Content warning: This article discusses recently emerged texts between two Occidental students that included genocidal, racist speech toward Asian people.
In December 2020, an Occidental College student, Student A,* texted a genocidal, racist statement toward Asian people to Occidental College Student B,* according to a screenshot of the text obtained by The Occidental. In the conversation, both students also blamed Asian people for the pandemic. These text messages were made public and began to publicly circulate Feb. 1, according to an anonymous student* who gained access to screenshots of the texts and initially shared them online. According to President Harry J. Elam, Student A is no longer enrolled at the college as of Feb. 5.
This incident occurs amid a rise in anti-Asian violence both in California and nationwide during the pandemic, and within the broader history of anti-Asian violence in the U.S. The violent language of the texts and the administration’s initial response set in motion a series of events on campus that unleashed an uproar of activism from students, faculty and staff.
President of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Association (APIDAA) Ashley Muranaka-Toolsie (junior) said she believes more dialogue between Occidental administrators and faculty, staff and students is necessary to rebuild trust and increase accountability.
“There needs to be time for some restorative justice and dialogue because faculty, staff and students have felt overlooked and betrayed for a long time now. This is almost like a breaking point of an accumulation of a lot of pain and ignorance from the administrative staff,” Muranaka-Toolsie said.
The Asian student who shared the anti-Asian texts with other students first became aware of the texts in her leadership capacity within Kappa Alpha Theta’s chapter at Occidental — of which both the students who received and sent the anti-Asian texts were members. According to the anonymous student, Student B initially brought the texts Student A had sent her December 2020 to the attention of Theta’s leadership in October 2021, in an attempt to remove Student A from her enrollment in the sorority.
“These messages were not unlike the horrible things one might read on Twitter, but to know that these were thoughts espoused by someone so closely associated with me and at my small university, I was in shock by how much it affected me,” the anonymous student source said in an Instagram post shared with The Occidental.
The anonymous student said she was the only Asian student — and the only student of color — who was made aware of this incident in October, and she said she felt extremely uncomfortable being asked to keep the texts confidential.
According to Haley Jones* (senior), President of Occidental Greek Council and a member of Theta, Theta leadership began to consult with the national leadership of the sorority starting in October 2021, though she and Greek Council only recently became aware of the incident.
Starting in October, the anonymous student source said she and an Asian friend who was also in Theta began to consult with sorority advisors and brought the texts to the attention of the Intercultural Community Center (ICC) in a mid-November 2021 meeting. The anonymous student source said they then filed a Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation (DHR) report and met with the Dean of Students and Office of Student Conduct, but were told that the racist texts did not meet the threshold for moving forward with a case.
Vice President of Communications & Institutional Initiatives Marty Sharkey confirmed that college personnel first became aware of the text messages in November 2021. At that time, college personnel reached out to the individuals who reported the conduct, met with those students and conducted an assessment of whether the reported conduct constituted a potential violation of Occidental’s DHR policy, according to Sharkey. The DHR policy was updated Jan. 1 of this year, according to Occidental’s website.
In evaluating DHR cases, Sharkey said the college considers multiple factors, including the nature and timing of the messages; the identity of the sender and recipient; the impact on the recipient; the context of the conduct — for example, whether it was a private text messenger or in a classroom setting — and whether the messages were intended to communicate a threat to the recipient or to incite violent or unlawful acts.
The anonymous student source said the DHR process was incredibly frustrating and traumatic for her.
“At every turn we were made to feel like we were overreacting to genocidal language, language that also blamed all Asians for the pandemic,” the anonymous student source said in an Instagram post. “Almost no one would call it racist, simply an ‘emotionally challenging time’ or a ‘difficult situation’. It made me feel like the level of disruption to my life these messages caused was simply my own personal failing.”
The anonymous student said she felt she exhausted every available recourse through the college before she shared screenshots of the anti-Asian texts with her friends Jan. 31, who then publicly shared them on social media.
“I was hesitant to spread the messages so widely due to how harmful they were,” the anonymous student source said. “My goal was to get the school to do something without having to traumatize other students.”
According to Sharkey, President Elam and senior staff became aware of the messages for the first time last week when the screenshot of the text messages was shared widely on social media. In a Feb. 3 email, Vice President for Equity and Justice David T. Carreon Bradley released the first campus-wide response from the college administration.
“While inconsistent with the College’s values, the speech in these text messages does not fall within the definition of unlawful harassment or discrimination under applicable law or Oxy’s Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation policy and, as offensive as these messages are, they qualify as protected speech under College policy and state law,” Carreon Bradley said in the Feb. 3 email.
Ethan Fong (sophomore) said he believes that the college has not taken enough action in response to the situation.
“I’ve mostly been feeling anger towards the administration for being extremely complacent, like sending emails that are not saying anything, not doing anything,” Fong said.
Carly Veneciano (first year) said she was incredibly frustrated with Occidental’s immediate response to the anti-Asian texts, which focused on the college’s lack of legal recourse for the issue.
“The school’s response was, frankly, very disappointing because the school is marketed as accepting, diverse and wanting social justice,” Veneciano said. “But then, when they’re presented with this issue, they respond in a way that does absolutely nothing.”
Cheng Wang (senior) said he was also disappointed by the lack of direct communication between administrators and students.
“If we don’t push, they won’t act,” Wang said, “I basically don’t have any protection at this school, and if I don’t act, the school doesn’t protect me at all.”
An open letter from Oxy Law Society, circulated Feb. 3, urged the college to reconsider their decision and live up to their mission, values and obligation to protect all students.
“Why have a Vice President of Equity and Justice if they are unable to uphold those very values? We want ACTION, the AAPI community wants to feel SAFE and RESPECTED,” the open letter said. “By continuing to protect a student who has threatened and denigrated an entire community, Occidental’s administration has failed to live up to Occidental’s mission.”
The letter was co-signed by over 900 students, 87 student organizations and over 200 alumni as of Feb 8.
Carreon Bradley said they, President Elam and other senior staff acknowledge the harm the college’s initial response caused on campus.
“Regardless of our intentions, the [college’s] response had an extremely negative impact on a wide segment of the community — particularly Asian and Asian American folks in the community — and we’re working to rectify it,” Carreon Bradley said.
Students chalked the steps of the Arthur G. Coons (AGC) administrative center and walkways outside the Johnson Student Center (JSC) Feb. 3 to express solidarity with Asian students and advocate for more significant action from the college. That evening, the chalk was removed by the college against its chalking policy, according to a Feb. 4 email from Dean Rob Flot. In the email, Flot expressed regret and said the chalked messages should not have been removed.
APIDAA hosted a Community Student Listening Session on Feb. 8 to create a space where students could express their feelings and hopes for change among other Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) students.
“When this incident first happened, we believed the first step was to hear from more students because we wanted to understand the process of community outreach, uniting, building trust and learning from each other,” Muranaka-Toolsie said.
Sharla Fett, professor of history, is the current president of the Faculty Council — a group of five faculty members elected by faculty to organize faculty governance. According to Fett, the Faculty Council convened a teaching faculty meeting on Friday, Feb. 4 to discuss the impact on both students and faculty, and actions they could take in response to the anti-Asian texts.
“The impact on students has been awful — but on both faculty and staff as well, especially AAPI faculty and staff who have felt some of those same emotions of fear and terror and trauma and anguish,” Fett said.
Over that weekend, a group of faculty including Fett, wrote a campus-wide email to support students’ efforts, which was sent Monday, Feb. 7 with 132 faculty signatures.
“It’s important that this letter ends by talking about effective education about racism and its consequences, attentive to the diverse BIPOC communities harmed by white supremacy,” Fett said. “Because this instance of anti-Asian violence is contextualized within other ongoing conversations at Oxy about communities of color and belonging, and how we as an institution can confront and address systemic racism within our own institution.”
On Monday, Feb. 7, the Faculty Council met with Elam to discuss two main areas of harm, according to Fett.
“One [harm] was, first, the original text when it surfaced publicly. And then the second was the initial administrative response, which we said in our letter, really led with the legal defense,” Fett said. “Even though those communications tried to stress that this is absolutely unacceptable for Oxy … It was hard for the community to hear those messages because of the legal language that was used.”
Flot said he met with Student A and her family throughout the week after the texts became public, but that the college is unable to provide details of the nature of Student A’s, or any other student’s, separation from the college.
“I’m going to support her to see that she’s okay — not that what she did was okay — but ‘Are you okay?’ while reconciling the community’s needs as well,” Flot said. “I think the fact that she’s not enrolled this semester will indeed help with the process of moving forward.”
Fett said investing in educating the college community about racism in the long term should include intentional teach-ins, speakers series or other programming.
“We are an educational institution and our job is to educate our students and ourselves about the history of racism, its origins, its consequences and its current manifestations. That is a goal that asks us to get to the root causes, so we go beyond one student’s actions to understanding why this exists,” Fett said.
A Feb. 8 email from Elam outlined further steps being taken by the college, including a facilitated listening forum, the hiring of a Justice Equity Inclusivity & Diversity (JEID) education specialist, increased anti-racist education for students and plans to use a stronger equity lens for official communications.
Muranaka-Toolsie said educating the Occidental community members, including through anti-bias training for Greek Organizations and Athletic teams, is crucial to ensure incidents like this never happen again.
“There are still people out there who still don’t understand or think that it’s a big deal,” Muranaka-Toolsie said. “They get to move on with their lives while students of color and Asian students are left to deal with the emotional trauma and pain. It’s hard for us to move on. Other students shouldn’t be able to just pick up and move on.”
Kayla Heinze contributed reporting for this story.
*Haley Jones is a News Editor for The Occidental. The Occidental’s conflict of interest policy removes anyone with ties to a story from the reporting and editorial process of the article. Jones was not involved in the reporting or editing of this article because of her position on Occidental’s Greek Council and membership in Kappa Alpha Theta.
*The names of Student A and Student B have been omitted in this article for their privacy.
*The identity of the anonymous student source has been withheld for her safety, in accordance with our anonymous source policy. For more information on anonymity, visit our Frequently Asked Questions.
This article was updated at 2:44 p.m. Feb. 9 to include a paragraph describing updates from President Elam’s Feb. 8 email to the college community. This addition is also reflected in the print edition of The Occidental.