Over the weekend, two white female college students recorded themselves vocalizing racial slurs from a rap song and posted the videos to social media.
By Monday night, one of those students had been removed from her sorority at William Paterson University, and the other brought Penn State under fire.
In the first video, Penn State student Kaitlin Listro, a junior studying supply chain and information systems, is repeatedly heard saying the “n-word” in an elevator as music plays from a speaker on her phone. When she leaves the elevator, she is heard saying: “You’re a fat n****r, suck my d**k.”
Later, when she received backlash, her friend and William Paterson University student Jasmine Barkley posted a poll, asking whether or not it was alright for white people to say the word in question while singing along to a song.
Based off reactions to the video, which were shared by Penn State student activist Seun Babalola on twitter, Listro and Barkley got their answer.
“I don’t tolerate racism. Period,” Babalola (junior-political science) said of his motivations to post the videos to social media, via messaging system. “I will always do whatever it takes to ensure that my community is treated with respect here at PSU. That is one of my primary roles as an activist.”
The communities of both universities began calling for their schools to punish the respective students. William Paterson University immediately launched a task force to investigate the videos, and Barkley was removed from her sorority.
“Delta Phi Epsilon will not tolerate racism,” a Facebook post on the chapter’s page said. “Our organization was founded by 5 Jewish women who were discriminated against. They stood up for social justice, and we continue to stand for that today.”
The post was later updated on Sunday afternoon with a comment from the organization’s international headquarters.
“We are investigating the actions of one member and will take swift, decisive action to remove her or any member who does not uphold our values,” the post read.
The internet applauded both decisions.
On Sunday, Penn State initially tweeted out a statement saying while the university does not condone the use of hate speech and racist messages, it miust recognize Listro’s First Amendment rights.
Penn State “cannot, however, impose sanctions for Constitutionally protected speech, no matter how offensive,” the tweet reads.
Penn State’s embrace of diversity & inclusion, and opposition to prejudice & hate, are clear. We condemn racist messages, as they are hateful and violate our institutional values. We cannot, however, impose sanctions for Constitutionally protected speech, no matter how offensive.— Penn State (@penn_state) April 22, 2018
Thousands took to Twitter to condemn Penn State for its “lack of response.”
They questioned the university’s “All In” movement and even called for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to get involved.
One user said his daughter had decided to “pass” on Penn State during the college-search process because of this lack of response to the situation.
The president of Penn State’s Black Student Union, Queenie Mi, commented on the thread and said the university has done nothing to correct the racist gesture. Mi said Penn State swept it “under the rug with a depressing ‘apology’ and [left] room for it to happen again, not only by someone different, by the same person.”
“The Black community felt my same sentiments,” Babalola said. “We want action. We are tired of these incidents and Penn State’s weak initial reactions. I’m not surprised because we’re at Penn State. A [predominantly white institution].”
Just weeks ago, a female Penn State student used the “n-word” in a Snapchat that went viral. Penn State commented at the time it does not condone racial or hateful speech but referred the community to its Report Bias outlet and said proper protocol would be followed.
On Monday night around 8 p.m., Penn State posted another statement on Twitter, saying the Office of Student Conduct would be launching an investigation. People then took to Twitter to shame Penn State for being “patronizing” after posting the first statement as a direct response to Babalola’s tweet.
Message from University leaders about the use of a racial slur by a student on a personal social media account: pic.twitter.com/xqWXMwzLYZ— Penn State (@penn_state) April 24, 2018
“The University shares the outrage and disgust expressed on social media and beyond regarding the use of a racial slur by a student on her personal social media account… The inclusion and safety of all our students is paramount. It is deeply troubling that as a society, we today are still facing racism. We must uphold our values, and Penn State is increasingly focusing on how to address and educate our students on the impact of hateful messages and actions.”
A "sick joke"
When speaking at a high school in Evanston, Illinois, on Dec. 19, 2017, author and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates answered a question about whether it was alright for white people to sing the “n-word” in song lyrics.
“We understand that it’s normal, actually, for groups to use words that are derogatory in an ironic fashion,” Coates said. “Why is there so much hammering when black people do it? Black people, however you feel about it, are not outside of the normal rules and laws for humanity.”
Coates said the question is “why so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws on how human being interact to black people.”
If people are white in America, Coates said, those people talk like everything belongs to them, and they think they have a right to everything because the laws and the culture tell them this.
Coates then said it’s unfathomable for white people to understand they are not allowed to use something that they feel they own.
Babalola, who initially posted the videos to his Twitter account and tagged Penn State, said he was “disgusted and annoyed but honestly unfortunately not surprised.” Babalola said these actions aren’t isolated incidents — just recorded.
Earlier on Monday, Barkely used Snapchat to send an apology video, saying she is sorry if people were offended by her Snapchats, but if they’re going to be offended then they “should just not watch.”
Later, in an open apology letter, Barkley addressed her use of the “n-word” in the video and said she believes in equality and respect.
“The videos have been misconstrued in many ways across the media,” Barkley said in her letter. “I admit that the place and context of how I presented the question was insensitive. I am deeply sorry to those that have been offended from what was happening in the video. If a word is offensive to a particular race, then it should not be presented in music.”
Barkley goes on to say that on multiple occasions, she had heard music with this kind of language played on campus at William Paterson and was simply questioning why one race had “more rights to freedom of speech than another.”
Barkley also referenced a YouTube video posted of Charlamagne Tha God speaking on this topic and quoted his thoughts on the subject: “Until blacks stop using the word n**** we can’t get mad at nobody else for using the word n****.”
Sean Semanko, who is the secretary of the Bull-Moose Party and the secretary of Turning Point USA at Penn State, said via email that while people do a lot of stupid things in college, what the students said was stupid and he “fully condemn[s]” their behavior.
“Both universities are public institutions,” Semanko (sophomore-advertising) said. “The First Amendment protects hate speech and any speech that doesn’t create a clear and imminent threat. Penn State made the right decision in being consistent with the first amendment by taking no disciplinary action. Widespread societal condemnation taught the girls a lesson.”
Historically, the “n-word” has been a term used by white people as a racial slur for African Americans. While the term is still widely considered racist, many rap stars include the word in their song lyrics.
In her letter, Barkley said her friend was singing along with a song — specifically, “Freaky Friday” by Lil
Dicky featuring Chris Brown. Barkley added in her letter that she only posted the poll to help defend her friend. There was “no moral justification stating that I am not allowed to sing lyrics sung by a different race,” Barkley said.
Semanko said both context and intent matter.
Semanko said regardless of whether or not the word is in song lyrics, it is protected under the First Amendment and if people want to sing the word, they can.
“The black race has been fighting against segregation for a long time, yet the divide of who can use the n-word only creates more segregation,” Barkley said. “I have been an active member in the William Paterson community to have a voice on campus and because I am someone who puts effort towards making positive strides in equality. My hope is that people realize this was not a malicious act but just a response to feeling ridiculed and unequal pertaining to this issue.”
Babalola said her apology was a “sick joke” and it was “self-explanatory.”
“She quoted Charlamagne tha God’s Boondock’s reference as justification for using a work that oppressed people before for centuries,” Babalola said. “A joke, honestly, truly.”
Kelsey Denny, the secretary for the Penn State College Democrats, said via email the organization was upset with the speech used in the video and was also “particularly appalled” by the “lack of action” taken by Penn State to “address the feelings of our most minoritized students.”
Denny said the College Democrats still demand more action from Penn State when hate speech is used.
“There is no question as to whether hate speech was being used or not — this student was screaming and candidly singing the “N” word,” Denny said. “This student was also wearing clear Penn State attire, which sends a hateful message to our black student body. We are not calling for this student’s outright expulsion, but we demand that Penn State takes action to address this kind of hate speech.”
Our statement on the University reaction to the use of hate speech by Penn State students and their guests this past weekend: pic.twitter.com/lZGPrJ8ALs— PSU College Dems (@PSUCollegeDems) April 22, 2018
Denny said the College Democrats “holistically condemn hate speech in all forms and all contexts”.
University Park Undergraduate Association President Cody Heaton tweeted a statement saying “it’s disgusting and disturbing that people are using hate-fueled words, especially on a weekend mean to bring the Penn State Community together.”
Speaking on behalf of the student body, it's disgusting and disturbing that people are using hate-fueled words, especially on a weekend meant to bring the Penn State Community together. We will not tolerate this repulsive language which goes against the core values of Penn State.— Cody Heaton (@TweetinHeeton) April 22, 2018
“We will not tolerate this repulsive language which goes against the core values of Penn State,” Heaton said.
“They’re racist,” Babalola said about the students. “They were comfortable with saying the word. It clearly wasn’t their first time using it. And they had the audacity to post it. They are racist.”
"I admit what I said was wrong, it offends people."