January 9, 2015

#9 The Writing On The Wall

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

Yik Yak is an app that allows users to communicate anonymously with anyone within a 10-mile radius. At Colgate University in upstate New York, the anonymity brought out a particularly vicious strain of racism that shook the school. 

The Facts: Our theme song and episode music is by Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings

Further Reading: Colgate's response to the sit-in. Colgate's Association of Critical Collegians can be found here

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ALEX GOLDMAN: Colgate University is a tiny private liberal arts school - just 3,000 students, way up in the mountains in Hamilton New York. It’s the most beautiful college campus in America, according to the Princeton Review, located in the 11th friendliest town in America, according to Forbes. But not according to Melissa Melendez, who is a student at Colgate.

MELISSA MELENDEZ: one of the first things I saw about me, was “bash that bitch’s head in.”

ALEX: Melissa saw that comment -- and much worse -- on an anonymous social media app called Yik Yak. Yik Yak lets you see posts or “yaks” as they’re called from users within a 10-mile radius. So it’s no surprise that it’s really popular at college campuses. People can post anonymously on yik yak about lame frat parties, or hot RAs or boring classes. But at Colgate last semester, the site also became a screen onto which the student body’s ugliest, most bigoted and violent thoughts were projected, for everyone to see. And Melissa Melendez and her friends were target of those thoughts.


From Gimlet, this is Reply All, I’m Alex Goldman.

ALEX: Melissa Melendez was a senior at Colgate last semester. And as Colgate students go, she’s pretty unusual. She grew up poor in The Bronx, the child of 1st generation Puerto Rican parents. She attended Colgate on a scholarship. Even for a private east coast liberal arts college, Colgate stands out as being very white. It has half the black and Latino students of your average university. I interviewed Melissa at a studio in New York City, and she told me she still remembers what it was like seeing the campus for the first time:

MELISSA: Well, it was a culture shock. I’ve never seen so many people who look similar to each other. I grew up with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, West Indians, I hang out with people who speak different languages. When I went up there, the people speak English, they wear the same clothing, a lot of them were rich- It was nice. There wasn’t polluted air as much as there is here. But it was weird.

ALEX: Melissa got the impression that as new as this all was for her, for a lot of the students she was meeting, she was a novelty as well.

MELISSA: Every day, there was a different stereotype, or a different battle that I would have to fight or correct.

ALEX: What type of stereotypes did you have to correct?

MELISSA: Oh my goodness. People would be like, “have you ever been shot before?” “do you know J.Lo?” People would ask how many baby daddies my mom has.

ALEX: Were they being serious?

MELISSA: They were so serious. Sometimes people would reach for my hair, and I’m like, “what are you doing… if your hand gets stuck in there, I’m not liable! You can’t just do that!

ALEX: Melissa, was never quite sure what was just people being sincerely curious, or being sincerely bigoted. Although some cases we more clear cut than others.

MELISSA: there were other people in the classroom who would talk about welfare, talk about students like myself who are on scholarship as not deserving, or not belonging. I think my first year I was very angry because of it and then after that, you know, you got to do something about it because you can’t just sit around and get angry, that’s how you know, get headaches and die.

ALEX: So instead of getting headaches and dying, Melissa found the handful of other students at Colgate who were in the same boat as her. They formed clubs, volunteered, and became a support group for other younger minority students coming onto the campus. And pretty soon they noticed something:

MELISSA: we kept seeing all these younger kids who were not doing well, who were crying, who were asking for transfer applications, who were not getting work done, who felt unsafe. It came to a point where the 4 of us could not hold down all of these people. We were getting behind in things, and we were constantly worrying about the younger kids, we felt like, we can’t leave them behind like this.

Colgate Student #1: I’ve been here 4 weeks and I’ve never felt so much -- I’m sorry -- hatred.

ALEX: Their solution, was a sit-in. It began on the 22nd of september and lasted five days. Melissa and her friends formed a group called “The Association of Critical Collegians.” They went old school, and occupied the admissions building. And, there, individual colgate students, shared their stories.

Colgate Student #1: and there was this group of white guys in the back, and they apparently they were calling me all the really ghetto names like “hey Shaniqua, hey Shanaynay.” All this stuff. Oh my goodness.

MELISSA: Students went up and shared their stories for about 6 or 7 hours.

ALEX: Wow. 6 to 7 hours worth of stories. That’s a lot going on.

MELISSA: yeah, and those are just the people who decided to go up and talk in front of 100s of people. Brave souls.

Colgate Student #2: [crying] You think we want to be here and tell these personal stories? You think we want to spend the night here, instead of spending the night in my bed? We don’t, okay? None of us do. And for you to push us to these extremes needs to tell you something.

ALEX: The sit-in felt at first like a massive success to Melissa and her friends. Some estimates said a quarter of the entire school was there. Melissa and the ACC presented the administration with a collectively agreed upon 21-point list of demands. Demands like diversity training for the staff of the financial aid office. Hiring more diverse faculty. Building a discussion of privilege and systemic power dynamics into the core curriculum. The university put up a webpage that responded to the list of demands point-by-point.


But Meanwhile, on Yik Yak, the sentiment was quite different. And pretty disturbing. While Melissa and her friends were occupying the admissions building, there was a parallel protest going on online -- anonymous Yik Yak users protesting the very existence of this sit-in Here are some that Natasha Torres, one of the founders of the association for critical collegians, screencapped.

NATASHA TORRES: "In honor of today i will only hook up with a minority tonight," "i love black people, my maid was always nice to me," "stop being attention seeking and go home," "well then maybe leave if you don't want to deal with the realities of living in a white world."

ALEX: There were others like: “It’s not my fault the most noteworthy thing your people have done is convince us not to enslave you anymore,” or “White people won life, Africa lost. Sorry we were so much better than you that we were literally able to enslave you to our will.”

It’s important to note that these yaks weren’t just isolated racist voices shouting into the void. instead, they were upvoted by dozens of people, meaning other users wanted to drive these yaks to the front page of the app.

Yik Yak was doubling as a direct pipeline to the racist id of the Colgate student body. And Colgate is far from the only school that’s grappling with this app. Anonymous abusive posting on Yik Yak has become such a problem that some high schools have worked with the company to create what are called “geofences,” where the app just won’t function within a certain radius of the school, but Yik Yak does not honor those requests from colleges. To try and slow Yik Yak down, some colleges have tried banning it, but can only limit its use from the colleges’ network - all a student has to do is switch to their wireless provider’s network, and they’ll still have access.

And so colgate is stuck with something in real life we all hate on the internet: a trolly, anonymous comment section. Here’s Charity Whyte, a student at Colgate and a member of the ACC.

CHARITY WHYTE: So it’s really really annoying and frustrating to see my peers hiding behind anonymity.

ALEX: How does it affect your offline life? Does it make you less trusting of people because you’re like, oh maybe this is one of those horrible racist people that I see on Yik Yak?

CHARITY: Yeah. Honestly, sometimes I walk around campus sometimes and I think who posted that terrible thing on Yik Yak. Are they in my classes? Are they my friends? Do I hang out with them at parties? Is that the person who said “black girls are hot, just not at colgate?

ALEX: After the sit in at the campus admissions office, the Association of Critical Collegians continued to organize political actions on campus. And the ugly, racist chatter on Yik Yak continued apace. And on Thursday, December 2nd, after the Thanksgiving break, everything exploded. It was back during the protests in Ferguson when the ACC coordinated a “die-in.”

MELISSA: So we laid our bodies down in the Dining Hall. And then that’s when the flag thing happened.

ALEX: The flag thing. For the die-in, the ACC went and got an American flag at Target, hung it upside down, and wrote “black lives matter” along with the names of people like Eric Garner and Michael Brown. And that constant hum of anti-minority sentiment on Yik Yak, took aim at one person. Melissa Melendez.

MELISSA: I went on Yik Yak, and I saw that they were talking about ACC, but they were also talking about “the bitch with the flag,” and that would be me.

ALEX: On Yik Yak, Melissa came to be known as “Flag Girl.” She was the subject of Yaks like “if someone punched flag girl in the face, I don’t think anyone would mind.” Or:

MELISSA: “Bash that bitch’s head in.” I try to brush everything off, which is a problem sometimes. But at the moment, at the time, I couldn’t brush it off. I was crying, I was like, “you see! look at the world!” and to see 70 or 80 people like something that said I deserve to die. It was disheartening.

ALEX: Disheartening, and, for Melissa, terrifying. These were minority students on a mostly white campus protesting the targeting and murder of minorities, and suddenly they themselves being targeted. Anonymously. After the threats, the core members of the ACC began traveling in groups. They felt unsafe, unable to focus on school, exhausted. Several ACC members already lived together, but many more began crashing at the house - partly out of solidarity, and party out of safety in numbers.

But Melissa continued to feel under threat. And it came to a head the next day. Melissa and her friends had seen some talk on Yik Yak that some students were going to show up in the dining hall with right side up american flags to protest the ACC’s protest. Melissa and her ACC friends said we’ll show up too, and protest your protest of our protest. College. Anyway, when they arrived, they didn’t find any protestors, they just found two members of campus safety. And the campus safety officers were videotaping them.

MELISSA: And so I was like “Ok, are you surveilling us or are you protecting us?” And he said both. And then he was like “I used to support you, I used to support the ACC and I went to your other demonstrations,” But he’s like, but this I don’t support. And like...he’s the head...he’s in charge of campus security and to see him say “I don’t support you, I’m surveying you.” I was like, oh, I see what’s happening, I’m not safe, because the people who I would assume were there for me are not. It made me think about who was there for me, who was there to support me, I am exhausted, I’m, angry, I’m sad. And on top of that I don’t know who to trust. And I’m in the middle of nowhere and I don’t have my family here. And this bubble is toxic. And so I was giving up.

ALEX: That weekend, Melissa and her friends went to meet with the Dean of the College. They told the dean how unsafe they felt, and the dean gave them a bunch of options: she invited Melissa and her friends to stay at her house. She offered to stay herself at the house where the ACC was crashing. She also offered to have campus safety looking after them. And she said, if you really feel unsafe, you can leave, and finish up the semester off campus.

Barbara Brooks, Colgate’s Director of Public Relations and Marketing said that the intent was to take the students concerns as seriously as possible. But that’s not the way Melissa heard it:

MELISSA: When the option of we can leave come up, we understood what that meant. We were like “you brought this up because someone wants us to leave.” Like we are the problem so to make everyone happy, you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here, you can go.

ALEX: Barbara Brooks said she couldn’t speak to this characterization, but she says the school took all of this very seriously. Colgate contacted both the local and state police and asked the Madison County District Attorney’s Office for to determine whether a grand jury subpoena could be issued to compel Yik Yak to disclose information about some of the worst yaks. Independent of the police investigation the school and its lawyer sent separate requests for identifying information to Yik Yak, but both the requests to the district attorney and to Yik Yak were denied.

The school won’t make the number public, but I was told by multiple sources that over a dozen students ended up leaving Colgate for the semester, after the option was made available. Some went back home, and Melissa and 8 of her friends just moved to a different town some ways away from campus.

A group of students moving off campus because they didn’t feel safe -- that had a profound impact on the Colgate faculty. And some professors decided they had to do something, to fight back. And it was clear where the battleground was: it was on Yik Yak. Their audacious, naive battleplan after the break.


ALEX: Welcome back to the show. When we left Colgate, the campus was dealing with racist, violent threats on YikYak. Associate professor of biology Jeff Holm came up with an idea to at least temporarily counteract the negativity on Yik Yak -- something he called “the Yik Yak Take Back.” Essentially, attacking all the bubbling bigotry with relentless, utterly mundane cheeriness and civility.

JEFF HOLM: Wish students well on the finals, joke about how hard you were going to make the final exam. Broadcast out some congratulations to students that were finishing their theses and things like that.

ALEX: It was a little like sending Ned Flanders to post on 4chan. The only rule he gave faculty was that they had to sign their names to their Yaks, which sent a small, but powerful message - “we are here. And we see you.” I asked another biology professor, Eddie Watkins, if he could share a post with me.

EDDIE WATKINS: So, I posted a couple things, one of the things that had the most upvotes was a posting I made about a student who told me that day he got into a great medical school, the one he wanted to get into. That post, at this point, has received 237 upvotes, and you know that’s a very positive thing. Something positive that is happening on campus.

ALEX: As a way to counteract racism, this seems totally ridiculous. The faculty were violating one of the cardinal rules of the internet -- Kindness never works. But to see these older professors making cheesy dad jokes and offering good-natured and unironic congratulations to people, and getting way more upvotes than the racist stuff, it had a surprisingly strong effect on their students.

MELISSA: I love it! I love it. I thought it was so cute. Cause I knew why they were doing it. like, they were making a statement. and I liked how a lot of them sign their names. I thought that was powerful. They were like, screw being anonymous. This was professor Thomson.

ALEX: All the students I spoke too echoed this sentiment. Professor Eddie Watkins noticed the effect as well.

EDDIE: At some point during the day, around lunch, I went up to the coop, the student union for lunch, and I ran into a young woman who had been a very important member of the ACC movement, and she really struggled this semester. You know, she um, [crying] sorry, I saw her and she burst into tears, and she said “you have no idea what this means to us, we felt so alone.” You know, it seemed like a silly thing that we were doing but it greatly impacted some of these people. You know, she was greatly moved. We are so helpless in some ways against this.

ALEX: The take back helped. But it didn’t make the problem go away. I visited Colgate on the last day of the semester to do some interviews, and I tried Yik Yak out for myself. and even then in the dwindling hours before the break, I was seeing Yaks about how users hoped the ACC would dissolve, how awful its members were, how they were happy the ACC had been driven off campus.

Despite those yaks, the students who left Colgate are all returning this spring. Melissa graduated last semester, but actually, she’ll be going back too. Not as a student, but as an employee of the college. She’s choosing to return to the leafy, pondside campus where a lot of young people agree that her head should be bashed in. Partly, because she needs a job. But also, because she feels like if she goes back, she’ll make it harder for Colgate to forget that it still has a problem with race.

As for Yikyak? Look. At this point we know that a piece of technology can’t make people better or worse. Google isn’t making us stupider, Facebook isn’t making us lonelier. All technology can do is give us new options for how to behave. Melissa thinks Yik Yak’s offered a lousy option to Colgate kids: say whatever you want, no matter how hateful, and say it publicly and anonymously. But when I gave her a call back on campus, she had one positive thing to say about the app. Before Yik Yak showed up, Colgate was a place where Melissa saw people express racist ideas all the time. But no one admitted that they were racist. Or that their friends were.

MELISSA: I think that before, people just felt crazy and by people I mean people like me. I feel this way, I feel uncomfortable, people say these things but I don’t have any proof that this exists. It seems like people can just brush it off:“that’s not a big deal, someone put their fingers in your hair. That’s not a big deal.” But with Yik Yak, since Yik Yak was so explicitly racist and so violent, it forced a conversation on this campus that a lot of people were trying to avoid having.

ALEX: So before you went to Colgate and you lived in the Bronx with a bunch of people from many different backgrounds who spoke multiple languages, did you imagine that there was a world out there that existed that was like this? There were people who were like just crazy racist? Was that something you even thought about before Colgate?

MELISSA: Not really. I knew that there were racist laws and it didn't feel as real for me. Because everyone around me looked different, so I didn’t feel that. So when I got to Colgate and I saw a lot of rich people, white people, I never experienced that in my life. I didn't think places like this existed.

ALEX: Everybody at Colgate now knows the terrible things people say to each other when they’re alone in a room with just the people who agree with them. They’ll have to reckon with something ugly and deep-rooted that they used to be able to just pretend didn’t exist. Classes start on Monday.

CREDITS: Reply All is PJ Vogt, and me, Alex Goldman. Our producer is Lina Misitzis. Editing help this week from Alex Blumberg. Matt Lieber is a force to be reckoned with. Special thanks this week to Rachel Emily.


Thanks for your help and we’ll see you next week.