Updated: Mar 2, 2021
A racist Furnald whiteboard incident leads to frustration and stagnation.
By Eliza Rudalevige
Since early November, an Instagram post detailing an incident in Furnald Hall has been circulating and drawing due commentary. The post—actually a “repost” from another student’s Snapchat story—exposes a disturbing narrative. A student resident entered the fifth floor lounge of Furnald to find a list, written on the communal whiteboard, of what appeared to be “desirable” traits in men.
The third column read:
“at least 5’10
any TYPE OF MELANIN
fuckbois (but lazy)
The student body’s general attitude toward the situation can be summed up pretty well with a statement by the original poster: “This is gross.” Not only does the list include “racist and hypermasculine stereotypes”—a detail pointed out by the poster in their caption—it singles out black students in the very environment that is supposed to foster community. Carl Tchagou, CC ‘23, a resident of Furnald 6, had some choice words about the act. “It’s messed up, attributing all those things to a black man, specifically. It’s just plainly racist,” he said in an interview, adding that it made him “question a lot of things about the decency of the students here at Columbia.” A Twitter thread by another first-year student expressed concern about the fetishization of black men, as well as the lack of action by the Columbia administration, rallying others to email Undergraduate Student Life.
The Office of Multicultural Affairs, a branch of Undergraduate Student Life, has resources available to students who witness this kind of behavior in the future and want to do something about it. The Multicultural Affairs webpage presents the option of filing a CC/SEAS-specific bias report; this is available to both bystanders and those directly involved and can be filed anonymously. After a report is filed, outreach comes directly from the Bias Response Team or the Dean herself to the impacted individuals or communities. A more detailed description of this process and the specific services offered is available on the website for Undergraduate Student Life.
This is not the only way in which concerned students can reach out. Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs Melinda Aquino noted that if an individual “want(s) one-on-one support or [has]a connection to a staff member who they feel comfortable with, whether it be their advising dean, coming directly to Multicultural Affairs, going to their RA–we’re all connected to then be able to input it into the system that the online form is also a part of, to both storehouse all of the information and disseminate it to the appropriate folks.” Students can also email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org with any concerns. An additional piece of advice from CCSC Representative Annie Tan (CC’23): “Attend a policy meeting! Attend council!”
The administration has become involved in the Furnald incident. In an interview, Dean Aquino said that the Office of Multicultural Affairs is aware of the problem and taking steps to address it. She and her team were made aware of the incident by way of direct report from Residential Life staff along with student responses, and have since met with CCSC Gender and Sexuality representative Kwolanne Felix to discuss what these steps could entail.
In the general body meeting of CCSC on November 10th, which took place before Felix met with Dean Aquino, Felix said that, although “the punitive process probably won’t work out,” she was thinking about “looking at an education process, a conversation around fetishization, on preferences and privilege.” At the next general body meeting, on November 17, after having met with the dean, she hinted that this education process might involve collaborating with Multicultural Affairs on “events with different clubs that have really diverse constituencies,” such as roundtable and panel discussions. Dean Aquino was unable to offer specifics on outreach following the Furnald incident, but she did list the types of programming response that have been done in the past and that may be extended in the future: awareness of bias reporting in Club ReFuel (mandatory training for all recognized student organization leaders), educational poster campaigns, and, “if it’s a large impact and people need a place to be in community with each other and process what they’re feeling, creating a space for that.”
The promises and the frameworks are there, but the efficacy and implementation of these resources have been called into question by students over the years. This is not an isolated occurrence of anti-black behavior in Columbia’s residence halls, although Furnald has managed to keep its nose relatively clean in the past. Last December, a resident of Carman Hall came home to find an air-conditioning vent torn off the wall, emblazoned with an anti-black slur, and placed outside their door. Published reports of this incident describe the administration’s response—or lack thereof. An email from Carman Residence Hall Director Janae Buege-McClain was sent out several weeks after the incident took place, promising that programming addressing the need for outreach was in the works. The email only ever reached the inboxes of Carman students.
In a concerning parallel, Tchagou confirmed that he has not received any correspondence from a resident advisor or the Furnald residence hall director regarding the list as of the time of publication. The issue here seems to be in acknowledging specific events within the context of anti-blackness on campus, as the frequent generalization of the subject allows unaffected students to think “that doesn’t happen here,” despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
In reference to Alexander McNab’s mistreatment by security on Barnard grounds in April, CCSC Class of 2023 Vice President Justin Rossman recounted his familiarity with anti-blackness at Columbia even before living on campus himself: “I remember coming on campus, and upperclassmen telling me, “This is not new. This is not something that’s just out of the blue. It’s being recognized because it’s in the Post and The New York Times, but it’s not something that’s new.” So, yes, I’m disappointed; yes, I’m frustrated; but I’m not surprised.”
Hopefully, administrative intervention will yield more satisfactory results this time around. Representative Felix also expressed her conclusion that “the protocol (is) much better than last time,” and that she “definitely saw improvement there” during the general body meeting on November 17th. It is unclear what “last time” she is referring to, but the conversation alluded to the incident involving Alexander McNab, previously referenced by Rossman. The new online bias reporting mechanism specifically for Columbia College and SEAS students is based on feedback from undergraduate students demonstrating a need for a more recognizable, targeted, and immediate system of reporting, although the Bias Response Team itself was implemented in 2007. As to the original system, Dean Aquino clarified that there has always been a university-wide mechanism through the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action that can still be used by both undergradute and graduate students to report discrimination as well as gender-based misconduct.
Although it is unlikely that the writers of the list will be held accountable by way of punitive action, Dean Aquino and the Office of Multicultural Affairs are focused on an outreach approach. Aquino is quick to emphasize that their work is “principled in restorative justice” and that “it’s not a punitive system, so we’re not one that is a disciplinary entity, but really centering community and support.” It is possible for a Bias Report outcome to include individual punitive action, but not directly through the Office of Multicultural Affairs; if the reported incident violates any University policy, it is looped to and handled by Student Conduct and Community Standards.
With discussion of the incident largely confined to the sphere of social media and educational programming arising from it only in the planning stages, awareness of the problem has quickly slipped away. Tchagou says that it was student engagement on Snapchat and Instagram that made him take notice of the list in the first place, but that, even inside of Furnald, “it pretty much died down after a week.” 2023 VP Rossman asserted that “performative activism is a very big thing on this campus.”
“While social media is effective in creating change, I think that [it] needs to be met with direct action. These people will post online and they’ll post a petition, but not sign the petition, or post about a protest and then not go to the protest. It’s hiding behind a screen in a way, and just saying, “I’m going to post this and show my solidarity,” but that’s not what solidarity means. It’s not just a post, it’s actually caring about the people that are affected by things that are happening in our communities,” said Rossman.
Agreeing with her VP, CCSC Class of 2023 President Elle Harris asked posters to consider two questions: “Are you just doing it so people have a certain view of you, so they can view you as an activist? Or are you doing it because you’re actually passionate about this cause and actually want to see a difference being made?” Social media is an effective platform for raising awareness of individual problems such as these, but there are limits to what it can achieve by itself. A handful of pixels are not capable of enacting policy change, but perhaps students are.