BYU community opens discussion about diversity, tackles controversial symbols

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Jessica Smith
Student Kira Nielsen is a member of the Black Student Union at BYU and an advocate for African-American rights. (Jessica Smith)

This story has been updated to reflect recent developments in the Jussie Smollett case.

BYU ushered in Black History Month with an Instagram story series calling for change in daily campus exchanges. The stories were posted Jan. 29 and are now featured as a highlight titled “Respect” on the university’s official page.

Since then, the posts have sparked discussions on campus and in the comments online, with many praising the openness of the story’s conversation. BYU’s Instagram initiative offered a platform to African-American students who feel the university’s discussion on diversity has a long way to go.

BYU sociology professor Jacob Rugh praised the initiative as a necessary step in the right direction and a perfect segue into Black History Month’s purpose of promoting cultural acceptance.

“I thought it exceeded expectations,” Rugh said. “There’s a line in (the Instagram story) that talks about respect. Respect isn’t just about not offending — it’s also being proactive about how we honor others.”

Kira Nielsen, a public relations major and representative of the Black Student Union at BYU, insisted the end of the Civil Rights movement does not equate the end of white supremacy, nor does it mean its relevance does not reach the banks of the Great Salt Lake.

“Just because Martin Luther King gave a speech and Rosa sat on a bus doesn’t mean it’s over and everything is solved,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen lamented that even in 2019, racist symbols continue to permeate the community. Yet differing opinions suggest the connotation of many of these symbols is rarely clear cut.

According to the Daily Herald, the Confederate flag made an appearance at the Harvest Days Parade in Midvale in August, sparking outrage from some and support from others. The dispute led Midvale Councilman Dustin Gettel to question whether the flag has any place in the public sphere.

BYU student Virginia Jones is from Memphis, Tennessee. She said her ancestors fought in the Civil War to defend their homes and that she is proud to be from a place “where people will go to war to protect their way of life.”

That, she said, is why she owns a Confederate flag.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s good or bad,” Jones said. “I think the flag itself represents an organization that no longer exists.”

In her own experience with racial insensitivity, Nielsen said that despite the original intention of the Confederate symbol, its association with 150 years worth of terrorism inevitably taints it.

“When I see someone with the Confederate flag, I feel terrified,” Nielsen said. “I immediately think of all of our people who were lynched and murdered and killed and enslaved. It is not right to use it as a pride symbol.”

Alexandria Gamble owns a Confederate flag as a memento of her Latter-day Saint mission in Tennessee. She said it signifies to her, as it does to many southerners, one’s pride in heritage and home.

In the debate about the flag’s place in American society, if any, Gamble proposed the flag may be historically revered while modestly displayed. She says that while the back of a truck may not be appropriate, the flag belongs in a museum or cultural center.

“Although it represents a somewhat un-American thing like secession,” Gamble said, “it’s a historical piece. There’s too much trying to erase the past. If we (remove it), we won’t learn from it.”

Nielsen said the consistent presence of Confederate flags in hate crimes condemns their place in public, even if other owners’ intentions innocently seek to honor their heritage.

After the Charlottesville attacks in 2017, Confederate flag sales quadrupled in Civil War memorabilia stores in Pennsylvania, Alabama and Georgia, with one Georgia store owner claiming to still sell as many as 15,000 flags a year, according to Reuters.

A report from the Anti-Defamation League signifies that hate crimes on racial basis have gone up 18 percent in 2017. Nielsen credited the rise to Trump’s inauguration. She further said the consistent presence of “Make America Great Again” hats from Trump’s campaign mark them as another symbol of racism.

African American actor Jussie Smollett said he was attacked by two unidentified men on Jan. 29 in downtown Chicago, according to reports from CBS News. Smollett reported they held nooses in their hands and shouted racial slurs as they beat him and poured acid on his body. Smollett reported hearing them shout the words “MAGA country” until eventually, they ran away. His claim is under investigation.

According to a Wall Street Journal Article, Chicago police are now preparing to take the case to a grand jury with evidence that Smollett’s attack claim was actually a false report.

BYU sociology major and Black Student Union member Andra Johnson claimed when he sees a group of white people wearing MAGA hats, it is enough to make him feel unsafe and go out of his way to avoid them.

Nielsen echoed these sentiments when she said that even for people who feel the hat is an article of political support, its presence in prejudice crimes marks it as a blatant symbol of hate.

“You have to be aware of the symbol it has become,” Nielsen said. “If communities of supremacists who are emboldened by racism are wearing those hats, then they’re going to start being connected by wearing that symbol — just like the KKK.”

BYU student Chase Fowers grew up in the heart of the South in Augusta, Georgia. Majoring in political science, Fowers said a distinction needs to be made between extremism and freedom of speech. Just as Fowers said the Confederate flag should be left to individual discretion, he said that protecting the MAGA hat takes a stand for protecting all individuals’ freedom to express themselves.

“Personally I would take off my hat if it caused another person to experience fear,” Fowers said. “Ultimately, I think it’s an issue with freedom of speech. We can’t be selective — even if it’s offensive.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in Utah, a state of over three million registered residents, African Americans constitute just 1.4 percent of the population. Students like Kira Nielsen and Andra Johnson said they have felt singled out, stared at and discriminated against, even if most offenders have had innocent if ignorant, intentions.

Growing up as a black member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Johnson described having to confront racist symbols at scouting activities. Perhaps unknowingly placing Johnson in an uncomfortable situation, a few of the boys would tie nooses when they practiced knots.

“Being one of the only black people in the Church, it always made me feel weird,” Johnson said. “Their ancestors might have used that same knot to hang my ancestors from a tree. I don’t see any uses nowadays for that kind of knot.”

Johnson reminisced that when it came time to go to college, he expected BYU to be a good Church school where everyone was kind and generally like-minded.

“I thought it would be heaven,” he said. “Then I got here, and I’m like, ‘Did you just call me cursed?'”

Sitting in one of his first religion classes talking about priesthood privileges, Johnson said he was shocked to hear his peers so bluntly talk about the “Curse of Cain.” Despite repeated discouragement from Church leaders, the “Curse of Cain” is a theory suggesting that African Americans were forbidden the priesthood until 1979 because of their ancestry. As Cain was given a mark to signify his banishment from God’s favor, some members suggest this mark manifests itself in one’s blackness.

Johnson said one of the worst weeks to be black at BYU is homecoming week. When older generations return to their alma mater, Johnson said he and his friends often receive unwarranted comments in public.

“This last homecoming, an old guy came up to me and my friend and said, ‘Hey there, darkies. I served my mission in Africa, and I just love you darkies,'” Johnson said. “I didn’t know how to respond to him.”

Another time, an elderly man and his wife went out of their way to approach Johnson and eight of his black friends while they were eating lunch to say, “A lot has changed since I’ve been here.”

“We didn’t know how to take that,” Johnson said. “How do you take that?”

For Nielsen, racism at BYU “manifests itself in the various micro-aggressions that occur daily” — in the little moments of “the looks and the faces, the open mouths and the gaping” whenever she and her friends meet as a group.

Just recently, Nielsen said she was standing by the BYU Store with four other black girls. As they stood there, a group of white women passing by stopped in their tracks and stared with their mouths open. They whispered to each other before they walked away, all in front of Nielsen and her companions.

“You would think we were robbing a bank,” Nielsen said, adding that people even hide their kids when they walk by. “It constantly happens.”

Johnson and Nielsen urged BYU students to recognize their part in breaking down racial barriers, even if they feel they have no personal experience with racism. One of the most validating experiences, they said, was when President Kevin Worthen and his wife attended a meeting with the Black Student Union this year.

Rugh praised President Worthen’s presence in the Instagram initiative, which they said demonstrated his desire to welcome greater diversity at the university. Rugh said he felt it was an example for all students that a white man, as president of the university, endorsed everything that was said. He insists this is just the kind of support the black community needs.

“We need allies,” Nielsen said. “We need allies who’ve never really experienced what we have, but can say, ‘I’m listening, I validate your experience and I want to help.'”

Editor’s note: The Daily Universe follows journalistic principles by presenting multiple points of view on controversial topics. The Universe follows its sponsor’s admonition in not supporting racist ideologies, practices or symbols. 

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