Students share stories of racism at BYU-Idaho: “This is a huge problem”

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Photo credit: Megan Chatterley

By Seth Harper and Peter Lopez

Rayshawn Gibson, a junior studying communication, was walking home from campus to his apartment when someone driving a truck passed him by on the sidewalk hurling a can at him accompanied by these words:

“Go get it n*****.”

The recent high profile killings of unarmed Black people like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd brought a renewed focus to racism in America, leading to mass protests and demonstrations across the country and the world. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained widespread attention and support in recent weeks leading to various policy changes, legislative actions and symbolic gestures, such as taking down statues of racist historical figures or renaming streets to honor Black Americans. These protests and demonstrations have even reached Rexburg as protestors gathered in Porter Park to show solidarity with Black people in the community.

According to several organizers of the protests in Rexburg, members of the community repeatedly told them that what they were doing was pointless since Rexburg is free from racism.

Photo credit: Megan Chatterley

 

Racism’s reach has not only found Rexburg — as experienced by Gibson — but has made its way, in differing levels of severity, into the classrooms and buildings of BYU-Idaho and throughout the community.

 

Racism on campus

Loretta Kumire, a senior studying communication, moved from Zimbabwe to Rexburg because she was drawn to the opportunity the school provided and to be around more members of the religious community she had recently joined.

“My problem was that I was too naive coming into this school thinking it was a church school and that everyone would be good people,” Kumire said.

As a freshman, Kumire enrolled in a business class where students were assigned to be in small groups to work on projects throughout the semester. On an assignment, the group had to come up with solutions to help third-world countries’ economies. Kumire made a suggestion based on positive experiences in this type of work that friends from different parts of Africa had recounted to her. It was at this point that one of the students in the group cut her off. The students told her she didn’t know what she was talking about.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Oh Loretta, you can’t say that because number one, you’re from Africa, number two, you’re a woman and number three, you are Black, so I feel what you are bringing to the table is irrelevant’,” Kumire said.

Several students overheard the comment but remained silent. Kumire believes the other group members knew it was wrong but just waited to see how she would respond and never did anything about it.

“It hurt me,” Kumire said. “I went home and cried. I called people from back home and told them this school is rubbish, and I want to go home.”

Kumire said her stake president from South Africa, where she joined the Church, was shocked to hear this happened at a Church school and told her to let the school know, surely they would do something about it. Kumire contacted the Honor Code Office the next day. She has yet to hear back from them. This was three years ago.

“In that moment I realized, oh wow, this is something that I’m going to have to deal with, and I need to prepare myself for it,” Kumire said. “I decided not to participate in classes from then on because I was scared to experience the same thing. This stunted my ability to participate and engage in the classroom, which was really sad.”

Photo credit: Megan Chatterley

For Kumire, this was not an isolated incident. Last semester, while attending a class during the protests by LGBTQ students — due to the implied changes in honor code policy and then clarification from CES — Kumire had a scattered mind during class, troubled by the events that affected her LGBTQ friends. After class, her professor approached her and asked if something was wrong. Kumire told him that she was “just having a bad day.” The professor then expressed he had something he wanted to share with her.

“I am so jealous of Black people because you people have such amazing skin, and you are like so wonderful,” her professor told her. “And I’m just pasty white, and I feel like that’s really unfair.”

Kumire excused herself and left the room immediately.

“First of all, it was highly inappropriate, and second, I was just confused because it came out of nowhere,” Kumire said.

This is not the only time an inappropriate comment from a professor has been the reason behind a friendship for Kumire.

A friend of hers, whose family is from Guyana, attended a required religion class on campus. Her friend arrived in the classroom just as class was beginning. As she scanned the room for a seat, the professor remarked, “just go to the back of the bus.” Kumire said her friend was rattled by the incident but was afraid to confront the professor. The two became friends after they shared their negative experiences with each other.

Not every incident is as extreme as the ones Kumire describes. Nzingha Lawson, a senior studying social work, said the problem with racism at BYU-Idaho is rarely of extreme cases but more so of widespread ignorance.

“I’ve had a few instances of sincere racism towards me, but I feel like it’s been more of ignorance and just a lack of knowledge about people of color,” Lawson said.

Richard Luyhengo, a junior studying computer information technology, has never experienced what he would describe as blunt racism at BYU-Idaho but said people lack knowledge in understanding and interacting with the Black community.

“Overall, my experience has been great, and I’ve loved being at BYU-I,” Luyhengo said.

But when he attended a class that included parts of U.S. history, he was surprised when another student expressed their discomfort with having to learn about the Founding Fathers owning slaves.

“The teacher brought up George Washington and hailed him as a great president, which I agree with, and taught about his achievements as a military leader,” Luyhengo said. “However, he also taught about how he owned slaves. A white girl in class was not happy that the instructor shared about Washington’s dark past. In front of everyone, she said, ‘We don’t know how he treated those slaves, maybe he treated them well so we can’t judge’. This goes to show that people have not been taught well enough about slavery and the impact it has had on the Black community. This is a huge problem.”

Other students describe awkwardness on campus as administrators, faculty and students aren’t sure how to talk to Black students about racial issues.

Lawson described an incident a number of years ago when similar events of unrest occurred after a Black person was killed by police.

During a meeting with a school administrator, Lawson felt uncomfortable and pitied as he directed comments to her about the importance of love, “especially because of what’s going on.”

“I have to prove to everyone that I’m not a sad story,” Lawson said. “Like when I get a bad grade, it’s like people just think ‘oh yeah, that’s what is expected’, which is hurtful, so I work extra hard to be seen as successful.”

Photo credit: Megan Chatterley

Fredericka Thomas, a senior studying sociology, echoed a similar feeling to what Lawson described.

“I’ve always not felt as supported and sustained as other people that go to school here,” Thomas said. “But I am not afraid or ashamed of anything. I just have to put my head up higher.”

Fantasia White, a recent BYU-Idaho alumna, agreed that whether it was at BYU-Idaho or anywhere else, she feels like she constantly has something to prove.

“I feel like as a Black person, no matter where I work or where I go to school, I always had to work harder,” White said. “I wasn’t fortunate like many of my classmates at BYU-Idaho, but I do not blame them for it. I didn’t have the best upbringing and didn’t have the best education while growing up and which are things that are out of my control.”

White emphasized that not every Black student, or person, will have identical experiences, and it’s important to avoid generalization based on one Black person’s experience. For White, racism was never a problem on campus.

The inability for the school to adequately handle sensitive racial issues was recently given renewed attention as an official BYU-Idaho Facebook page for the College of Performing and Visual Arts made a post that was widely criticized on social media for being “gross,” “offensive” and “shows no empathy at all.” The post recounted persecution experienced by early Latter-day Saints and suggested that people who currently experience oppression because of their race are being “humbled” and “taught patience” from God.

“How dare they,” Luyhengo said in response to the post. “People still believe Black people are from the seed of Cain, that Black and white couples don’t belong together, that Black people were less valiant in heaven because of teachings that came from prophets and apostles and to this day people in the Church still believe that.”

The post was deleted, and later the entire account was taken down. When asked about the Facebook post and account, the university responded by referring to the recent “Statement of Support” released by the school.

 

Representation of Black students

A group of Black students, including Thomas, Luyhengo and Kagiso Dakine, a junior studying Economics, felt inspired to do something after they saw the Facebook post and some being underwhelmed by the school’s “Statement of Support,” so they created a petition to organize an office of inclusion at BYU-Idaho.

The petition states: “How can we consider this a safe spiritual home when we receive wounds instead of healing? Students constantly experience a variety of forms of racism from existing in this environment, without support or resources from a university which says puts us first.”

It cites several examples of discrimination including hair discrimination, from the university itself, and calls to establish an Office of Inclusion and Diversity as well as Multicultural Student Services. The petition currently has over 3,000 signatures. Brigham Young University recently announced a committee to examine issues of race and inequality at the university.

When asked to comment, the university again referred to the “Statement of Support” they had recently issued.

A “Statement of Support” was emailed to students on Friday and shared President Russel M. Nelson’s recent message about condemning racism and violent unrest with the message “BYU-Idaho supports the following statement made by President Russell M. Nelson.”

We join with many throughout this nation and around the world who are deeply saddened at recent evidences of racism and a blatant disregard for human life,” the statement said. “We abhor the reality that some would deny others respect and the most basic of freedoms because of the color of his or her skin.”

Dikane said the school making a statement about racism made him feel hopeful that things will improve on campus for Black students.

“I was thrilled and extremely grateful for the statement released by the church and the school,” Dikane said.

But some students were not impressed.

“It was a beauty pageant answer,” said Jaron Rose, a senior studying theatre education.

Photo credit: Megan Chatterley

Luyhengo said he needs much more to be done than just statements, especially before it escalates as it has in recent weeks.

“What statement?” Luyhengo said when asked about the university’s response. “There was no statement. There was a copy and paste if that’s what you mean. Statements such as these should be made before the unrest.”

The unofficial Black Student Union said they had a Zoom meeting with Wynn Hill, Dean of Students, scheduled for June 11 to express their concerns and suggestions for how the school should help Black students during this time. The meeting was canceled last minute and has yet to be rescheduled. Hill did meet with at least one Black student individually to discuss their concerns. The student wished to remain anonymous but advocated for a larger meeting with more Black students.

When asked how she felt about Black representation at the school, Kumire referred to it as “non-existent.”

“I don’t feel represented at all, nor do any of my friends,” Kumire said. “We had to create an underground BSU (Black Student Union) because the University wouldn’t allow us to have it on campus. The school has a lot of diversity, and they need to do a better job at recognizing that. They need to create a program or a space for those students to feel welcome and to feel recognized.”

She is not alone. A common trend among Black students at BYU-I is that they don’t feel the school represents them well. Junior Germain, a junior studying communication, said Black students represent themselves well, even if the school doesn’t.

Photo credit: Grace Wride

Rashida Torres, a senior studying Communication, said she doesn’t feel like Black students are as respected or taken seriously by faculty or administration.

Thomas feels it isn’t the school’s responsibility to represent Black students, but rather the school should “allow for platforms for them to do so.”

One of the platforms frequently brought up by Black students is Cultural Night, but students like Lawson said the quality of Cultural Night has gone down since past semesters. Adding that it doesn’t feel as important to the university as it used to be.

Gibson doesn’t agree with the decision for Cultural Night to start charging for attendance.

“I understand you want to make a profit,” Gibson said. “But, at the same time, how can we be encouraged to go about doing something?”

Cultural clubs and societies were abolished in 2017 by the university, which many Black students said was harmful as well.

“This goes back to when the school decided that there wouldn’t be any more cultural groups,” Rose said. “Because of that choice, I literally think Black culture has been hidden.”

Luyhengo echoed these feelings noting that the cultural societies were important, especially for international students, to feel welcomed and be informed about and celebrate other cultures. He also questioned why the school chooses not to celebrate Black History Month.

“I absolutely do not feel that we are represented,” Luyhengo said. “Black History Month comes and goes with no sign nor any words from leaders of the school. I’m not trying to attack anyone, I’m just stating how I feel. I love independence day, pioneer day and most of the American holidays and historical events. I share them on my social media because I know how important they are, but I’ve seen no evidence of BYU-I leaders representing Black students.”

Lawson said the only time she feels like the school tries to represent Black students comes to the surface when their image needs diversity.

Part of Black representation on campus includes Black professors. Gibson is aware of one Black professor on campus, while other students aren’t aware of any.

“We have to realize that is the demographic of the Church,” said Nigel Hidie, a senior studying psychology. “So we would have to increase African American Church members. The more African American members of the Church there are, the more we will find them on campus.”

White argued that it isn’t the university’s responsibility to be more diverse since the Black population of the Church and of Idaho is so low.

“I feel like the representation of Black students at BYU-Idaho is out of the school and Church control because everyone has their agency,” White said. “They get to decided which church and school to go to. I have not had any Black professors or bishops while attending BYU-Idaho, but I don’t feel like that is the school’s fault but the lack of Blacks being members and receiving higher education.”

 

Brigham Young

Brigham Young, a prominent figure in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is known as the prophet that established the saints in the West. He helped create the foundation of Brigham Young University, originally in Salt Lake City, and currently in Provo, Utah, in 1875. What is now known as Brigham Young University-Idaho was founded in 1888, 11 years after the death of Young, then called Bannock Stake Academy.

A statue of Young was recently vandalized in Provo with the word “Racist” defacing the monument in red paint.

Tasi Young recently released an opinion piece in The Salt Lake Tribune calling for a name change for Brigham Young University. Young argues that Brigham Young “single-handedly created and ingrained teachings of racial violence, segregation and white moral authority that enabled a social norm that not only oppressed Black lives, but taught his followers that white supremacy was a mandate from God.”

For Gibson, he’s afraid to go back to his predominately Black country of the Bahamas and tell people he goes to a university named after Brigham Young.

“I don’t want the name of the school to be changed because we fought,” Gibson said. “I want the name of the school to be changed because the higher-ups clicked in their mind and they said, you know, this is not okay.”

Thomas said she considers herself a hypocrite for coming to BYU-I because it’s named after Brigham Young while Kumire feels that if the name of the school was changed as recently as 20 years ago, it can be changed again.

“No one was really held accountable back then,” Kumire said. “Now that we know better, we are still not doing anything about it. I’m sure he did amazing things, but I don’t care to look for them because the bad outweighs the good for me. It should be changed to be named after someone who represents what the school is supposed to be.”

Kumire wasn’t aware of the racism of Brigham Young until coming to the United States and BYU-I and considered transferring schools because of it. She suggests naming the school after Jane Manning James, a Black Latter-day Saint icon. While Luyhengo doesn’t think the name of the school should be changed, he said he had to “undergo a painful process of healing” upon learning of Young’s racist past.

Hanna Seariac released a follow-up opinion piece in The Salt Lake Tribune advocating for Brigham Young University to remain the name. Seariac suggests acknowledging the good with the bad.

Rose said when he hears Brigham Young University, he thinks of Cosmo the Cougar before Brigham Young himself.

“I don’t view the Brigham Young schools as racist or anything,” Rose said. “I think they just happened to be named after a person who had racists tendencies. I truly do believe most people in the Church aren’t racist, but also I think there are some solid pockets of racist people.”

Hidie knows the Church has a history with racism, and that it’s still prevalent today, but that doesn’t deter him from his purpose at BYU-Idaho.

“My ethnicity of who I am as a Black man is second only to my divine identity,” Hidie said. “I’m first a son of God. Due to that lineage, I want to unite myself with His church, and I want to put myself in a position where I am in an environment that would help me live by those principles. So that’s why I come here.”

 

Racism outside of campus

Representation of Black students and accountability for racial issues matters to students, like Lawson, who sometimes feel overwhelmed with the constant misunderstandings, microaggressions and corrections they are confronted with.

“People assume I’m from another country,” Lawson said. “They say things like ‘Oh wow, you have a really good American accent’ or ‘I bet it’s a lot colder here than you’re used to in your home country’. I’m not bothered that they do connect me with Africa, I’m bothered that they don’t take the chance to get to know me and who I really am.”

Lawson said she also regularly faces discrimination based on her hair.

“I have more discrimination when I have my natural hair and my short hair than when I have my braids,” Lawson said. “When I have my natural hair, I am treated very differently. I used to work at Deseret Book, and I would have customers who would talk slower to me like I couldn’t understand. But when I have my braids I feel like I am treated more like a normal person.”

Hair discrimination wasn’t the only obstacle Lawson faced while working there. She described an incident that occurred while working at Deseret Book after a Black customer left the store. Lawson’s boss approached her and asked if she had spoken to the customer. When Lawson responded that she had indeed helped the customer with his purchase her boss told her “you should date him because he looks like you.”

On-campus or in the workplace aren’t the only places Lawson faces ignorance and racism though. When she walks into a store, Lawson feels like everyone watches her, but while at home in California, she doesn’t feel that same pressure.

Rose echoed the same type of vulnerability felt by Lawson when out in the community.

Photo credit: Megan Chatterley

“I walked into Broulims about a week ago, and I was wearing all black, black shorts, black shirt, black shoes, black socks,” Rose said. “The moment I walked in, I felt like all eyes were on me. I didn’t feel in danger, but I felt like people were more defensive, just in case something was about to happen. And I knew the only reason for that was because I was Black and because of the riots.”

Once when Kumire and her friend were walking through Rexburg, a man in a truck pulled up next to them and asked for directions. After they told him where to go, he asked Kumire and her friend where they were from. They told him Kumire was from Zimbabwe and her friend was from California. The man told them, “you need to go back to your country, and you need to find a school in California with all the liberals,” Kumire said. He then drove off revealing a confederate flag waving from the back of his truck.

“We thought it was just innocent and he wanted directions, but really he just wanted a way in to tell us that,” Kumire said.

This isn’t the only time she’s encountered confederate flags at BYU-Idaho. While living at The Lodge apartments, there were multiple students who publicly displayed confederate flags from their apartments or in their windows. Kumire complained to the apartment manager who immediately had the flags taken down. While grateful for the quick response from The Lodge management, Kumire was frustrated it was an issue in the first place, especially in a state so far removed from the south and the confederacy.

At restaurants in Rexburg as well as throughout Idaho and Utah, Lawson is regularly stared at, especially by children. On multiple occasions, the parents of children will approach her at restaurants and apologize for their children staring at her and inform her it is just because “our kids are not used to seeing people like you here.”

Even at her apartment or around friends, she constantly tries to educate or confront ignorance and hurtful comments. Lawson tries to educate the people around her because they don’t know how hurtful the comments they make can be. One such comment she regularly confronts is people telling her that she is “pretty for a Black girl.”

“Why can’t we just be pretty?” Lawson said. “My friends will say that and I will say, ‘don’t say that, you are disregarding so many people’.”

Another time a roommate told Lawson that if she was white, had blonde hair and blue eyes she would go on more dates. “That comment did really hurt,” Lawson said. “Because of that I felt like I didn’t fit the standards of girls here and I felt like I wasn’t ‘dateable’.”

Lawson recounted an incident from earlier this year as she and her roommates watched the “Women Tell All” episode from The Bachelor. In the show, they dedicated a segment to speaking out against racism and bullying. As part of the segment, contestants of the show who were people of color recounted some of the racist incidents or comments they had received since being involved with the show. One of the contestants, a Black woman from Georgia, became emotional as she described some of the racist confrontations she had encountered. Lawson said she was really grateful the show dedicated a segment to addressing these issues but was surprised when her roommates did not share her enthusiasm.

“My roommates behind me really shocked me because they started saying things like ‘oh she’s lying, I served my mission in Georgia. There’s a lot of Black people there; I don’t know what she’s talking about’,” Lawson said. “They basically just discredited everything she was saying, and I suddenly felt really uncomfortable standing there. I felt frozen and thought, ‘do they know I’m here? Do they know that I am Black?’ They were dis-validating what she was saying about how she is bullied sometimes because of the way that she looks and that was pretty shocking for me because I didn’t know that my roommates could be like that. That was an eye-opener.”

Photo credit: Grace Wride

Lawson says that she prefers when friends ask her directly about things they don’t understand, but that there needs to be common sense in those questions as well. On multiple occasions, Lawson’s white friends have asked her for permission to use the n-word. Being asked by their white friends if they can use the n-word is not uncommon for Black students, at times it even goes farther than that.

Gibson said the first thing one of his roommates ever said to him was “you mind if I call you the n-word?”

Another time in his apartment, a roommate’s friend tossed a banana at him and said, “well, catch it monkey,” Gibson said.

At a friend’s apartment, Gibson was playing the video game SuperSmash Bros when someone changed the names of one of the characters to the n-word. Someone else in the room questioned why the character had been renamed a racial slur. The person responsible for the name change looked at Gibson and asked “are they not cool with that?” Gibson replied, “I’m not cool with that.”

Torres said that she attended a party with BYU-Idaho students when a guy she had never met before came up to her and called her the n-word.

Even as Black students frequently have the n-word directed toward them as a slur, there are those who believe it has a place in the classroom given the proper context.

A student who wishes to remain anonymous said that she is currently in a class where one of the course readings included the n-word and that while the professor discouraged saying it when reading out loud, that at least one student who is not Black used it anyway.

Michael Lenhart, a professor in the History Department, shares a video as part of one of his classes that uses the n-word as it discusses some of the history of how black people have been treated and different names they have been called in American society.

Lenhart said he lets the use of the n-word play itself out in the classroom setting either by him or his students but is careful to point out its contextualization and place within historical literature.

 

Action and Allies

White said she always felt supported by her professors, particularly those in the Sociology department where she earned her degree.

“I felt like my professors believed in me and pushed me to the best of my ability,” White said. “They wanted me to succeed in school and my life outside of school.”

Despite the mixed feelings on how the school itself represents and celebrates its Black students, and the unfortunate incidents that persist either on campus or in the community, there are those that have stood out in their persistent support of the Black community, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by Black students. Two weeks of protests took place at Porter Park in support of Black Lives Matter. At those protests, Black students and community members gave speeches expressing gratitude to their white peers for attending and adding a voice. Many broke down in tears because of it.

Photo credit: Grace Wride

“I was blown absolutely away to see how many people showed up,” Gibson said. “I was blown away to see teachers. They brought their family and kids and they were in full support. It almost brought me to tears and even with the mayor being there.”

Many cars driving by the protests honked and cheered while some people rolled down their windows to yell out “all lives matter” or “white lives matter.”

Kennedy Madrid, a former student at BYU-I, once had a roommate tell her that all Latino and Hispanic men are disrespectful to women. When Madrid transferred to BYU, she heard even more stories of racism. Madrid started a petition to have race and ethnicity classes be a graduation requirement at BYU schools. It currently has over 18,000 signatures.

“I felt like there needed to be better awareness about race and ethnicity on all BYU campuses,” Madrid said. “I loved my time at BYU-Idaho but I know that some things need to be changed with how some students view other students. The petition was not created to punish a certain group of students, but to educate everyone. No matter what skin color you are, everyone should walk out of any BYU campus having love and appreciation for all walks of life.”

Allies also exist on campus in the form of professors. One of those professors, Jeffrey Oliver from the Sociology Department, teaches a class called Race and Ethnic Relations.

“Brother Oliver is honestly my favorite teacher,” Lawson said. “He challenged a lot of people’s views on racism and made them see clearly. He didn’t tiptoe about it and people need to hear that because things need to change. I wish more people were like him.”

Students have passed the word around to other students to take his class because of the help it can provide.

“He has no idea how much work he is doing and how many people he is inspiring,” Kumire said.

Additionally, a volleyball tournament fundraiser organized by students raised over $200 for the Black Visions Collective. On Friday a Juneteenth celebration, organized by students and members of the community in Porter Park saw an estimated 300 people in attendance, including the Mayor of Rexburg and state Senator Brent Hill.

Photo credit: Grace Wride

“Lots of people say, ‘I’m white. I don’t know what to do’,” Kumire said. “But you can just listen and then take action.”

Luyhengo also encourages those who want to help to just begin with listening. He hopes that not only individuals will listen more and make changes in their own lives, but that the school and the Church will listen to their Black members more.

“We need more from the Church and the school,” Luyhengo said. “They’ve never been on the right side of history when it comes to race issues. This is their opportunity to help make things right.”

Editor’s note: Seth Harper and Peter Lopez participated in recent protests held in Rexburg to show solidarity with Black students.