The Ongoing Problem with Campus Inequality

The quality of life for snakes on college campuses has suffered a severe decline since Tom Green fed Mitch in Road Trip way back in the year 2000. At Sarah Lawrence College in New York, a school consistently ranked as one of the nation’s most expensive to attend, one student was even forced to let her baby python free on campus grounds after school officials reportedly gave her all of one hour to make it go away.

The incident sparked a flurry of social media activity among Sarah Lawrence students, earning the name #Snakegate. It wasn’t long, however, before a group of students involved in a fundraising effort as part of Women’s History Month jumped on board with a question for #Snakegate commentators. Why are we talking about a snake when the school has issues of racial prejudice to deal with?

How One Snake Changed Women’s History Month

If the topics of racial discrimination and the administration’s treatment of pets strike you as completely unrelated, you’re not crazy. Another discussion that was taking place at the time centered on the removal of a popular tree from the campus grounds.

Engagement from the more politically active students increased following a campaign asking students to donate to several student Venmo accounts. Signs placed around campus asked those who wanted to support diverse students, specifically females, to “Give your $ to Women & Femmes of Color.”

While the request might seem somewhat brusque taken out of context, it was apparently a play on a popular Twitter campaign that used the name #GiveMoneyToWomen. In the conversation about America’s ongoing struggle for racial equality, sometimes a direct approach is required to prick the ears of otherwise ignorant people.

Bringing Attention to an Uncomfortable Topic

It should be noted that Sarah Lawrence College is considered a progressive and socially tolerant institution. The Princeton Review even found the school to have the highest enrollment of liberal students of any college from 2014-2017, and last year the school was recognized as the most LGBTQ-friendly school in the nation.

However, just because students identify with a particular side of the political aisle, doesn’t mean they all agree about how race relations are handled on campus.

One of the students who spoke up using the #Snakegate hashtag made references to “ignored hate crimes against black+ Muslim students earlier this year.” Rather than being content with outpacing the rest of society, it might be time to look inward and realize that problems still exist even on campuses recognized as standout compared to their peers.

The Difference Between Talking and Taking Action

It is unfortunate the direction that the #Snakegate conversation took as more students joined the thread. While the women’s rights group that originally posted their fundraising message had a good cause, the language on the thread turned abrasive after the mention of the snake + tree duo.

For something like this to take place at a school that is so clearly a haven for liberal ideas speaks to the need for more action and less commiseration when we see issues of race going unresolved. Too often there is clear evidence of mistreatment, such as the videos that came from Atlanta’s immigration raids, and we still allow logistical issues to hinder efforts to achieve fair treatment for Americans.

Some of the dialog that came from #Snakegate was very ugly, and students shouldn’t necessarily feel that they are obligated to pay for the “emotional labor” of their peers. But to paraphrase a Sarah Lawrence student who put it pretty aptly: “No one is saying that we should never talk about the snake, it’s just ridiculous that people can do that but can’t be bothered to say a word about racism very present on campus.”

Laboring for Change

The students who spoke up in this case weren’t doing so because they couldn’t elicit sympathy from their peers. That much has been accomplished — sympathy isn’t a resolution. The oppressed do not what your pity, they want equal treatment.

For a college like Sarah Lawrence, becoming embroiled in a conversation like this can be a PR nightmare. The result is that, frequently, when high-profile schools have controversial racial issues take place, efforts are made to downplay their significance. If word gets out, it could impact enrollment and the school’s profitability.

In 2015, a group of students from 51 colleges including Sarah Lawrence submitted a list of requests. These requests included things students wished to see schools enact to quell racist behaviors or policies. They include things like a more diverse teaching staff, the implementation of diversity training, tracking of race-related offenses, additional mental health resources and revised speech codes. In some cases, the removal of certain school officials was even included.

It’s likely that some of these requests can’t be met without inciting further complications, and firing people because of a protest would be difficult unless there was additional evidence pointing to a particular person’s involvement with discrimination on campus.

Some of these things can be done though, and those that ranked highest on the list were efforts to increase education about fair treatment. That is, students like those at Sarah Lawrence are pleading to have their concerns taken as seriously as the removal of a tree was. Issues like this particularly pinpoint why intersectional feminism, for example, is so important but still struggles. There’s no excuse for officials who don’t at least take the time to investigate the concerns of their students.

Kate Harveston is a political writer with an interest in social justice and progressive change. She has a background in journalism and Criminal Justice, so she enjoys anything related to law, politics, culture and the written word. In her spare time, her favorite activity is reading dystopian fiction. If you like her work, you can subscribe to her blog, Only Slightly Biased, or follow her on Twitter for updates!

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