Op-Ed: Let’s Talk Chalk

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As this article and its comments on it show, it seems clear that are differing views on how the campus should respond to the hateful chalking. The two general trends of thought seem to be that we should either a) “Ignore the Trolls” or b) “See the Threat.”

It would be nice if we could know who is responsible for the chalking or what their motivation was, but we don’t, so we have to base our response on that level of uncertainty, which is where the disagreement on response seems to come from. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself, but maybe my grappling with the issue of how to respond might somehow help you.

People in the “Ignore the Trolls” group are working from the premise that the person or persons responsible for the chalking were just some bored (possibly drunk) assholes with chalk, and thus we shouldn’t make a big deal of the incident. Anyone who has spent any amount of time on internet comment boards has encountered trolls (people who say stupid/offensive/hateful/threatening things in order to provoke a response from the community). The proper response to a troll is to ignore them, because to them, any attention is good attention. They’re bored and douchey and looking for something to do, so they stir up trouble in order to see the response that they draw (or their handiwork draws for them). A troll celebrates anytime someone gets visibly offended, because their goal is to offend. A troll cheers every time someone calls them a miserable fuckface, because the person calling them a miserable fuckface is acknowledging their existence. A troll does a double handspring into a backflip every time they can get the Dean of Students or President of one of the best colleges in the nation to hold a collection or write an email or give a speech. If in some alternate reality, we could be 100% sure that the person responsible for the chalking was just some asshole trolling the campus, making it into a big issue would be the wrong response, because that’s what the troll would want.

I really hope that this is the scenario we’re dealing with. I really hope that the chalking was done by someone who is just trolling the campus, and the chalking is the limit of their expression of ignorance and hate. I hope that people are right when they say it’s nothing to be seriously concerned about, and I hope there is no serious threat to any member of the campus. I think that everyone hopes that this is the case, and that people in the “Ignore the Trolls” group assume that this is the only likely scenario, and so they see anything more than ignoring the trolls as a gross overreaction. They’ve seen their share of drunk assholes with chalk, and so they think that “drunk asshole with chalk” is the only possible explanation, so we should base our response on that assumption and not make a big deal of this chalking incident.

But the people in the “Ignore the Trolls” group are wrong with that response, because we have to consider the possibility that there might be a legitimate threat. When an anonymous person calls out a portion of the Swarthmore community and says “Kill them all,” it would be irresponsible to ignore it. Though I’m no expert on the subject, there is a history of violence against members of the LGBT community, and it is dangerously naive to ignore the possibility of it happening here. Yes, I believe that Swarthmore is safer and more accepting than the average slice of America, but that does not mean it is 100% safe or 100% accepting. And the only way we can continue to be safer or more accepting is by taking incidents like this chalking seriously, and by not trivializing other people’s legitimate concerns. As a straight white male, I can’t fully understand the fear this kind of incident can provoke because I’ve never had to fully feel that fear myself, but I recognize that I am not the only person at Swarthmore. Just because I don’t fear for my life doesn’t mean that no one else has the right to. I recognize that there are people on this campus who have heard a lot about or seen or maybe even been the targets of serious homophobic violence, and we cannot trivialize their fears by telling them to ignore a threatening chalking. As a community, we have to come together to let them know that we are here for them and we support them, and we have to make them feel safe and accepted by working hard to make them safe and accepted. This is not only our school; this is our home, and everyone has a right to feel safe in their home.

So this is my message to you, people who say “Ignore the Trolls.” By life experience, my knee-jerk reaction is to agree with you and say that we should not make a big deal of this, because I’ve seen my fair share of cowardly assholes with chalk who aren’t a serious threat. But that knee-jerk reaction is insulting and insensitive and irresponsibly dangerous; it shouldn’t even be considered as an option. If you’ve never had to fear violence because of your identity, consider yourself lucky and don’t trivialize the experiences of people who have felt that fear. We have to address this issue so that everyone in this community feels safe and accepted and loved, because that is what makes Swarthmore the place that it is.

To people the “See the Threat” crowd who feel silenced or threatened by the people who say “Ignore the Trolls,” please consider the possibility that people in the “Ignore the Trolls” crowd might just not have thought about the issue enough. We’re all human, so it’s sometimes difficult to remember that not everyone has had the same experiences we’ve had. So when someone says “Ignore the Trolls,” maybe they’re speaking from their experience of seeing a lot of trolls, not your experience of seeing a lot of threats. If you explain your thoughts, maybe they’ll see that you have your reasons for your fears, and they’ll realize that those fears should be addressed (although there’s always the possibility that they’re just an asshole). You might not be able to educate them fully on the issue, but maybe it’ll help.

In terms what concrete steps we can take, I’m not an expert (although I’m open to ideas for what I can do personally). Maybe sign this open letter to Dean Braun and President Chopp (https://docs.google.com/a/swarthmore.edu/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dGNXNzJTME02ek1xbF91RkFYSkdNX1E6MQ) to show your support. But keep in mind that Dean Braun and President Chopp are administrators, not demigods; an email or a speech by them, while helpful, will not completely solve the problem. That’s why I’m personally a big fan of the positive chalking that I’ve seen outside of a lot of the dorms and around campus, because that seems like of the best things that we can do. It’s a way of all students saying “You’ve seen some anonymous hate. Here’s some anonymous love”.

To the anonymous hate-chalker, I say this: for every message you chalk up, I’ll chalk up three. If you want to make people feel hated, I want to make them feel three times as loved. And though you could potentially be a Swarthmore student, while you do things like this, you are not a member of this Swarthmore community. There is no tolerance for the intolerant.

To everyone else: We fight chalk with more chalk. Fight hate with love. And if you see a threat to someone or have any information, fight it with a call to Public Safety. Stay safe, stay happy, stay loved, and help make everyone else feel the same.

To borrow a haiku syllabic structure and summarize:

I hope it’s a troll,
But we cannot assume that.
Spread love everywhere.


  1. yes yes yes. I think this is a great beginning. now let’s think of everything else we can do beyond symbolic gestures, collections, and speeches! 🙂

  2. Zach, you are wonderful.

    I wish there had been no need for you to write this piece, but thank you for taking the time to address the “Ignore the Trolls” group. Thank you especially for your closing paragraphs.

    I hope that people who have been advocating that we stop addressing this issue understand where others are coming from and why it’s not okay to just hope it’ll stop. We have to start doing things to make this campus a safe space.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful, wonderfully written article. I have tried and failed to find words that would not be ungainly and unseemly next to yours, but my wanting to tell you how much I appreciated your words is far stronger than the embarrassment that I feel at my writing. So again, a heartfelt thank you.
    And I plan to be there when you’re chalking your three.

  4. OK guys, I know that this line of thought has NOTHING to do with this very poignant and brilliant response to hate on campus. The response chalkings were lovely, and I love the message of “for every message you chalk up, I’ll chalk up three.”


    Can we refrain from creating chalk love underneath covered surfaces, please? I know that these messages should stay on campus forever. But, it’s a little unsightly to see chalkings underneath Kohlberg, Parrish Portico/Steps, and the Science Center advertising for events that happened in early March. And the positive anti-hate chalkings will deteriorate, and ultimately, someone will have to then go clean it up.

    Think about it: it only takes like 30 seconds to chalk something, but then 30 minutes, perhaps, for someone else to go clean it up. It’s not a huge problem, admittedly, but it’s somewhere along the lines of no one cleaning up after themselves in the dorm kitchen. I’m afraid that if don’t do chalkings right, then other groups that want to use chalkings positively and thought-provokingly will not be able to do so.

    So, be radical, be fierce, be expressive. Just do it in a way that it will clean up itself.


    A Curmudgeon

  5. I’d just like to add that on some level, it doesn’t matter what the intentions of the writer was. People who “troll” are almost always privileged, because they have no concept of the real damage that offending people can cause. They play off of stereotypes and preexisting lines of hatred because they know that they can. That those lines are already in place as things that will easily upset others. If it’s trolling, it’s not a call to violence, but it is still put in place to hurt members of an already marginalized community. Which means that it needs to be addressed, whether it makes the writer happy or not.

    • Right on. This comment needs to be re-quoted every time anyone tries to delegitimize threats by saying they weren’t meant in earnest. Who cares? Somewhere, there’s someone who is making these threats seriously, and brushing aside the “troll” brushes aside the real threat as well.

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