Imagine Rini Sampath, who immigrated to Arizona from her native India when she was 6.
It wasn’t easy growing up there in the desert.
But she thought she had overcome the worst when she made it to the University of Southern California. So successful, so assimilated in her world, she ran last winter for student body president.
And she won—the first woman to be elected to the post in more than a decade.
She felt totally at home, until last weekend.
As she walked home after a football game where USC had lost to Stanford, she passed by a frat house and lost something more—her racial innocence.
Someone threw a drink at her and yelled out the phrase, “You Indian piece of s—.”
“There’s an indescribable hollowness in me, but I’m going public with this because this can’t continue,” Sampath, 21, wrote on Facebook the following morning.
According to Sampath’s post, once the person’s friends saw it was her, Sampath said, they apologized.
But it’s not enough for Sampath.
“Some people don’t believe racism like this can happen on our campus,” she wrote on Facebook. “Some people continue to doubt the need for safe spaces and the need for expanded cultural resource centers or the need for gender neutral bathrooms or the need for diversity in our curriculum or the need for diversity in our professors or the need for diversity in dialogue. And to those who continue to believe we’re just playing the ‘race’ card, I ask you this — what’s there to win here? A sense of respect? A sense of humanity? A sense of love and compassion for others regardless of how they look like?”
In The Washington Post, Varun Soni, USC’s Dean of Religious Life, confirmed the university had a zero-tolerance policy of the behavior Sampath witnessed and encouraged her to file a complaint on campus.
USC soon after issued a letter to the entire USC campus community:
“We are writing to you in response to a recent disturbing case of intolerance. Our community shared strong reactions of sadness, anger and dismay as racist conduct by a student brought shame to all of USC.
“This incident does not reflect or represent who we are. The USC Trojan Family is proud of our exceptional diversity and our commitment to forming a global community … Inherent in the commitment to a universal campus is the understanding and expectation that all members of our community feel included, respected, and safe.
“Far more reflective of our university is the strong outpouring of support for our Undergraduate Student Government President and the widespread revulsion at the derogatory attack on her identity. We must confront hateful speech by condemning it as a united community. But such a reaction is only possible when students speak up.”
And that is probably the most important thing in the letter: Providing a way for students to report.
Too many times, people shake it off, and say nothing. And then the racism goes deeper, hidden, and, in the racist mind, acceptable. And the racists feel they’ve done nothing wrong.
But the victims are left to internalize the incident.
Sampath used Facebook the next day. She still feels haunted by the taunt, and the apology from the fraternity member’s brothers failed to make things better.
“I couldn’t quite figure out why their after-the-fact apologies deepened the wound. But one of my friends explained it to me the best this morning: ‘Because now you know, the first thing they see you as is subhuman.’ And that’s the first thing some students on our campus see when they look at anyone who looks like me,” she wrote on Facebook.
Other schools can learn from the example.
Would your school shrug it off as insignificant? A joke?
Or does zero-tolerance really mean zero-tolerance and that racist remarks directed at an individual will be punished?
Like gun and bomb remarks at the airport TSA, these aren’t innocent witty remarks. Nor is it political correctness against artists and creative types. We’re not talking about that when we refer to a fratboy incident throwing a beer at Sampath.
Calling those incidents out vigorously is the only way we’re going to keep racism from becoming unconscious factors in policy and institutions. That’s what happens when these small examples of racism accumulate and take hold and then become comfortable and acceptable attitudes in society.
Emil Guillermo won the 2015 Ahn Award for Social Justice and Civil Rights journalism from the Asian American Journalists Association. His column runs on the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund blog. He writes from Northern California.
www.amok.com, www.twitter.com/emilamok, www.fb.com/emilguillermomedia