University of Tennessee administrators hit a nerve with the campus community in Knoxville this week after arguing that students who took a photo in blackface were only exercising their free speech rights — and likely won’t be punished.
University officials on Monday said they’re still deciding how to handle fallout over the controversial image without infringing upon the rights of the offending students, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.
“We would be hard-pressed to expel a student for expressing their First Amendment,” rights,” Vice Chancellor for Student Life Vince Carilli said, adding that the decision remains “outstanding.”
The photo in question, which surfaced on Snapchat last week, shows four people believed to be UT students, two of whom are wearing clay skin care masks.
“We for racial equality boys,” the caption reads. “Bout to get this free college now that I’m black let’s gooooo #blacklivesmatter.”
It remains unclear how the students will be disciplined if all. This week, about 200 people, most of them students, packed the student union ballroom to confront administrators over their poor handling of the incident and discussed ways to move forward. Tensions ran high as they expressed frustrations over yet another empty condemnation from the school, but little action to back it up.
Freshman student Jerica Parks was among those who called out administrators for their failure to make concrete changes that would foster a more inclusive and diverse campus community at UT.
“This hurts me down to my core and I want you to hear me,” Parks said during the nearly three-and-a-half-hour-long discussion. “I want you to see me. As a young black woman, I have been through so much oppression and this is another thing.”
Speaking through tears, she told administrators she felt threatened by the incident before blasting them for seemingly protecting the students by allowing them to remain enrolled.
“Don’t treat them like victims when they have done this to us,” she said. “We are the victims. Protect us.”
Senior George Johnson, also took aim at university leaders, telling them, “You failed if you believe that the First Amendment is the equivalent of protecting someone from blackfacing.”
Johnson, who’s set to graduate from UT in May, said it will be hard moving on from this racist incident and expressed disappointment with the university’s response.
“I can’t take pride in the University of Tennessee because the University of Tennessee didn’t see pride in me,” he added.
The university initially condemned the Snachat post in a statement earlier this month, calling the photo “repulsive” and it’s message “abhorrent.”
“The racism displayed in this image does not represent the behavior we expect of students or our Volunteer values,” the statement read. “The BIAS Education Response Team—in collaboration with the Office of the Dean of Students—has been made aware of the situation and the university is determining how to handle this incident.”
For sophomore Zamir Turner, the condemnation was just more empty words from the school, which has struggled with racial incidents in the past. Just last year, a campus landmark was vandalized with swastikas and other anti-Semitic messages, the News Sentinel reported.
“Like many people stated, this is decades and decades of disrespect and belittling and sweeping things under the rug and the defunding of minority groups,” Turner said at Monday’s meeting. “I want to see transparency. I want to see humanity, is the best way I could put it. At this present moment, the robotics and going through the motions has become expected. Now we have to shift the expectation.”
The incident remains under investigation.