What you saw: A white man harassing a group of black students while shouting “White people built the modern world!” As his shrill voice fills your ears, you are surprised that racism exists on your beloved college campus. You discuss it over a meal with friends the next day, but as you focus on finals, the events in the video are quickly forgotten.
What you didn’t see: The night before, black students dressed in gowns and suits continued the community tradition at Kwanza Ball. The most black students I’ve ever seen at Columbia came together to celebrate a cultural tradition, and it filled me with joy and a sense of belonging. Lively performances from the African diaspora bridged the gap that separates us and filled us with a rare sense of belonging. It felt like—despite the lack of black representation in the Core Curriculum, teaching staff, and in the commemorated history of Columbia's institution—we did have a space here. A space where we no longer have to fight to be heard, to be accepted, to be seen, and to be affirmed. A space where our voices and experiences matter.
That feeling didn't last long.
What lies underneath: The trauma that lingers. After the video fades, when the conversation dies down, when this becomes another incident forgotten in the public memory, trauma lingers. The memories that survive, the anxiety that prevails, and the insecurities that endure haunt me.
Navigating life right after the video went viral has been exhausting. There are endless ways that dealing with Columbia and news reports have continued to burden me. The choices made during and after the event have changed the lives of everyone involved. From capturing some of the video to talking to the media, and even to reporting, all of these steps have come with taxing challenges.
Recording the video of Julian von Abele was a necessary, yet intrinsically flawed method. Video evidence was the only way the University would take the case seriously; without it, this event would have been lost in daily chatter about “another crazy night.” My account alone was not enough to ensure that appropriate measures were taken. When the video went viral, it ensured that Columbia would acknowledge not only this specific event but racism on campus at-large. Usually, events like this make their way slowly up the ladder and rarely grasp the attention of the whole community. However, the virality of the video forced me to relive the traumatic memories associated with the event every time it was played.
The media attention the video gained put Columbia on a national platform to act and assure that this issue would not be swept under the rug. Nevertheless, due to media attention, victims are burdened with defending their stories from scrutiny and also have to deal with news outlets trying to force a tragic moment to fit a political narrative. This political narrative ignores the long-standing history of hate crimes on college campuses. Questions about how the “Trump-era” is the source of this issue were especially tiring, as they ignored the endless cases of discrimination on college campuses around the country that predated the 2016 election. Being harassed is not a partisan issue. As final exams commenced, I had to navigate Columbia’s long process of reporting this harassment. While studying for finals, which is already a stressful time, I had to speak to various media outlets to ensure the narrative wasn’t misconstrued, advocate for myself for proper accommodations, and find time to heal and move on.
But I am not alone. I have an army of compassionate peers that hold me up. Yasna and Tyrese listen to me for hours on end unpacking this emotional load. Deja, Peg, and Travis offer invaluable guidance as I find my way. Valeria, Elina, Nelson, and Juan offer shoulders to cry on. Nisa and Karla reach out to give support, and countless others offer words of encouragement, understanding, and empowerment in any way they can. However, the gap in access to resources such as psychological services, academic accommodations, and understanding of the reporting process is obvious; as much as my friends want to help, they lack the institutional tools to do so. This bitter reality became even more clear in the following months.
As conversation among my peers grew, I realized the shared personal trauma of many students in the Columbia community. The stories of my peers rarely make it to anyone’s front desk for a variety of reasons: the lack of clarity between free speech and acts of discrimination, the rarely discussed option of reporting, the time-consuming process of investigations, and the lack of support systems for victims. Unfortunately, this is not just a Columbia problem. There has been a 258 percent increase of white supremacist propaganda and a 25 percent increase in hate crimes on college campuses in the last few years. This is an issue that students across the country are facing. It infuriates me how many stories are left untold.
Amid my despair, my peers were a light of hope. This realization leads me on a mission to inform my peers so they continue to support each other. From the minds of Nisa Rashid, CC ’22; Valeria Escobar, CC ’22; Elina Arbo, CC ’22; and myself, “No Space for Hate” was born. No Space for Hate is an initiative based on peer support that seeks to empower victims of harassment, assault, intimidation, and discrimination. Even though the harassment I experienced was based on racism and white supremacy, many students face similar issues because of their gender identity, sexuality, disability, ethnicity, and religious background. With No Space for Hate, students can encourage one another as they work through their trauma and are given resources to address these issues. Students are directed to various resources such as psychological services and community support groups, a comprehensive explanation for how to file reports, and support if they choose to pursue an investigation.
No Space for Hate also pursues campus policies with a peer support advising board to expand resources for victims and create stronger anti-discrimination policies. I hope to one day see No Space for Hate beyond Columbia’s campus, an active force across the nation’s college campuses advocating for the diverse needs of students when fighting discrimination.
To fellow survivors*, I am sorry this happened to us; we all deserve a space of joy, safety, and empowerment. With the chaos that ensues during school, our personal lives, and dealing with this trauma together, I wish there was an easy way to heal our many scars. I am sorry that Columbia has failed us. However, I can’t help but smile as I see you guys continue to be confident in your blackness: organizing around our beautiful history, delivering powerful speeches, writing poetry, dancing away the pain, cutting it up in JJ’s Place, and just being ourselves. In the words of Tommie Smith, this space “is already paid for.”
May we always remember those who have fought for our right to take up space. May we continue this fight for spaces of joy, innovation, and knowledge, and allow no space for hate.
*I do not speak for all victims, nor do I speak for all their experiences. All the witnesses have done amazing work to uplift black voices and fighting anti-blackness on campus. As they continue their work, I hope that their work continues to be recognized.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The author is a first-year at Columbia College balancing studying history, advocating for a discrimination-free campus, working in international relations, and trying to get enough sleep. You can follow her on Instagram @kwolanne, and shoot her an email on ways to get involved with No Space for Hate or participate in the peer support advising board at email@example.com. No Space for Hate is currently compiling resources from various offices into a guidebook to inform students on their rights to a safe and inclusive environment. The organization asks for support from affinity groups as it advocates for intersectional resources to address the complexities of discrimination. Please fill out this survey on discrimination on college campuses. If you would like to attend our meetings or participate in the peer support advising board please email me as well.