Bethany Bass drives a beat-up 2008 Kia Sorento. She likes to listen to rap music, and because she is a junior at Southern Methodist University, she often winds her Sorento through the tony, tree-lined neighborhoods in and around University Park. When she started her studies at SMU, she says she was often tailed by the university’s police department. The cops never pulled her over, she explains, but they became a near-constant part of her commutes to, from and around campus.
“It was reinforcement that I’m not allowed on campus,” she says. “Because I’m black and I drive a beat-up car, I’m not supposed to be here.”
Bass got an idea. By sticking first an SMU sticker and then her Greek letters on her car, she figured she could signal cops to the fact that she did, indeed, belong here. It worked. The tailing stopped; the micro-aggressions did not. Like many other black SMU students or former students interviewed for this story, Bass recently took to Twitter to share what it is like to be black at Dallas’ arguably poshest university. The students’ stories range from being ostracized to casual racial slurs to overt hatred, including one instance in which an anonymous sorority member used the platform Greekrank.com to explain why they do not like to admit black women into their group.
For the second time in five years, the #BlackatSMU calls are decrying a culture of racism and demanding changes throughout campus. Some students hope change finally happens at SMU, and the Association of Black Students is meeting with the university’s president, but some students aren’t holding their breath.
“SMU was founded on placating white feelings in and around Dallas,” says Mariah White, a former SMU student. “Just look at the campus. The entire thing is literally so white and bright.”
It started with a party. In late 2015, two fraternities advertised an event that called upon students to, “Bring out your bling, jerseys, and inner thug.” An invite for the party sported a picture of the rapper Kolley, a black man, biting down on a chain. His sunglasses reflected a woman flashing wads of cash. The fraternities throwing this party were, like SMU, overwhelmingly white.
That same semester, the app Yik Yak (think Twitter, but anonymous) was aflame with vile messages for black students, including one that read, “You don’t struggle, you just whine and complain to get more free shit from everyone else like every other black welfare queen” and another that read “Maybe black people should stop doing things to get killed by law enforcement.”
This was Mariah White’s first semester at SMU. She chose the university because it was where her mother earned an MBA. Plus, it was close, and they have an environmental sciences program. She quickly discovered it was not the best place to be for a student of color.
“If I had been even an ounce aware of how that part of Dallas thought of black people, I never would have gone to SMU,” she says. “It’s a terrible place to get in touch with your blackness.”
After the “thug” party and the hailstorm of Yik Yak hatred, students started sharing their #BlackatSMU experiences on Twitter. Some of the stories were overtly racist, such as the aforementioned Greek group detailing why they don’t like Black women. Many of the other tweets focused on micro-aggressions, which were demonstrative of what students deemed a culture of racism. It wasn’t just SMU, either. That same fall, black students called for change everywhere from Stanford to the University of Missouri. While the #BlackatSMU movement began on Twitter, it soon escalated to on-campus rallies and a list of demands for SMU President R. Gerald Turner.
The demands included mandatory sensitivity training for all students, faculty and staff on campus, the hiring of a chief officer of diversity and inclusion, and the increase of black student enrollment to 10 percent of the student population. An SMU representative shared that the university responded to the demands by, in part, implementing a diversity training program called cultural intelligence, or “CIQ@SMU.”
“CIQ@SMU provides resources, skills and knowledge to help the campus community more effectively and authentically communicate and collaborate from various cultural backgrounds,” the representative shared via email.
Vast swaths of the SMU population are required to undergo this diversity training, including all first year undergraduate students and all incoming tenure track and adjunct faculty. Furthermore, voluntary implicit bias training is offered monthly to everyone on campus, and SMU police officers are regularly trained in areas like cultural diversity, bias, de-escalation and ethics.
Many students, including White, were unhappy with these changes.
“I don’t think it was enough,” White says. “I think they were just trying to save face.”
The better response, White says, would be to commit to anti-racism, the active process of pinpointing and destroying the racist practices and structures in place throughout our society.
“But they won’t do that,” White says, “because it would be bad for business.”
In the past, SMU has received millions of dollars in donations from the Koch Brothers, the same duo who paid untold sums of cash to thwart progress on climate change and help a racist, sexist alleged rapist get elected President of the United States.
And there remains the problem of representation on campus. The latest data show the percentage of ethnic minority students rose from 26 percent in 2015 to 29 percent in 2019. A university representative pointed out that the enrollment of students who identify with “two or more races” rose from 41 in 2010 to 270 in 2020, but SMU remains far from meeting the 10 percent demand outlined by #BlackatSMU activists in 2015. In fact, the percentage of black students fell from 4.6 percent in 2015 to 4.4 percent in 2019. But it’s not just students. Bass believes the university should hire more black professors and black admission counselors.
“If SMU wants to reflect the diversity of Dallas, they need to reflect that diversity in every part of campus,” she says.
Bass says she shared her story of police harassment when she saw other black students sharing their trials on Twitter. In an interview, she elaborated on how she often felt out of place on campus.
“Micro-aggressions are a part of everyday life,” she says. “We were reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in one of my classes, and no one wanted to talk about its portrayal of racism. The professor didn’t even address it. There’s a culture on campus where the white narrative is the right narrative."
In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, junior Abena Marfo, president of the African Student Association, shared a similar experience.
“We’re still feeling uncomfortable in nearly every single class and like an outsider in our own school because there’s been no progress,” she said. “I’m literally the only black person in my classes and get all these micro-aggressions — sly comments on my hair or the way I dress.”
When asked what she hopes changes on campus, Bass pointed to the recent demands issued by the university’s Association of Black Students. The group wants, among other things, a new scholarship fund for current and incoming black students, an increase in black mental health professionals, and an increase in black student enrollment. In a letter that accompanies these demands, the association and five other groups wrote, “The University had the opportunity to facilitate change in 1969 and again in 2015; however, we do not intend to miss our chance in 2020.”
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President Turner met with some members of the association to discuss these demands, and in a tweet, the group said the president was “agreeable and cooperative.” Turner’s statement on the meeting reads, in part, “Words are not enough. It is one thing to know the right thing to do; it is another to do it. I am encouraged that through our conversations this week and our commitment to action, SMU is poised to become a better place for all of us.”
The letter also says he will share “an action plan with timelines” in September.
Bass is optimistic, but at the same time, she’s trying not to get her hopes up.
“I’m encouraged by President Turner’s response, but it’s also scary because now is a time when a lot of people are engaging in performative activism,” she says. “They’re talking about these things because they’re trendy to talk about them. I’m afraid that when we go back to campus, these discussions won’t be happening anymore.”