Snapchat pic prompts mandatory 'diversity training' at GW

The George Washington University plans to implement nine new diversity initiatives in response to a racist Snapchat post, even after absolving both of the students pictured in it.

Encompassing many common approaches employed by universities to combat discrimination and promote diversity, GW’s plan includes mandatory “diversity training” for all incoming students and staff members who “work closely with students,” a new “bias incident reporting system,” a “GW Race in America speaker series,” and numerous initiatives to reform the Greek system.

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On January 31, a member of GW’s Alpha Phi sorority posted an image of two other sorority members sitting at a counter inside the sorority’s on-campus townhouse. The photograph depicted one of the women holding an empty banana peel in the air while both smiled, and the racially-charged caption read, “Izzy: ‘I’m 1/16 black’.”

The image went viral on GW’s campus the next day, and students immediately condemned it as racist.  A litany of student organizations condemned the post and called for sanctions against the individuals pictured. Numerous Greek organizations issued apologies and promised to address issues of racism within the Greek system, while Alpha Phi promised that “the three members in question are in the process of having their membership terminated.”

The controversy follows numerous banana-related controversies at universities and colleges across the United States, including an incident at the neighboring American University in which students discovered bananas hanging from nooses around campus. Many interpret bananas as a reference to the racist idea that black people resemble or are more closely related to apes.

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On February 2, the university released a statement saying it was “looking into it,” and on February 7, GW President Thomas LeBlanc announced that “university staff have now completed the initial fact-finding process.”

Based on “numerous interviews including with the two individuals pictured in the image and the individual who posted it” and a review of “electronic data,” he said investigators determined that “the quoted caption featured in the text on the picture did not occur when the picture was taken,” and that “the individuals pictured were unaware of the social media posting and its content until after it was posted.”

Moreover, the individual who was responsible for the post told the school that it was not intended to offend, and that “the women in the picture did not know or approve of the associated caption.”

While the statement made clear that the two individuals in the picture had nothing to do with the offense nature of the post, GW has not responded to Campus Reform’s request for additional information concerning the individual who took the picture, authored the caption, and posted it to Snapchat.

The president’s statement noted that the image “was posted by a person who has said that they did not intend to offend others,” but does not provide any indication of the message that she did intend to convey.

Regardless of intent, however, LeBlanc declared that the “offensive and racially inflammatory” post had nonetheless done “great harm to our community,” revealing an underlying “racial tension” on campus that “needs to be confronted.”

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“Students are also telling us that strong reaction to the post was not just about this image, but about far deeper concerns regarding race relations and inclusion on our campus,” wrote Leblanc. “We want to harness the energy that has been generated by this moment to move with purpose and a sense of urgency toward ensuring all students truly feel welcome on this campus.”

To that end, Leblanc announced that GW will implement nine “suggestions” made by groups and individuals on campus, inviting students to propose additional initiatives over the next 45 days.

Three items address bias and discrimination, promising to amend codes and implement an anonymous “bias incident reporting system.” Such programs, which encourage students to report their peers for everything from microaggressions to discrimination, have drawn condemnation from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for their potentially chilling impact on campus free expression.

Three other initiatives reference mandatory “diversity training,” and while LeBlanc did not elaborate on what this training will entail, he did specify that it will be required not only for all incoming students started in the fall of 2018, but also for “all recruitment chairs and new member educators within the Greek community,” as well as “residential life staff, RAs, Colonial Inauguration leaders, admissions staff, tour guides, and other staff members who work closely with students.”

GW also plans to “update” its policies on non-sexual harassment, discrimination, and equal opportunity, and will being working with the Multicultural Greek Council to “identify opportunities for on-campus Greek housing.”

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