An incident involving the juvenile behavior of a handful of Washington State University students, including two freshman basketball players, brought out the best and the worst of other collegians on the campus.
At their best, students who said they were tired of discrimination at the Pullman school rallied to the defense of Asian student Nina Kim, who contends she was repeatedly harassed by the players and their friends. Approximately 200 students demonstrated last month and successfully demanded a meeting to discuss campus bigotry with President V. Lane Rawlins.
At their worst, some demonstrators took their protest too far. According to media reports, some circulated posters with the players’ faces on them and then attended a Cougar home game against Arizona Feb. 24 to push their claims that the basketball players were racists. These tactics were later denounced by Rawlins in a guest column in the WSU student newspaper, the Daily Evergreen. On Wednesday the players were cleared of harassment charges. But not foolishness.
The controversy holds lessons for those willing to learn: Silly actions sometimes have widespread repercussions. Discriminatory gestures, sounds and talk should be verboten at all times. Bias should be confronted in a peaceful manner. In this country, no matter what the offense, an individual is entitled to due process and a presumption of innocence. Finally, WSU, like the rest of the country, has a long way to go to eliminate bigotry.
Kim, a receptionist at the university’s Multicultural Student Center, deserves credit for raising racial awareness on campus by courageously reporting the inappropriate behavior of the young men. Two times a week for the first three weeks of the semester, she told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, a group of four or five men “would jump up and down and make animal gestures, like monkeys, and animal noises.” Once, she said, “one pulled the edges of his eyes back to make slant-eyes at me.”
Basketball players Robbie Cowgill, of Austin, Texas, and Alex Kirk, of Prosser, Wash., don’t deny the basic facts. But they claim the actions of the group were misinterpreted. They weren’t being racist. According to the WSU News Service, one young man in their group told the Student Conduct Board he was mimicking a dance from the movie comedy “Dumb and Dumber.” The players, according to the WSU News Service, were apologetic and immediately quit acting dumb when told of the complaint.
It would be nice to think that student Kim’s discomfort was merely a case of a misunderstanding. But Angela Taniguchi, a friend who organized the rally in support of Kim, contends WSU has “a history of racism and sexism and homophobia.” That perception should be addressed when concerned students and Rawlins meet next week. WSU should eschew discrimination.
The protesters who hounded Cowgill and Kirk courtside should examine their own actions, too. They acted like vigilantes. Fortunately, no one was harmed. But the behavior of this group doesn’t belong on campus either.
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