Over the past month, the College has become aware of racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and transphobic statements perpetrated by users of the anonymous social media application Yik Yak.
Like an anonymous, localized Twitter, Yik Yak allows users to upload text that can be seen by any user within a five-mile radius. The content of the yaks targeted certain student communities on campus, causing the College’s administration to launch an investigation into the identities of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, this is not the first time a Yik Yak scandal of this magnitude erupted at the College.
In the spring of 2015, which was President David Greene’s inaugural year at the College, yaks with bigoted messaging were spread around campus, comparable to those circulating campus now. President Greene commented on his experience with the 2015 bigotry and how it was addressed.
“It was awful, those posts. And we actually brought the community together… and several hundred people gathered outside of Cotter Union in the Spring and I spoke about these issues and some others did as well… I just found that [the yaks] really just had no place here,” said Greene.
Since the original creators of Yik Yak wouldn’t share the posters’ identities, the College was unable to identify the perpetrators. In 2017, Yik Yak was shut down due to similar issues of racism and cyberbullying on college campuses all over the country. With the platform gone, the College community likely expected the incident to fade into history.
When Yik Yak re-emerged in 2021 under different ownership, it was immediately downloaded by many students on the College’s campus.
In the beginning, it was filled with witty remarks about various aspects of life at the College. Over the past couple of months, the yaks devolved into hateful remarks targeting minority groups and adopting the derogatory phrase “Pugh kids” to refer to the students of color on campus.
On Nov. 18, Greene was notified of these posts and sent out an email to the College community to address the threats.
“I was furious to see the posts. And I stopped the car I was in, wrote that email on my phone, and asked Regina to send it to the community because… it’s just such an affront to who we are and what we care about… and it was just outrageous,” said Greene. “I was blown away by how awful they were.”
Greene stated that he would do everything in his power to remove the students responsible for the hate speech from the College community.
“Let me also be clear that if you are the author of these posts, you should take leave of this campus now and not return. There is no place for you here, and your bigotry and targeted hate are an assault on this entire community,” Greene wrote in his email.
This instance of hate speech was, unfortunately, not an isolated incident at the College. Over the years, there have been other posts to anonymous forums, swastikas scribbled onto walls in the dorms, and student–thrown events offensively parodying Black culture. However, the tone of Greene’s email on Nov. 18 was charged with more anger than previous emails addressing bigotry on campus, leading many students to wonder what was different about this particular incident.
“It’s a combination of things. One was there were direct threats in my view. There was also what I’ll call some targeted hatred and bigotry in a way that was both targeted to individuals and to groups… And I think for me, watching this semester and seeing some behavior that has been pretty appalling… it’s just too much, it’s like enough. I feel like you’ve got to be completely direct,” Greene said.
The history of hate speech and microaggressions on this campus has had a drastic impact on the mental health of students of color and marginalized communities. Assitan Thiero `24, the President of the College’s Womxn of Color Alliance (WOCA), spoke about her experiences of racist remarks on campus.
“A lot of the forms of bigotry… have really been microaggressions in the classroom. Each has faced different types of microaggressions while at Colby, like if you’re a POC I’m pretty sure you’ve gone through some situation, whether it’s the teacher doing it, like saying the N-word in class or something like that,” Thiero said. “Or just as small as being in a group and trying to do group work and being ignored. Those types of microaggressions have been really affecting people.”
This collection of posts has only been layered onto the bigotry already faced by marginalized communities on campus. Associate Dean and Director of the Pugh Center for Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Kimberly Walton–Trajkovski commented on conversations she recently had with groups of students about the offensive yaks.
“One group of students… their feeling is such that this happens, this has happened before and nothing is being done so… it’s just par for the course. That’s their reality, so I respect that, but it’s just… unfortunate that we have become basically sensitized to this is just the way it is because it shouldn’t be that…” Walton–Trajkovski said.
“The good piece of that, though, is that they find support in each other, and they show that support for each other… It seems like they feel like they are the only support that they have. I’ve seen the other side where students are really upset. They’re fearful because they’re saying, ‘I don’t know who’s posting this, it could be somebody that’s in a class with me, that sits right next to me.’ So they’re fearful, they’re upset, pissed off, because they’re hurt too.”
Thiero also commented on how she has seen the posts affect the people around her.
“A lot of the people that I know are just trying to go about their day and trying not to get it like not to let it get to them because like if you sit there and ruminate about the whole situation and think about… what can I do as a student and there’s not much,” Thiero stated.
Walton–Trajkovski and other administrators at the Pugh Center held processing groups over the past month to help students process together instead of ruminating alone. One of the main sentiments of the yaks Walton–Trajkovski recalled was the sentiment that students in the Pugh center “should not be here.”
“A lot of what came out of that was… hurt, you know that ‘I wanna be here, but people are basically saying I should not be here.’ And to carry that around, especially when people have worked so hard to get here…” Walton–Trajkovski stated. “These students are here because they are bright, they are amazing, they are very creative, and they deserve to be here as part of the Colby community… it’s tough, it’s stressful. You’re adding stress to students that are already stressed.”
Other clubs in the Pugh center have also been holding activities for students to spend time with their communities away from the stresses of the rest of campus.
“We’re like we’re not doing events that directly relate to the Yik Yaks, we’re just trying to do, at least for WOCA, like relaxation and calming sessions. Last week we did a paint and sip, and we had a good turnout. We’re just trying to get people’s minds off of what’s going on outside of the pew and all the stuff that people are saying about you kids,” Thiero said.
On the weekend of Dec. 3, students Thu Nguyen `25 and Alexis Wilkerson `26 put up posters around campus that depicted some of the worst yaks in pieces of protest art. This protest, which they called “Art Against Hate,” was meant to respond to the hate speech and provide students with clubs and organizations that have been deemed safe spaces as well as a list of faculty and staff available to provide support.
All of this information was posted on a website Nguyen and Wilkerson created and linked on their posters via QR code. Unfortunately, less than a day after these posters were put up, many of them were taken down, ripped to shreds, and discarded in the trash. Although the posters were up for only a short time, they incited conversations amongst the student body which ensured that even though the posters themselves were short-lived, the content and the meaning behind the art would continue to be passed along.
On Dec. 5, Greene sent out another email to the College community with updates on the Yik Yak investigation. While Yik Yak was able to identify the students responsible for the posts and suspend their accounts, they exercised their right as a private organization to withhold the identities of the students from the College.
The College administration has “requested and [is] working to secure a law enforcement subpoena to compel the release of that information,” as Greene wrote in his email.
Greene continues to insist that the Administration will do everything it can to identify the culprits and remove them from the community. But when it comes to addressing the root causes of these discriminatory sentiments, Greene and the rest of the College’s administration are having more difficulty finding the right tactic.
“I think it’s important that people be held accountable when they do things, but I think we also just have a broader issue that’s not just on this campus but in the world. The permission for people to be anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, transphobic, we could go through the whole list, Islamophobic, right now is extraordinary,” Greene said.
But the increase in bigotry and discrimination in America does not have to be an indicator for the culture of the College’s campus. More steps need to be taken to create and enforce community values despite the diverse backgrounds of the students. When it comes to remodeling people’s beliefs, Greene believes implementing a restorative justice approach could be helpful.
“There are some things where you absolutely need a different type of discipline and sanctions than what you can do with restorative justice. And I think some of the threats, by the way, are probably right in that space where they need something different. But there are many things that we would look at,” said Greene.
“With restorative justice, the whole idea is to really understand how your actions have an effect on others and to understand that in a deep way, and to recognize that and be able to see ‘I need to change my behavior because I hadn’t thought about it in this way, I hadn’t recognized the way I’ve been impacting other people and what that does.’”
While there have been staffing changes in the Dean of Studies Office and changes in the language surrounding conduct, the College has not quite yet built an infrastructure to support a successful, long–term restorative justice system. In addition, the needs of the students that feel unsafe due to the bigotry should currently be prioritized while new long–term systems are put into place. As mentioned by Walton–Trajkovski, the Pugh Center has been providing resources to students who need them.
“What students have told me [about the classroom] is that if a faculty member attempts to bring [up issues surrounding bigotry]… most of the other students in the class aren’t going to say anything. So you’re looking at the one student of color to a) be the spokesperson or b) to have all the answers or c) they’re uncomfortable with the entire process,” Walton–Trajkovski explained. “Part of the discussion too is how do we get people to come to that space… let’s talk about it, let’s be connected. So there are some things that we talked about as a team that we’re trying to implement. Both of those things are kind of in the works, but again it’s not up to the students or just the Pugh center staff… it’s up to everybody to put in the work.”
In a predominantly white institution with a community as small as that of the College, there are not many places for students to go when the campus climate becomes threatening. It becomes the responsibility of faculty, staff, administration, and other students to create that safe environment.
Ultimately, the campus culture is not going to change without measures to lessen the social and economic inequity present at the College and an all-around effort to hold students, faculty, staff, and other administrators accountable to the values of the campus community.
~ Mahika Gupta `23