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Black athletes: Yik Yak controversy brings racism to the forefront at Colorado College

December 19, 2015 Updated: December 20, 2015 at 8:27 am
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photo - McQella Adams, a Doherty HS graduate, is a senior biology major at Colorado College. She plays volleyball at CC. Photo by David Ramsey, The Gazette
McQella Adams, a Doherty HS graduate, is a senior biology major at Colorado College. She plays volleyball at CC. Photo by David Ramsey, The Gazette 

McQella Adams is short of breath after hurrying from organic chemistry, her final class of the day at Colorado College.

She's a senior biology major, and her CC years have been, for the most part, a happy blur. Riding with teammates to volleyball matches. Studying in Italy. Pursuing her ambition to work in forestry.

Adams grew up in Colorado Springs and, during her days at Doherty High School, CC beckoned as her ideal academic refuge.

But she and other black athletes have experienced a more complicated campus. 

In November, racist and hostile statements appeared on Yik Yak, a social app billed as a way to "discover and connect with your community." The messages created divisions at CC. "Go back to the cotton fields," read one. Graffiti was scrawled on a campus wall: "Yik Yak Soldiers . WANT TO BE SLAVE OWNERS."

Adams struggles with the clash of her hopes for CC and the reality of the school.

"When I thought of coming to CC, I had nothing but big hopes and I was very excited," she says. "I don't know if I was a little naive, but it's really disappointing. You wouldn't expect to find that here."

Juwan Rohan, a senior psychology major who plays basketball, traveled to CC during his senior year of high school.

"The connections that I made here, they made me feel comfortable here, even though I'm a minority," Rohan says.

Rohan was stunned and disappointed when he saw the racially charged comments on Yik Yak, but he places the controversy in perspective.

"There's racism everywhere," he says. "It's not like I'm disappointed that I came here because of racism. I'm more disappointed that it's still happening everywhere."

Chanisse Hendrix, a junior biology major who plays soccer, traveled to CC from her home in Northern California as a high school senior. She was dazzled by how Pikes Peak loomed over the campus and comforted by the friendly reception.

"This is a good home away from home, even if it's predominately white," she says. "That has never bothered me."

CC leaders, Hendrix says, dealt forcefully and properly with the wave of controversy ignited by the messages. Lou Henriques was expelled permanently for his role in the incidents and Thaddeus Pryor was suspended for two years, which later was reduced to the remainder of this academic year. The college also conducted a schoolwide assembly to discuss racism.

"Sure, it did shake the campus," Hendrix says, "but they are going through it in the way they should be going through it by making sure there is punishment."

Adams sees the Yik Yak incidents in a complicated light.

"On one side, you have a lot of people who are hurt and afraid, and on the other side you have a lot of people who aren't trying to inflict pain or hurt," she says. "They're just joking around, but they don't understand."

Some of the Yik Yak messages were inspired by "South Park," a raunchy, almost-anything-goes animated comedy.

"I watch 'South Park' all the time and laugh at all their jokes," Adams says. "It's satire. They're making fun of sensitive stuff, pointing out real issues."

A few students transported the explosive spirit of "South Park" to campus. CC is trying to recover.

"Expelling the students might have been a little harsh just because I think everyone makes mistakes," Adams says. "A severe reprimanding was in place. You can't make everyone happy."

For Adams and Rohan, the troubles were a surprise. They have not encountered overt aggression or racism during their CC years. The challenges were more subtle.

As a freshman, Adams listened in the locker room as her volleyball teammates sang along to explicit hip-hop songs.

"There were offensive words, like the N-word or some other racial slurs," Adams says. "I would say, 'Ohhhh, I didn't know that was OK here.' "

As a newcomer, Adams didn't feel comfortable taking steps to stop the singing. As a sophomore, she felt more comfortable. She spoke with team captains and never heard such songs again.

Rohan wondered about the selection of topics in his American history class. He wanted to hear "the African side of it."

"I already hate history, and they force us to learn about Caucasian history," he says. "I think that's a downside. I want to learn about some other stuff, about where I come from. Stuff like that."

Adams, Hendrix and Rohan are optimistic. They believe CC leaders have taken strong steps to make the campus more open and welcoming.

Rohan is a leader in the Student Athlete Minority Leadership Union, which hosted a "Stranger Night" on campus.

At the function, students were encouraged to branch out and meet someone new.

"Talk with a stranger," Rohan says, smiling. "Get to know someone. Build new relationships. We're getting better at that. Slowly, we're getting a lot better."

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