The display of a Confederate flag on University of Wisconsin-La Crosse property last week is the symptom of a larger problem on campus, according to a panel that spoke Friday to a packed house in Centennial Hall.
The panel — which included six speakers from several university departments — was organized after the display and subsequent removal of the flag from a truck parked on the construction site of the future student center. The display prompted several complaints to the administration, as well as a campus-wide email from Dean of Students Paula Knudson, in which she apologized for the fear it caused.
The Confederate flag’s display and the reaction to it is one example of a larger problem on campus, according to Amanda Goodenough, the assistant director of the campus climate office and leader of the university’s hate and bias response team.
“It symbolizes something much bigger, which is racism and white supremacy,” Goodenough said.
UW-L’s campus is not immune to racism issues, according to political science senior, and person of color, Matthieu LaVigne.
“I know there is a problem. I’m not sure who is most responsible for it,” LaVigne said.
So far this semester, the university has received 84 hate and bias reports regarding 68 incidents. Forty-four of the reports related to race, and 11 of those reports related to seven different displays of the Confederate flag this semester.
“Most of these reports tell stories that support our campus climate survey results. They indicate that students of color are more likely to be bullied, to be intimidated, to be verbally attacked, stereotyped or to experience discrimination on this campus,” Goodenough said.
According to Goodenough, the reports regarding the flag show that students feel unsafe, threatened and unwelcome. She read aloud several examples that show the impact racism has on students of color, including a story of a student who overheard two others using racial slurs while discussing the flag issue, another who was scared the reaction to the flag would expand into rallies supporting its meaning of white supremacy, and a third student who was harassed by the driver of a different truck also sporting the flag.
“As a university, I believe we have a collective responsibility to have all of our students exist free from harassment and discrimination, but to feel safe, to feel welcome, to feel included, to feel valued, to feel like they matter, that their stories count,” Goodenough said.
Suthakaran Veerasamy, a psychology professor who specializes in racial issues, pointed to a disconnect between white people expecting people of color to empathize with the way they view the flag’s symbolism, while not extending any empathy to them.
“I’ve been teaching for almost 12 to 13 years now, right? And what I’ve learned about why it is so difficult to communicate these topics with white people is you do not engage emotionally to this topic, you see? It becomes a mental, intellectual exercise,” Veerasamy said.
Veerasamy asked white students and administrators to engage with empathy and have the humility to admit what they don’t know.
Goodenough stressed the importance of not dismissing students’ feelings of fear and anxiety as overreactions.
“Those very attitudes, those words, they confirm the existence of what so many of us as people of color are trying to say. We don’t feel seen, we don’t feel heard, we don’t matter,” Goodenough said.
Goodenough quoted impact reports that discussed how anxious and unsafe the flag has made students feel in several of its appearances and urged the audience to take these students’ concerns seriously.
“There’s an important difference between words and symbols and actions that can make someone uncomfortable compared to words and actions and symbols that can instill fear,” Goodenough said.
She echoed Veerasamy’s request for respect and empathy in light of the negative emotions caused by the symbol.
“Once you know that, know any of this, why would you choose to display it?” Goodenough asked.
LaVigne and fellow senior Daniel Traverzo agreed it was clear the university is working to make everyone feel welcome.
As resident advisers, they work for Residence Life, which “is easily one of the most inclusive areas of campus,” Traverzo said.
“Everyone or mostly everyone is trying to be very active about it, which is very nice, but we know it’s not the reality of everywhere on campus,” Traverzo said.
“I know there is a problem. I’m not sure who is most responsible for it.” Matthieu LaVigne, political science senior