At least two Indian students, including national high jump record-holder Tejaswin Shankar, are at the forefront of an anti-racism campaign on the campus of Kansas State University in the US.
The campus controversy had erupted a month after the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old American whose death set off protests across the US and abroad, and gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. It all started on June 23, when Jaden McNeil, president of a student group called ‘America Students First’ on campus, posted on Twitter: “Congratulations to George Floyd for being drug free for an entire month.”
Following the tweet, Tejaswin was part of an emergency Zoom meeting of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, of which he is the marketing chair. He also supported other athletes of colour on sports scholarship at the university in threatening an immediate pull-out from training and competition if the “hateful remarks” from the fellow students continued.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Tejaswin said he had only taken a principled stand by standing with athletes of colour. “If somebody thinks of me like this, then why should I play for them? I don’t want people like these who make these comments on Twitter and days later support me in a competition when they can’t support me out of a competition in personal life… It is my moral responsibility as a teammate to stand by the teammates,” Shankar said.
Just when the storm seemed to have blown over came the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announcement that international students in the US will have to return to their home countries if they are enrolled in programmes that are entirely online for the fall semester.
That saw another Indian student, Vedant Kulkarni, who is majoring in Management Information Systems and Mass Communication and is Director of the Student Governing Association (International Affairs), taking the lead in voicing the concerns of the international students.
However, his comments caught McNeil’s attention once again on Twitter. Tweeting in response to Kulkarni’s comment that international students deserve to be in the USA, McNeil said, “You are entitled to nothing. Living in the US isn’t a human right.” While that led to a torrent of abuses and trolls coming Kulkarni’s way, several people rallied behind him.
The campus controversy has now resulted in the president of Kansas State University Richard Myers putting out a letter, asking the administration “to fast-track plans to combat racism, bigotry and other forms of social injustice”. The letter further stated: “Students, faculty, staff and alumni who are badly hurt or embarrassed for our university are rightly calling for social justice and demanding change. The university supports these demands and believes actions are needed.” Myers also issued a statement denouncing the new “student visitor rules” as “immoral and counterproductive”.
Grant Chapman, Associate Provost for International Programs at the university, said in an email to The Indian Express that he agreed with “our Kansas State University president Richard Myres on this matter (student visitor rules)”.
Speaking from Kansas, Kulkarni said the social media attack on him was intimidating. “It (the trolling) did hurt in the beginning… It was one student who started the troll and the rest of them were his other troll friends. It is scary because he has 33,000 followers, including people who have been called white nationalists.”
Tejaswin, however, said he doesn’t support a view held by many coloured students – that those like McNeil should have no place on the campus.
“Free speech is the primary pillar on which America is established and how can you take away that from a person? That is his opinion (McNeil) and if he wants the country to himself, then he can say he wants the country to himself but it does not mean that he is probably going to get it,” he said, adding that the University has taken steps to help students from diverse culture know each other better.
Editorial| Atonement, not pride
For Kulkarni, the support that he received from the college and star athletes like Tejaswin was reassuring. “Students who don’t even know me reached out to me, shared my story on Instagram and Facebook. The university’s Office of Student Life reached out to me and said, ‘Please remember that he (McNeil) does not represent our views. If you need any resources or if your mental health has been affected by this, please let us know.’ I hope I don’t have to face deportation and have my fingers crossed,” Kulkarni added.
In its June 26 edition, the Kansas University newspaper, The Collegian, reported that two footballers — freshman defensive back Tee Denson and sophomore wide receiver Joshua Youngblood — might not return to the program because of McNeil’s comment. The Collegian quoted Denson as saying, “(I) refuse to play for a program that tolerates ignorance such as this.” The report says: “McNeil first caught the internet’s attention in August 2019, when he said in a now-unavailable tweet that K-State was “forcing” him to take a “diversity class”.”
With direct messages to his Twitter account blocked, McNeil couldn’t be contacted. When The Indian Express got in touch with The Collegian editor, Kaylie McLaughlin, on Monday, she confirmed that McNeil has been elusive. “We’ve reached out to him on multiple occasions using various means, but he’s never responded,” McLaughlin said.
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