By Shaamar Samuel ’19
Fall, 2016 at Hobart and William Smith. Yik Yak. An anonymous mobile app.
I remember it being a Wednesday or Thursday night in the fall of my very first semester of my freshman year. I was sitting in the second floor common room of Sherill Hall scrolling on my phone and hearing lots of gossiping and loud chattering echoing from down the hall. For Sherill this was not surprising at all.
After ignoring the loud noises and continuing to scroll through my various social media profiles, I decided to check my Yik Yak app. After tapping on the green icon and opening my feed I remember being immediately drawn to the first message on my screen that read “Holy fuck I feel like there’s gonna be a race war on campus and it’s gonna be hilarious.” To this day I am still struggling to comprehend why a race war would be humorous, but that’s not the point of this piece …
After scrolling though the app some more I began seeing posts saying that “black people need to thankful for affirmative action because they would not be here without it” and others alluding to the fact that students of color at HWS should bleach themselves to solve their issues.
As a reminder this was one of my initial understandings of race relations at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. This was the dark energy that was put out into the campus atmosphere just months into my collegiate experience which I envisioned to start off on a more welcoming tone. Later gathering with friends in JPR, we began discussing these disturbing messages on the public app. After about (I kid you not) two minutes of conversation, our anger, sadness, embarrassment, and general feelings of being unwelcome at our own institution, turned into action. We knew that same night that we would have to take things publicly instead of stomping our feet in the confines of Jackson hall.
With the help of many student leaders from all walks of campus life, school administrators, staff, and faculty, a campus-wide protest was swiftly organized for the Friday of that same week outside of Scandling Center. After numerous students walked out of classes on that rainy fall Friday in opposition to the racist remarks being circulated around campus what transpired next was a testament to the genuine character of student activism at HWS. As I approached Scandling the campus was quieter than I believe it has ever been in my four years here. Students silently formed a tight nit arm to arm human link chain and blocked off the entrance to our main student center Scandling. In one of the most humbling, candid, and unprecedented expressions of support I felt not so much welcomed by HWS, but rather I felt a sense of slight hope for my future at the colleges. I knew in that moment that regardless of the immense hatred and racism being spewed out by members of my community that there was active collectivism that was undeniable in that moment.
If I had the support of just a few out of the hundreds of students who braved the rain and cold on that fall Friday morning I knew that much work could and would be done to change our campus community.
As a final semester senior who has about three weeks left in my undergraduate college experience I can now proudly say that my first encounters with race on HWS were not definitive nor completely representative of all race dynamics on campus. While there is endless work to be right here at the colleges to ameliorate the experiences of all students, these moments do not reflect the entire campus body.
What my freshmen year experiences exposed was an inherent responsibility for students like myself, faculty, staff, and our allies to collectively speak up on injustices and issues of great contention not only at HWS but also in a greater world as well. The HWS experience is one that I know is entirely varied for each student and is one that everyone will describe somewhat differently. I am hopeful for the future of the colleges and know that my encounters and sharing of this story will help to inspire more HWS students to actively engage with issues of conflict.