Trembling bodies. Quivering lips. Tear-stained cheeks. This is what racism looks like, and it is here at Iowa State.
As I sat with my white skin, blue eyes and blond hair, I knew that I could not honestly say I understood how it feels to be a minority group living in the United States. I knew I could not tell the 12 Asian-American students sitting around me I understood how it feels to hear a racial slur directed at me or my ethnicity.
But as I sat Monday afternoon listening to fellow students’ stories, I felt it — their pain, their anger, their sadness. Most importantly, I felt their passion to right the wrongs done to them and every other person ever victimized by racism. I began to understand.
Monday’s meeting was composed of 12 Asian-American students, one Caucasian student and one African-American student. The students were joined by the Iowa State Daily’s Editor-in-Chief Jake Lovett, the Daily’s editorial adviser Mark Witherspoon, Vice President of Student Affairs Tom Hill and myself.
The students came forward to express their disappointment in the Daily for publishing two "Just Sayin" comments referring to a “squintey” in last Tuesday’s paper. The uproar over the publication of the comments has ignited discussions on racism at Iowa State and has caused the Daily to stop publishing "Just Sayin" comments.
The two "Just Sayin" comments in question, like all other comments, were submitted by the public and chosen by employees in the Daily’s advertising department. The employees said they thought the two mentions of “squintey” referred to ground squirrels.
“Squinny” is what some people in Des Moines and nearby areas call ground squirrels, according to "Western Folklore," a book by Gary N. Underwood.
However, many in the ISU community said the term “squintey” can have a much more sinister meaning — one that demonstrates and could possibly reinforce racism against Asians and Asian-Americans.
“We are expressing our opinion now because this is affecting us,” said Ruth Yang, open-option junior. “This kind of racism and ignorance will build up.”
Ruth’s sister Minah Yang, senior in finance, said she did not want to believe that someone in the ISU community could write something so racially insensitive and how the Daily could publish those comments.
“Even if you were talking about a ground squirrel, why would you publish it?” Minah asked. “If you could see that it could offend someone, then the Daily shouldn’t publish the comments.”
Minah described how she grew up hating herself because she was not white. She said she used to laugh along when other children made jokes about Asians or Asian-Americans. However, she said she is done being passive about racism.
“We need to think about the future. I don’t want [future generations] to have to deal with this stuff,” Minah said. “Even though this is hard and there may be backlash from the community, I know that doing this is a step further in improving the environment and the community for the future.”
Ruth added that after two years at Iowa State, she still does not feel like she belongs. With water glistening in her eyes, she said she tries to ignore racism, but it still makes her question her abilities.
“It makes me doubt myself — like I can’t make it here,” Ruth said. “I’m just trying to make Iowa State my adventure.”
Ruth and Minah’s cousin, Elizabeth Yang, sophomore in pre-business, said she has told teachers about racism but they did not do anything about it.
“They boost up our excitement, and then say 'no,’” Elizabeth said. “You can say things, but are you really going to do it? I believe it when I see it in my hands — see it with my own eyes.”
Chelsea Ruede, senior in anthropology, is a Caucasian student from New York City. She explained how she came to Iowa State because she thought the state of Iowa was progressive due to the fact that it was the first state to allow interracial marriages. However, she said her opinion has changed.
“After four years, I would not recommend Iowa State to Caucasian students or any other students,” Ruede said. “What you see here is the butt of America. It’s like you’re walking back 40 years.”
Ruede said she has seen the Asian-American student population at Iowa State double since she came to the university. However, she said Iowa State has done nothing to adapt to that change. She also alluded to the fact that the Iowa Board of Regents elected another Caucasian president as the president of Iowa State.
At that point, Hill, who said at the beginning of the meeting that he was just there to listen, broke his silence. He said students should not assume that President Steven Leath and other administrators do not care about multicultural students and racism.
“We do not condone this kind of behavior,” Hill said in regard to the "Just Sayin" comments. “What happened is not acceptable.”
Hill went on to say that students should not hesitate to contact him when they have problems, with racism or anything else. He said ISU faculty and staff members are in their positions to help students or to direct them to someone who can help them.
“[Racism] should not be a part of this educational experience,” Hill said. “Don’t think you are supposed to be going through this to make you tough.”
Several students at the meeting brought up the Facebook page “Iowa State University Memes.” The page features several racist memes, or satirical images with text, that are directed toward Iowa State’s Asian and Asian-American community.
Hill said he and other administrators are trying to shut down the page because not only is it a violation of Iowa State’s trademark but it is also providing people a “platform to be a coward” and to be racist.
“This is an issue we have to deal with,” Hill said about shutting down the page. “I’m not going to be satisfied until it’s done.”
Elizabeth spoke on behalf of the other students in the room when she listed the four things she hopes to occur to decrease and ultimately end racism at Iowa State.
First, she said Iowa State and the Daily need to operate in accordance to their mission statements, which both relate to empowering and educating the ISU community on racial issues and diversity. Second, she said the Daily should start publishing a multicultural column. Third, she said she wants ISU community members to stop stereotyping others.
“If we can stop it at Iowa State, it will continue to bigger communities,” Elizabeth said. “It can happen — just everyone has to be on board.”
The final change Elizabeth said she wanted was for students to not be afraid to express their voices.
“Each of these things go hand-in-hand,” Minah said. “Hopefully, the end result is we’ll have a really good community to live in and will not have a problem saying, ‘Go to Iowa State.’”