Francis Hernandez talks TDR incident, racial climate on campus

Taken by Francis Hernandez.

Taken by Francis Hernandez.

by Lucas Trevor

A little over a week ago a man wearing a confederate flag print sweatshirt entered TDR. In the days that have followed there seems to have been more questions than answers about the incident. I sat down with American University sophomore Francis Hernandez, the person who first posted to Facebook about the incident and was a firsthand witness to the situation.

Can you start by telling me about what happened in TDR the night of the incident?

I’ll start with just like a run down. I was in TDR, getting dinner I think, and I see this kid, with the hoodie of course, and for a second I was confused. You know maybe it’s like the British flag or something, because honestly I’m not very good with flags. So then my friend Katherine comes up to me, and asks if I had seen the kid. We both confirm that it was actually a confederate flag hoodie, and not a Union Jack or something. A bunch of students started crowding around, looking at him, and a lot of people seemed surprised. I kept hearing, “I can’t believe he would dress like that here,” stuff like that. As if anywhere but here would have been okay.

There was Spanish night in the corner. Students who had reserved seats sitting in the corner, in this sort of enclosed space. People from Aramark were there, who were not TDR staff, kind of supervising. So I asked them, “Do you work for TDR, or do you work for Aramark?” I explained the whole situation to them. I showed them the kid, and initially the man, Ross Carlton I believe, initially he said, “unfortunately there isn’t anything we can do.” As a result I had to victimize myself to him, explain to him that I felt unsafe, and anxious. The kid made it so that I could no longer enjoy my meal, and I’m sure I’m not the only student in here feeling this way. I asked him to “please do something.” He responded by calling [American University Department of Public Safety], but he didn’t really offer to do anything until I showed him how visibly affected I was. Which to me is complete BS, it shouldn’t be that way.

I approached the guy later, and this whole time I had been sort of observing him. I was worried he was gonna do something. Eventually I confronted the guy myself, which I did not mention in my post. A little after that an AUPD officer came in, and I approached him. I assumed the officer was there about the kid. The officer brushed me off. I asked if he was here about the kid, he respond very passively, saying, “yes.” I asked if the cop could at least stand by him. I know cops can’t do much at all. I really feel it was a slap in the face to send a cop there. As if students who have had trauma with cops don’t get into this school, and don’t go to this school. The officer really deflected a lot. He asked, “has he actually done anything?” I said, “I mean he’s wearing that hoodie, you know exactly what he’s doing by wearing that hoodie.” But the cop basically said that he wasn’t breaking any rules. I respond, “rules don’t equate to what is right.”

After that, the officer slowly made his way over. They talked, a lot of people have been saying they were smiling and laughing. I only personally saw the last half of their encounter, but they shook hands, they smiled at one another. In my opinion, racists shouldn’t be treated cordially. I understand it’s part of his job, but it really was a slap in the face. To have my intentions questioned, and to have him sit down with this man, converse with him, as if he deserved respect.

Rumors were the kid’s girlfriend was there, and that she got him to leave. She apologized to a black student on the kid’s behalf, which is just BS again. I made a comment to him as he left, basically F you, but that was really it.

So you posted on Facebook about the incident, and you detailed essentially a more abridged version of what you just described. What has the response been like both in comments on the post, but also you mentioned you have received personal messages?

Something that was preposterous to me was how much effort went into responding to this incident, as opposed to dealing with it when it happened.

What do you mean by that?

I had to force action for them to do anything period. But the day after people were inundating my inbox. The spokesperson of AU, Mark Story, he reached out to me, asking me to post their official notice. Why is it that the Universities response is ALWAYS to make students labor.

I also just got a lot of white men in my DMs, who were acting as if this was a singular incident. Of course they were feeling victimized because white fragility is pervasive. I just got so many people in my DMs, who were so bold, who I have never interacted with before, who claim to understand my frustration, and then try and neglect and deflect everything I said. And that happened a bunch of times, I have many. So many people at this school… I just have no problem calling out the racists at this school.

One common comment that I have seen on posts about this, is that for students from the South, this is not a big deal. What is your perspective on that?

Those people need to check their privilege as to why they have never had to think about this issue. Why have they never been confronted with what that flag means? I know what the United States is. How pervasive these people are. The people who created this flag themselves have stated what this flag is for. The flag is racist, it promoted slavery, and people want to hide it under the guise of protecting history. History needs to be remembered, not glorified. I think to anyone who says that I just can’t.

I was called into [Center for Diversity and Inclusion] shortly after the incident. The women I met with said that the two most common responses were outrage, or exactly that. “I don’t know what the big deal is?” We just can't let ourselves become desensitized to this. I almost left TDR because I was so anxious, but we can’t just do that. That's where allyship comes in. We must speak up for those that can’t speak up for themselves.

I really don’t know. I am continuously disappointed by the lack of really allyship here. I find so much of it to be just performative. To everyone who thinks this flag is harmless, and something that should be preserved through history, I think people need to examine inside of themselves why this has never been an issue for them. People need to deconstruct their social location, and think about why things at home might be so different.

Finally, I think I was most disappointed with the students that day who, “couldn't believe this was happening on this campus.” This stuff happens everyday on campus. It happens to students like me, it happens to students in classes, it happens with professors. This isn’t an isolated incident, this is pervasive. It comes through in almost all settings on this campus, personal, private, professional, everything. People need to stop being shocked that this is happening here, and realize that we are merely a reflection of what is happening in the larger world. Racists and racism is everywhere, and it’s not just bad people. It’s systemic, and it affects people.

As you stated before a lot of people are “shocked” by what happened, because AU is such a liberal campus. Do you think AU is as liberal as people think?

Yes, absolutely. And I really don’t draw positive connotations from that. I think liberalism is an ideology that permeates a lot of inequalities under the guise of commercialism. Democrats will fight for what’s “right” as long as it makes them popular. So yes, I do agree that this is a liberal campus, but it is a white liberalism.

You made a point to say in your post that you did not want to take up space that was not yours. You said, “it is critical to center Black students and their voices (particularly Black women and non-binary/trans Black folk) in this conversation.” Why do you think focusing on those voices is so important?

Because when people take up space that we are not supposed to, we facilitate the performative action. I singled out trans, non-binary Black folk, because those are the most marginalized people in our community. Those are the voices most likely to be silenced. The confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy, of course I find it threatening. But it is specific for Black students, so we should center Black students and their narratives in this.

I was hesitant to talk to anyone, because I don’t want this to seem like I’m “milking this,” or for it to come across as me “raging against AU, because that is not what this is. It is me trying to be an ally. It shouldn’t be on the shoulders of a Black student to speak up. Allyship should be so that the people who are most affected can remain safe.  So many people reached out, and I felt like it was important to not put myself at the center of that, and to let some time pass. I asked for links to work by black activists, and unfortunately I didn’t get a lot. But I really think that should be the focus here.

Obviously you have received a lot of negative responses, both in person but also online from students and members of the community about your post. Have you received any positive messages, from students who support your perspective, and what you said?

The day of the incident someone approached me and said that essentially the hoodie made them uncomfortable too. I identified them as a person of color, they did not self identify, I didn’t ask them in the moment if they were a person of color, but it was very important to me. There were a lot of people of color in TDR that night, but the one thing that I focused on was all the white students who were looking around and acting like it wasn’t their job to do anything. That’s what allyship is. Being a true ally is being an anti-racist. I confronted this kid because I want him to know that apart from what the school can do, someone was watching him. Somebody was making sure he wasn’t gonna do anything.

A lot of people have been commenting on my post asking, “how is this violence,” or saying, “you obviously don’t know what violence is. Wearing that hoodie is a violent act. That flag is a violent symbol. It is a symbol of white supremacy. So many white people that night responded with, “thank you… thank you for saying something.” They patted themselves on the back, and probably think to themselves that they have done something productive when they really haven’t.

Over messages I did get a lot of support, and messages of solidarity, but ultimately there is no need to thank me. I tried to say that. To as many people as possible. I even had one student message me, they said they checked the database and they couldn’t find Ross Carleton in the student database. There was some confusion, Ross was the Aramark representative I spoke to not the kid who wore the hoodie, but that’s allyship. That’s actually supporting people of color.

That really is what the cisheteropatriarchy is. If you are white and cis and hetero, and you are not actively working to deconstruct those systems of power, then you are complicit. The amount of gaul the white men at this school have to message me with their two cents, that’s not just innocent. I’m not surprised that people disagreed with me, but the amount of white men in my DMs infantilizing me, and depoliticizing me, and trying to make my reaction about emotions. The one guy I mentioned to you, he said “well these are just my two cents, take with it what you will, I’m glad you are passionate about something most teens are not.” That wording is not innocent. I am 19 years old yes, but I am a grown women, and you will refer to me as such.

Do you think the administration's response was adequate, and what should they be doing that they are not?

I understand that a school cannot govern what someone wears, because it can so easily be turned against people. Consuelo (Grier) in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion brought up that if clothing started being regulated, it would most likely flip, and be turned against Black and brown kids. Black and brown kids are not allowed to wear things certain places that white kids are. I understand that.

I think the first thing the university should have done was denounce the violence that hoodie represents. I get that they cannot remove a student because of their clothing, but you can ask someone to be removed if they are causing a disturbance. I don’t know the legality of it, but I do think that there could have been more done there. A lot of people have asked me what I think should be done, and what should the response have been? I think first off the University needs to hire people who are trained in this, in interdisciplinary, sociology, but also other fields. Be it cultural anthropology. The University needs to stop making students labor for them. AU is just a constant cycle of performative actions and regressive systems. They make students of color do their own labor. Ms. Burwell’s council of diversity and inclusion? The University needs to step up. They can afford to take care of their flowers and their cute grounds for tours, they can afford to hire people to do this work, and to address these issues.

Second, AU’s first response, the one they wanted me to post, it implied neutrality. It said “we understand how this could be seen as offensive.” AU can’t be neutral and objective on this issue. Anyone dedicated to real change on this issue can’t be objective. They made sure to make students happy, but also to make the people behind the doors happy. In my opinion AU stands behind everything in this world that is wrong, like cis-hetero white supremacy.

A simple example of this would be fossil fuels. This University is invested in fossil fuels, and we know that it’s gonna damage people in the, and please but quotes around this, “global south.” We can’t act like AU doesn’t prioritize certain human lives over others. AU does not do the work that is needed. AU is just gonna remain neutral. It is preposterous that people were reaching out to me, and wanting me to tell everyone that AU is aware, and AU is doing something. And I said no. If I had posted that statement it would have made me complicit. It is important to stand against these things, these systems. That hoodie is not up to interpretation. That symbol is not up to interpretation. I can’t respect any actions by AU that isn’t outright condemning the actions.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the media response to it. A number of outlets including the Washington Post wrote stories about it, do you think they took the issue seriously?

A lot of people reached out from various student news organizations and I will tell you I originally decided not to talk to anyone about the incident. I did give permission to the Eagle to use my photos, I don’t know if they actually did. I didn’t give them that permission until after they had published. I gave NBC4 permission to use the photos, and the Washington Post did not reach out to me. The reason I posted this was so that students would know.

You can’t trust AU to be held accountable for anything, and I’m quite sure they would not have sent out an email if I had not refused to post their statement. I responded to what AU wrote me, “as with other things, AU’s response was performative and full of words which suggest neutrality. Thus I will not be doing them the favor of posting it under my post. As with other incidents I recommend sending the post to all students as this was not an isolated incident, and there are definitely AU students who espouse hatred, and they need to know that AU will not tolerate bigotry. AU students want change not apologies.”

I posted this on Facebook mainly because I was surprised that people were surprised. It still shocks me that people are not actually aware of these things because of their privilege. I wanted people to know that this happened, because I couldn't trust AU to report on it. I don’t know if anyone was gonna post a full account of what happened, or if anyone did, but I chose to because I did say something to him. I wanted the actions taken and AU’s response to be clearly spelled out.

As for student media outlets, we can’t keep pretending that media is supposed to be neutral. Media is operating under the guise of neutrality. But we all have biases that permeate our work. A lot of student media was focused on “the scoop.” For example, I didn’t choose to talk to the Eagle because they have had a problematic history. I think student media outlets, just like professional media, they need to be more conscientious of how they portray information, and how they influence people. Headlines can seem neutral and not be neutral. Real world example, the migrant caravan. I don’t know how much people know, but it was a caravan of I think about 5,000 people, of Honduran migrants. All these news outlets were reporting that they were a “horde” or they were “storming the border,” all these words have assumptions and connotations tied to them, that help permeate a certain idea about people. Just from there I think student media outlets, just like professional media outlets need to be more responsible, and I think we shouldn’t be detached from it.

Is there anything else you want to say about the incident, or the aftermath, or anything like that?

Just that I’m not afraid of the white men in my DMs, and being an ally is more than just saying you are one.

CampusLucas Trevor