By T.A. Hendrickson
Occidental College President Harry J. Elam, Jr. will make another attempt on Monday to address the uproar over the College’s handling of a racist anti-Asian text exchange between two students that came to light on Feb. 1.
At a one-and-a-half hour listening session sponsored by the College on Monday evening, students, faculty and staff will be able to air their thoughts about racism in their midst and the College’s response to it. In the weeks that follow, the College will hold multiple, smaller restorative justice circles, which are gatherings held to explore harms and needs in a given community and seek resolution and healing. The California Conference for Equality and Justice, a racial equity organization, will attend the Monday evening listening session and facilitate the restorative circles.
The text exchange at the heart of the matter began with one student texting her friend: “all asian people need to die.” The recipient replied: “That’s awfully racist but I am interested.” The exchange continued, including remarks that blamed “asians” and a “Chinese mistake” for the pandemic. A screenshot of the exchange was included in an article on Feb. 9 by The Occidental, the student-run campus newspaper.
The text exchange took place in December 2020. In October 2021, the recipient showed the texts to a student who held a leadership position in Kappa Alpha Theta, the sorority to which both the text sender and recipient belonged. The sorority leader, who is Asian, told The Occidental that the recipient’s aim in sharing the messages was to try to have the sender removed from the sorority.
The sorority leader, who was granted anonymity by The Occidental so she would feel free to speak candidly, shared an Instagram post with the paper describing her feelings about the texts: “These messages were not unlike the horrible things one might read on Twitter, but to know that these were thoughts espoused by someone so closely associated with me and at my small university, I was in shock by how much it affected me,” she wrote.
The sorority leader told The Occidental that in mid-November she and another Asian sorority member filed a Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation report with the College. They also met with the office of the Dean of Students and the Office of Student Conduct but were told that the text exchange did not meet the threshold for moving forward with a case. A college spokesperson contacted by The Occidental confirmed the student’s account.
The sorority leader told The Occidental that she tried everything to get the college to acknowledge and address the hurt and alarm inherent in the texts – to no avail. So on Jan. 31, 2022, she shared a screenshot of the text exchange with her friends, who distributed it on social media. She also described her frustration in an Instagram quoted by The Occidental: “At every turn we were made to feel like we were overreacting to genocidal language, language that also blamed all Asians for the pandemic. Almost no one would call it ‘racist’, simply an ‘emotionally challenging time’ or a ‘difficult situation’. It made me feel like the level of disruption to my life these messages caused was simply my own personal failing.”
By Feb. 1, news of the text exchange and the College’s response was going viral on campus.
The first communication from the College administration to students about the texts, on Feb. 3, only inflamed the situation. It came from David T. Carreon Bradley, the Vice President for Equity and Justice, who wrote that the texts were offensive and inconsistent with the College’s values, but that the College had no legal recourse — an unfortunate echo of the “case closed” approach adopted by administrators in November. An open letter from the Oxy Law Society, circulated on Feb. 3 and quoted in The Occidental, said the College administration seemed more concerned with protecting a student “who has threatened and denigrated an entire community” than in confronting the danger and disrespect aimed at Asian American and Pacific Islander students, staff and faculty.
Another communication to the campus community on Feb. 3, from President Elam, said he had first learned of the texts the day before. President Elam later told The Occidental that the sender of the texts was no longer enrolled at the college as of Feb. 5, a development that Dean of Students Rob Flott said he believed “will indeed help with the process of moving forward.”
Carreon Bradley later told The Occidental that he, President Elam and other senior staff acknowledged the negative impact of the College’s initial response to the text exchange and that the administration was working to rectify it.
As things stand now, more than 1,000 students, alumni and faculty have been involved in drafting and signing letters, voicing protest and holding meetings that call on College officials to offer a response that lives up to Occidental’s stated values, including respect for and among all students.
The listening session on Monday is one of several steps outlined by Elam to deal with the fallout; other steps reported in The Occidental include the hiring of a Justice Equity Inclusivity & Diversity education specialist, increased anti-racist education for students and plans for more effective official communications.
Since 2020, the Boulevard Sentinel and The Occidental have collaborated in the NELA Neighborhood Reporting Partnership to bring local news to Eagle Rock, Highland Park and other communities of Northeast Los Angeles.