The person who wrote this on the wall of a public bathroom last week on the Virginia Tech campus could have never predicted what the response would be to it. But to be fair, no one could’ve anticipated how these nine words would both unite a campus and serve as a lesson for school administrators everywhere on how to swiftly respond to hateful words directed at minority students.
When Virginia Tech school officials discovered this threatening graffiti, they understandably took it very seriously. After all, Virginia Tech was the location of a grisly school shooting in 2007 that left 32 people dead. And just last month in Oregon, nine students were killed at a community college.
What wasn’t expected was the outpouring of support for the Muslim students by both the Virginia Tech school administrators and students. Virginia Tech’s president, Tim Sands, didn’t wait days or weeks to address the issue. Instead he tweeted on the very day the graffiti was discovered: “Today’s threat may prove to be a cruel prank, but it is an opportunity to stand with our Muslim friends & colleagues. #StrongTogether"
Sands also sent an open letter to the student body shortly thereafter that read in part, “Virginia Tech will not be defined by this deplorable act, rather we will be defined by our response.… A threat against one of us is a threat to all of us.”
And then something truly inspiring took place. Virginia Tech students of all backgrounds came together to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim students. First students began tweeting using the hashtag #westandtogether and #hokiesdonthate (Hokies are the school mascot).
They then wrote and produced a video featuring students of various faiths and races that began with the words: “This is a call to Hokie nation. It is time for us to come together.” The students added poignantly, “We stand together in solidarity. We are not afraid of our diversity. That is what makes us strong.”
And then on Tuesday evening, the night before the threatened killing of Muslims was to occur, thousands of Virginia Tech students stood together at a rally on campus to make it clear they were united against hate.
Virginia Tech’s president addressed the students at that event, commending them for making it clear that hate against any group must be countered by all. He went on to urge the students not to just stand together at that rally, but to also to “stand together tomorrow.”
This stands in stark contrast to what we saw recently at University of Missouri where the now-former school president failed to swiftly and forthrightly address racial slurs and tensions at that school. In fact, at one point he even ducked students who wanted to speak with him about the issue. And now there are calls for the president of Ithaca College to resign for similar reasons.
But this story is truly about the students. The head of the Muslim student association at Virginia Tech, Obaid Rehman, told me that when he was first informed of the threatening graffiti, it was “frustrating and disappointing.”
“Some people have such a misunderstanding of Muslims that it manifests in a hateful ways, like this graffiti,” he said.
But Rehman, a senior jointly studying biological sciences and religion, noted that the response by his schoolmates was awe-inspiring. “They transformed something that was ugly into something that was truly beautiful,” he remarked.
And the Muslim students saw this incident as an opportunity to have a conversation with their classmates in the hopes of countering misconceptions, especially since many don’t personally know a Muslim. “We wanted to use light to counter hate so we handed out cookies to our classmates and invited them to ask us questions about our faith,” added Rehman.
What’s particularity moving about the outpouring of support for the Muslims is that it comes at a challenging time for the Muslim community. Weekly, if not just about daily, the media is filled with reports of hate directed against Muslim Americans. The incidents range from racial slurs, to women wearing hijabs being physically attacked, to politicians like Ben Carson stoking the flames of hate toward Muslims to even a man being convicted for plotting a terrorist attack against Muslim Americans.
Even those who stand with Muslims are subject to hate, as I have witnessed firsthand on social media, as the white allies of blacks were during the civil rights movement.
The threatening graffiti may turn out to be a prank or a calculated effort to terrorize Muslim students. But regardless of the intentions of the perpetrator, the response is what truly matters. We witnessed the students and school administrators at Virginia Tech swiftly and loudly stand up to bigotry.
“It’s a lesson for schools across the country in countering hate,” Rehman remarked. I couldn’t agree more.