On August 22nd, just days before the Class of 2019 arrived, a racial epithet was found graffitied in bold orange letters on a log in the Crum Woods, less than a half mile from the college’s main campus. Diondra Straiton ‘16 had gone for a walk in the Crum at around five o’clock that evening when she decided to take a less frequently traveled path and stumbled upon the vandalism. Upset by the offensive slur scrawled onto college property, Straiton called Public Safety, and the graffiti was promptly removed. Nevertheless, many at the college feel that the graffiti is an important symbol of the realities of racism in an ostensibly tolerant space as well as the degree to which the college is integrated with the greater borough community.
“I didn’t really expect to see something like that, especially not in this beautiful part of the Crum,” Straiton explained, “and then when I realized that was what it was saying, it was just disturbing. It was just a really weird feeling, and I just left, and I went home because I was just like, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore.’”
To prevent others from having to endure this painful experience, Straiton conveyed her discovery to several deans at the college as well as to members of the Swarthmore African American Student Society (SASS), of which Straiton is not a member. On the SASS Facebook page, Straiton shared photos as well as a narrative of her experience, inciting a conversation amongst SASS leadership about the nature of vandalism on the college’s campus and the implications of such offensive language within the college community.
“Everyone seemed outraged, I could tell they were hurt, and I didn’t know how to make them feel better,” Tyrone Clay ‘18, co-President of SASS, explained of his fellow SASS members. “I wasn’t sure what to do because while my ordinary reaction would have been to try to prosecute the person who committed the offense, we have no idea who did it. It could have been done by a Ville kid. It could have been done 20 years ago.”
A’Dorian Murray-Thomas ‘16 who is also a co-President of SASS, agreed with Clay, explaining that the uncertainty around the source of the vandalism has complicated the process of coping with and understanding its effects.
“I want to stress how diverse people’s responses and experiences were,” Murray-Thomas explained. “We did not all have the same response, and that reflected the diversity of our backgrounds. A lot of people felt that because it wasn’t on campus, we should not be overly political in our reaction. Most other people felt like this was an affront to our community regardless of whether it was a person from the Ville or a person from here. They felt like it reinforced the state of black people being unsafe in this space in some way, shape, or form, directly or indirectly.”
Having reflected on the incident after finding the graffiti, Straiton appeared partial to the opinion that the graffiti was harmful irrespective of its source. She noted that the culprit’s formal attachment to the college community was somewhat irrelevant given the way in which the college’s campus is so openly integrated with the Borough of Swarthmore.
“I’m pretty sure it was probably someone from the Ville, but obviously you don’t know,” Straiton said. “We live in the ville, so either way it’s upsetting.”
Diane Anderson, Dean of Academic Affairs at the college, and an early respondent to Straiton’s reported finding, agreed.
“These things often depend on who you consider to be your community,” Anderson said. “Are we just a community of people who live on this campus? Are we also a community that includes those who work on the campus? Are we part of a larger community that includes the ville? Are we part of an even larger community? I think each of us answers that question in their own way.”
Kemi Oladipo ‘18, the Social Coordinator of SASS, explained that in considering the vandalism, she differentiates clearly between people from the Borough and the college community.
“I was curious about who the culprit was because I know lots of people stay at Swat over the summer, but also lots of people in the area use the Crum Woods,” Oladipo explained. “I hold Swarthmore students to a certain level just because we attend such an elite school and talk about big social problems, but someone in the Ville I don’t know. Anyone could live in the Ville.”
The realities of living enmeshed within a community for whom the college cannot be held accountable was also reflected by Michael Hill, Director of Public Safety at the college, who explained that the campus’ integration with public space made it susceptible to the pathologies of the world beyond the college’s spatial limits.
“This incident is of course sad and hurtful, but as an open campus adjacent to the Crum Woods, which are open to the public, we are not immune to this kind of behavior,” Hill said. “This incident is on file for future reference but there is no further action that can be taken to identify the responsible party at this time.”
For some, however, simply documenting the discovery of this graffiti is an important step, both to facilitate recovery from the injury caused by the use of the slur and to prevent future exposure to such harmful graffiti. According to Oladipo, because Public Safety could log the incident, they could attest to the reality that microaggressions, as well as overt racism, do occur within the community, regardless of whether they are committed by students or individuals from the surrounding area.
“Around school, when racist things do happen, it’s not really something you can document,” explained Oladipo. “The fact that it was written on a log was unexpected because it was like ‘Now we have evidence of it.’ Usually when little racist microaggressions occur it’s just my word against somebody else’s, but now we have evidence of it so you can’t deny that this did happen.”
Anderson agreed, explaining that it is incredibly important to record any breaches of respect for others in the college community as they serve as a reminder of the contemporary lived experiences of many of those living on campus.
“I think it is important for us to note that these moments are not only in the past,” Anderson said. “Maybe this graffiti was in the past, but it certainly was hurtful to the person who found it in the present, and it was hurtful to the community.”
Murray-Thomas echoed these sentiments, explaining that she was not particularly shocked by the incident because it symbolized a truth with which she is already familiar.
“To me it was a reminder of our constant reality,” Murray-Thomas explained. “But I haven’t been blind to the community that we live in, to the systems that operate in the nation we live in, so it wasn’t particularly jarring to me in that sense, but it was jarring to me in the sense that that’s what racism would look like on this particular campus.”
Still, Murray-Thomas indicated that the graffiti had to some extent affected her perception of and associations with the Crum Woods, explaining that while she does not regularly enter the space, if she ever did, she would think of the log and the offensive language spraypainted onto it.
Straiton, who – unlike Murray-Thomas – frequented the Crum prior to discovering the vandalized log, agreed, explaining that since finding the graffiti, she has not returned to the space.
“Because it was one incident, I don’t really feel that afraid,” Straiton said. “At the same time, it was my escape place. I liked to just go there to get away from things and be alone in the woods, but when that happened that sort of ruined my nice, happy place.”