After a long night, all Taylor Nanz wanted was a burger, and maybe some fries to go along with it. It was Halloween weekend of 2013, and the third-year Syracuse University student was in Sliders Burgers and Belgian Fries on Marshall Street with two of her friends.
While waiting for her order, Nanz noticed a white male wearing blackface, who she said, along with some of his friends, was being rude to a black waiter.
“He was flaunting it, saying ‘It’s Halloween, I can wear blackface, I can do whatever I want,’” Nanz said. “I was so mad I started yelling at him, like, ‘How do you make race a joke?’”
The man, who Nanz said was amused by her outburst, kept harassing her, telling Nanz his blackface was appropriate because he was playing a character from a movie.
Harassment based on race of the kind Nanz experienced, as well as racial discrimination, doesn’t just happen in the real world – it happens on and around college campuses as well. Blackface, for which a white performer uses makeup to portray a black character, is deeply offensive to many people, including UCLA Associate Professor Mark Sawyer. As Sawyer wrote for CNN, “blackface is always about mocking black skin and presenting stereotypical black behavior.”
Back at Sliders, Nanz asked for the manager, who happened to be white. He told her that all that mattered at the establishment was getting food to the patrons, Nanz recalled.
“Me and the waiter were the only two black people there,” Nanz said. “Everyone else was laughing because they thought it was funny that I was upset over the blackface, and that I was overreacting.” She ended up crying and leaving the building.
A year and a half later, Nanz is still affected by the incident. But she never reported it to her university, choosing instead to talk it out with friends.
In his thirteen years working with Syracuse University’s Department of Public Safety, Sr. Detective Ed Weber has never received a call based primarily on racial discrimination or harassment.
“It’s hard to prove,” he said, of cases involving racial bias. “If it is a factor, race is secondary to a bigger infraction.”
When DPS gets a call, Weber said, they begin with an investigation and eventually refer the case to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. If a student is found responsible and bias is involved, he said there is usually some type of paper, sensitivity class, or other sanctions placed upon them.
Weber cites diversity on the SU campus as a reason for the lack of reports of racial discrimination. According to the Syracuse University website, 25.6 percent of the total student population are people of color.
“It’s a very unique community,” Weber said. “We have people of every race, every nationality. People kind of know better. They try to get along.”
Chaochen Li, a junior at Syracuse University, said otherwise.
“I feel racial discrimination on the basketball court, or in the professional area,” said Li, who is an international student from Beijing, China. When he plays pick-up basketball games, he is often the only Asian on his team. He described one recent incident when he said his teammates would not let him shoot the ball.
“After the game started, I found that they wouldn’t pass me the ball, even when I was at a better spot and had empty space to score,” Li said. Whenever he would steal the ball from the opposing team, Li said his teammates would continuously yell at him to pass rather than shoot, leaving him feeling frustrated. He attributed his teammates’ attitudes about his basketball abilities to stereotypes about Asians being lacking in physical ability.
“I feel like both white and black people think they are physically stronger than Asians,” he said.
Another time, Li was working on a film project for a multimedia class with two white students. When it came to discussing the project, Li said he felt excluded.
“I’m a film major, but they wouldn’t let me talk. I mean, it’s my major,” Li said. He described how other students often negatively evaluate his abilities based on his accent when he speaks English.
Li’s reluctance to report these incidents stems from a feeling of isolation. There are not a lot of Chinese students in Newhouse; Li said including himself there are only two in the Television-Radio-Film major.
“Being a minority sometimes means you cannot talk openly about race,” Li admitted, explaining how he did not want to risk offending people he has to work with on a daily basis.
Racial discrimination occurs at other universities as well. Various college students profiled in a study by the Harvard University The Voices of Diversity disclose events of racial discrimination that are never reported to authorities. One student profiled, who was identified as Carlos, described an unreported fight between 45 white males in fraternity and four African-Americans, saying, “It kind of just blows over, and that’s it.” Another student, who was identified as Raymond, explained how he didn’t speak up about discrimination. “I didn’t want to make a big scene or say anything, because…I don’t want my grade to be affected,” the study reported him saying.
The website of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has a page that catalogs various racial incidents on college campuses. In September of 2014, they listed an incident involving Hanna Strong, a former soccer player for the women’s team at Syracuse University, who was recorded on video using racial slurs.
“Things like this, especially with fraternities and sororities, are always happening on college campuses,” Nanz said. According to CNN, in 2014 the University of Mississippi found a Confederate flag and a noose around the neck of an on-campus statue of James Meredith, a famous black civil rights activist. In response, Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity expelled three of its members who were connected to the incident, and suspended the University of Mississippi chapter.
“We do not share the statistics regarding allegations of race harassment and discrimination but racism is real and exists on our campus and in the broader Syracuse community,” Cynthia M. Curtain said by email.
Students at Syracuse University can report incidents of discrimination or harassment to Curtain, who functions as the University’s Chief Equal Opportunity, Inclusion, and Resolution Services Officer and Title IX coordinator.
Nanz still remembers the waiter from that Halloween episode. She recalls asking him how he could bring himself to serve the blackface-wearing patron.
“He said, ‘I can’t afford to lose my job over some stupid racist kid.’”