St. Thomas rally: Standing up to hate

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2007 - 11:26 PM

Black students at St. Thomas say their peers aren't as inclusive as they would like. The reaction among many: that should change.

Four racist and threatening notes left for three black female students at the University of St. Thomas did more than just bring condemnation from the campus community. It also sparked a broader discussion about the feelings of isolation experienced by minority students on the campus.

On Thursday, hundreds of students, faculty and staff members met in support of the three women -- sophomores Aquanette Early, Danielle Matthias and Malaika Smith -- who received the notes in John Paul II Hall, an all-women's dorm that is generally open only to residents and guests.

More than a dozen students of different races spoke to the crowd about race relations and how they can be improved at St. Thomas. It was a scene not unprecedented at the private Catholic university in St. Paul.

This week's event was the third incident of racist messages on campus in 2007. In the past 15 years, there have been several incidents in which St. Thomas students have been subjected to hate crimes, including a cross-burning outside an off-campus house where several black students lived.

When junior Princess Gaye grabbed the bullhorn, she gave white students at St. Thomas an idea of her experiences at the school featuring a little more than 10 percent students of color among its 5,800 undergraduates.

"To feel alone at your university, kind of hurts sometimes," Gaye said. "We want to see this kind of support more often, you know. Sometimes we do feel alone, like nobody is here to support us.

"We'd like to see you guys talk to us. We feel alone when we're in classes and you guys don't join our groups. We feel alone when we're talking and you're just looking at us. ... To feel so separated on your own campus, it hurts."

Senior Jessica Taylor said she doesn't feel as safe on campus as she did a week ago.

"You never know who is out there or who's lurking," Taylor said.

Racism on campus revealed

"I know St. Thomas strives for inclusiveness and I know we're working hard to get that. We have some work to do, that's my opinion, but people are trying. An incident where your life is threatened is never good. Maybe some people who were living in their own little isolation circle and didn't believe there is any racism on this campus now know."

Said freshman Camri Walton: "[The campus] feels separated. That's why when I heard about what happened, I wasn't surprised. I was upset; it does feel like the campus is kind of segregated in the classroom and doing group projects and study groups. It seems like [white students] only talk to people who look like them."

Tiara Basley said that when groups are formed in classes, professors often have to help black students be included.

Lawrence Potter, director of institutional diversity at St. Thomas, said Wednesday that the school wants to provide a welcoming experience for students of color.

"We work hard to move beyond just tolerance," Potter said. "We work hard to be an affirming and a respecting community."

St. Thomas public safety officials and the St. Paul police continue to investigate who left the notes -- one on a dry-erase board and three on paper -- between early Tuesday and early Wednesday.

Early described this week's events as "horrible," but the three roommates said they appreciate the support the school has provided in recent days.

"I feel like I'm a valued member of the St. Thomas community," Early said. "I felt that way before, and I feel even more that way now. I know that when things like this happen they are not accepted. I'm just very proud to be a St. Thomas student, to call myself a Tommie."

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