Yik Yak, South Park and Racial Tension Shake Up Colorado College
It’s not uncommon for hundreds of Colorado College students to read or submit posts on Yik Yak during an average weeknight. The app, which allows users to post, or “yak,” anonymous text and picture messages that become visible to anyone with the Yik Yak app within a five-mile radius, is popular among college students looking for distraction from homework or studies. Students use it to post all sorts of things, from jokes or gripes about the school’s administration to gossip about parties around campus.
But on November 9, the posts within Colorado College’s network took on a different character, starting with a statement about how the parents of wealthy white students should buy their kids more soap — intended, perhaps as a joke, to suggest that the outdoorsy white students CC tends to attract are odorous.
It wasn’t long before the racially charged post was followed up by other offensive, race-based statements, all of them anonymous.
“I think that white people are better than all other races, and that’s hard for many students here to accept,” someone wrote.
“White people always want to claim they’re the victim,” another wrote. To which someone replied, “Yeah, but not as much as negroes do.”
By 11 p.m., there were more than fifty posts, and things had gotten out of hand. Native Americans were targeted. Blacks. Whites. Jews.
Filling the screen, someone wrote multiple times:
When word of the Yik Yak comments spread around Colorado College the next day — and later in the papers, after one student was suspended and another expelled, the latter for making reference to a racial joke on South Park — some students were shocked.
Located in Colorado Springs, the school is ranked 25th overall among liberal-arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report and generally portrayed as a progressive community. It’s also an expensive and prestigious place to get into, known for individualized academic counseling and its “block program,” in which students take one class at a time for three and a half weeks, followed by four- or five-day breaks.
But others weren’t surprised at all.
Mohammad Mia is among them. Half Indian and half Pakistani, the college senior says he has encountered racism throughout his tenure at the school, including times he's overheard bigoted comments at parties. The Yik Yak statements were merely documentation of sentiments he’d already come across, although he did see them as an opportunity to create change. “It’s brought this issue to light,” Mia says. “We were now able to say, ‘Now you see.’”
On Nov 16, right after their “block three” break, most of the school’s 2,050 students gathered in CC’s gymnasium for an open forum on race. Mia and a handful of other students helped organize the event to foster discussions about diversity and how CC might better become a respectful and safe campus. This included remarks from student leaders, as well as the school's president, Jill Tiefenthaler, who told students and faculty, “To have any expression of hate show up in our community is too much."
Colorado College is hardly the only school to struggle with Yik Yak. The app is popular on school campuses because there is a critical mass of young users who fit within the app’s geographic boundaries. But since Yik Yak was launched two years ago, its anonymous forums have caused plenty of problems.
It started with middle schools and high schools, where cyberbullying, terror threats, and anonymous taunts against specific students became so rampant that the app creators decided to “geofence” at least 85 percent of those schools, meaning the app is restricted from being accessed by phones within those schools’ physical boundaries.
Yik Yak doesn't geofence at any colleges, however, because most of the students are over eighteen, so racial comments have caused uproars at Yale, Western Washington University, Colgate, and the University of Missouri, among others. A recent episode of the podcast, Reply All, does an excellent job summarizing the ethical controversies of Yik Yak, and colleges’ attempts at damage control:
As a company policy, Yik Yak only reveals the identities of users to authorities when they make a physical or life threat, such as what happened in early November near the University of Missouri when a white student wrote, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.” That situation created national headlines. But Yik Yak has denied requests by colleges to remove racial taunts not containing a physical threat, such as those made at Colorado College.
Now, Mia and others want to use the situation as a way to highlight what they believe is a lack of diversity at Colorado College.
The school actually ranks above average in the racial diversity of its student body, according to the website College Factual, coming in at 767 out of 1,700 US public and private colleges. And over the past ten years, it has significantly increased the number of minority and international students on campus from 16 to 33 percent. Still, according to the school’s admissions office, 66 percent of CC’s student body is white. The faculty is less diverse, with 73 percent of teachers identified as white.
Some students and teachers feel that the lack of diversity – especially among professors — is an important backdrop to the Yik Yak controversy. "The school has barely diversified the faculty," says Justin Haas, a senior education major who is also involved with the Black Student Union.
Heidi Lewis, an assistant professor of Feminist and Gender studies, who also teaches courses in Race, Ethnicity and Migration, is one of them. “This is something I’m always thinking and talking about,” she says.
Although Lewis is quick to point out that the school is making efforts to diversify its faculty, she says she is one of only four black women teaching at CC and that from 2010 until last year, she was the only teacher who was committed full-time to teaching classes on gender, race and ethnicity. “So what does that look like to students?” she asks. “Where’s the support? How do we communicate [to students] that we care about these conversations?"
As for the Yik Yak postings, Lewis – who is currently on sabbatical – says students have called her to say that “they don't feel safe, they don't feel comfortable, and they're disappointed.”
Students, some of whom spoke to Westword on the condition of anonymity, see other divisions that could be causing race problems as well, one of them being the very thing that CC is best known for: its block system, and the breaks that take place in between each one.
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During those breaks, some students say, many of the school’s wealthier white students leave for outdoor climbing, skiing and rafting trips that separate them from minority peers who either aren’t interested in such excursions or can’t afford them. The frequency with which this happens isolates the groups of students from each other multiple times throughout the school year, especially considering that the most popular trips are offered by the school’s Outdoor Recreation Committee and include pricey getaways like the annual “Breck Break” ski trip that takes place at Breckenridge Ski Resort. CC does offer alternative service trips and short excursions to places like Denver, but attendance is lower than that for the ORC’s outdoor offerings.
As a result, many minority students end up staying on campus during block breaks. “This is the only time it seems like CC is a students-of-color place,” Mia points out.
Colorado College spokeswoman Leslie Weddell says the school is working on offering more options to students. “As our student population becomes more diverse, so has our programming. Members of the Student Life staff have been working on free block-break trips, and the director of Outdoor Education and his team have significantly reduced or offered free Outdoor Education trips during block breaks.”
Bethany Grubbs, a Senior Student Life Specialist at CC, confirmed that students have more free and inexpensive block break trip options than ever before, including fun off-campus activities. "In the past few years these trips are starting to match the popularity of outdoors block break trips."
Still, making minority students feel like they’re part of the Colorado College community will require effort, says Jazlyn Andrews, a junior Feminist and Gender Studies major. Andrews says that she had planned to transfer out of CC earlier in her college career because she had trouble fitting in. It wasn’t until she found support in the Black Student Union, which she co-chairs, that she felt at home on campus. Even before the Yik Yak controversy, she says there was a Facebook page called "CC Confessions” that posts anonymous submissions made through the third-party website surveymonkey.com. That page has been sprinkled with racial comments almost since its inception two years ago, and is still live.
"We created that [facebook page] ourselves. We predated Yik Yak, so that's got to tell you something" says Heidi Lewis, the Feminist and Gender studies professor.
On November 20, CC suspended one student, Thaddeus Pryor, and expelled another, Lou Henriques, in connection with the Yik Yak posts.
Pryor says that the school has overreacted and that his own comment on Yik Yak was misconstrued. He discovered that it had become an issue when he saw banners hanging in the Worner Campus Center during the week of Thanksgiving that were designed to look like blown-up screen shots from Yik Yak. A group of independent students had mounted the banners to force students to acknowledge the hurtful statements that some of their peers had made on the app on November 9. One of them was Pryor’s. Underneath another user’s message, “#blackwomenmatter,” Pryor had written, “They matter, they’re just not hot.” The banner also featured other November 9 yaks, including one that said, “Back to the cotton fields.”
Pryor says that the banners made all the posts look like they fit a single narrative or were all written by the same user. He remembers thinking, Oh, my God, I can’t believe mine is being lumped in, and that’s why he mentioned his authorship of his yak to one, maybe a few friends.
As an active participant on Yik Yak, Pryor says he posts or votes on the app all the time. As for his “They matter, they’re just not hot” comment, he says, “I deleted it almost immediately and felt bad.... To see Yik Yak devolve into mudslinging was horrible. I don’t deny [my post] was mean; it was supposed to be a joke in the same vein as the other jokes.”
The school’s administration, however, did not see it that way. On November 19, Pryor was contacted by the dean’s office and informed that an unnamed student had reported him and a fellow Sigma Chi brother, Lou Henriques, as contributors to the November 9 thread.
Pryor says that he admitted to his six-word post, believing it could open a dialogue with offended students. But the school issued a two-year suspension a day later (which has now been reduced — see below). Henriques, who admitted to posting a South Park reference in which one of the show’s fictional characters uses the “N” word to answer a question on Wheel of Fortune, was expelled.
The disciplinary actions initiated heated debates on Yik Yak and online. As before, some of the most contentious opinions are still being posted anonymously, including comments on the CC Confessional Facebook page like:
There have been few racially motivated insults on Yik Yak since November 9, but students don't think Pryor and Henriques were the only ones who made them. Pryor also denies this, and says that the school's disciplinary action against him means that no other students will likely confess for fear of being suspended or expelled themselves.
Weddell said that the school is prohibited from disclosing information about student disciplinary actions by federal privacy laws.
Just before Thanksgiving, Pryor and Henriques lodged appeals, citing failures of the disciplinary process and urging the school to reconsider the actions against them. On Dec 3, CC's Dean of Students Mike Edmonds sent Pryor a response letter saying that his motion for appeal was denied, although he did reduce the length of the student's suspension to conclude on May 16, 2016. Westword was unable to reach Henriques to find out the status of his appeal.
Nevertheless, the fight continues. On Dec 7, a petition was created online that demands that the school accept the students' apologies and reinstate them into the student body. It too has become contentious, with comments piling up online that both agree and disagree with the school's actions. Some of that debate centers around free speech on college campuses, and organizations like FIRE — the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — have petitioned on behalf of Pryor and Henriques because they feel CC's actions were unlawful. Even some teachers on campus are protesting the administration's actions, like Political Science professor David Hendrickson, who said the banishment of the two students was "procedurally unfair and grossly disproportionate to the offense."
“I’m incredibly sorry,” Pryor says about what happened. “I really regret it.”
But assistant professor Lewis has this take: “There are no excuses. They may not know better, but that does not reduce the harm.”
Lewis believes that November’s events have highlighted how students still need to learn that jokes and anonymous comments can create an intolerant community. She doesn’t believe racism is defined by only the most mean and aggressive actions. “It’s not always going to look like Donald Trump.”
CC can move forward only if it helps minority and white students build upon their relationships with each other. Lewis believes this should start with the faculty reaching out to each other more — between races, between departments — and setting a model for the students to look up to.
"I know it sounds so preschool," she laughs. “But this is critical.”
In a way, this is starting to happen. The school’s student government held another race forum on December 6, and the Butler Center — which promotes diversity and inclusion on campus — has been holding regular discussions about race since Thanksgiving, which students say are helpful.
Student Mia acknowledges that, “some white students are feeling policed, like 'If I say something out of ignorance, will I be suspended?" At the same time, however, many white peers have reached out to him to learn more about how small words, jokes or actions can be just as insensitive as larger ones.
Andrews agrees that following the Yik Yak comments, the school has found itself in a moment of reflection. "This could be a positive — it's definitely been a catalyst for conversation," she says.
And even though things may not change before Andrews graduates next year, she hopes current conversations will create the momentum that can lead to changes after her time on campus.
Lewis says that she will be returning from sabbatical early in January to ensure just that. "This all exposes the fact that our particular bubble is not immune. We have work to do."