harassed. Stand in solidarity, don’t be a bystander. This isn’t just happening to people in other parts of the country, this is happening to people in your classes and living in your building.
Vanderbilt, we are better than this.
Meredith Bradshaw is a senior in the College of Arts and Science. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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