Keelon Dixon dismissed the words of his grandmother when he was dropped off at UNC-Chapel Hill as a college freshman. She had told him: “Don’t trust them. I love you.”
Later, his faith in his fellow students would be tested when his lab partner posted several photos on Facebook – her husband holding a large gun in one photo, next to another photo of black protesters. It was around the time of local demonstrations over the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed man who died while being restrained in a chokehold by a New York City policeman.
Dixon, who is African-American, was angry and uncomfortable.
“I was literally walking around, like, I didn’t want to make eye contact with people,” said Dixon, a senior from Lenoir.
His grandmother’s words lingered in his head and, in the ultimate irony, he himself vented on social media.
On Tuesday, Dixon told his story to a crowd of about 40 students who had gathered at UNC for the second session of open dialogue on topics of diversity and equity. The university is hosting “Carolina Conversations,” to promote discussion about issues that have flared this year.
Last week’s discussion, on race, occurred as trustees considered the possible renaming of Saunders Hall, a campus building named after a man widely believed to have been a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Tuesday’s conversation centered on social media, particularly anonymous forums like Yik Yak, where racist comments have punctured the campus climate. Future gatherings will focus on topics such as religion, gender and political thought.
Tuesday’s event started with a poll of students about whether they’d ever been offended by something on social media. The overwhelming answer was “yes.”
Noah Boyd, a senior from Willow Spring, said most people would assume that he, as a white male, would not feel out of place on campus. But he did in February, following the shooting deaths of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill. Boyd is Muslim.
“There was a lot there that felt really oppressive to me, and something that I was not used to experiencing,” he said. He said one Facebook comment said basically that the three students “had it coming to them.”
Others said affirmative action is often a touchy subject. Shantell McLaggan, a sophomore from High Point, has heard the comments – that she’s only at the university because of her ethnicity.
“I work just as hard as you, if not harder than you, to get in here,” said McLaggan, who is black. “I made straight A’s in high school, I was in so many different clubs, I played sports, like, I was involved in my community. … I have just as much of a place here as you do, you know? I wish people were less ignorant and more educated on topics such as those.”
Some students complained that the university administration had not been more outspoken about some issues. Others said they were just glad to have a safe space to express their feelings.
“I’m a huge supporter of these events,” said Neil Pathak, a freshman from Charlotte.
Andrew Kyeremeh, a junior from Germantown, Md., agreed but said the event could have had more impact with a wider diversity of views.
“I think it would have been very beneficial for students that have counter opinions and viewpoints to be here, because that would give it a little bit more of a meaning to me,” he said.