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Insensitive GroupMe messages prompt anger, apologies from senders

| Editor-in-Chief

A series of insensitive messages in the Umrath Hall first floor GroupMe prompted backlash on social media and led to apologies from the messages’ authors this week.

The messages, which were posted in rapid succession Sunday night, began with a freshman writing “Why are Asians invading our study room” followed by another student writing “It’s so annoying. They are having movie night in our study room.” After a comment asking if the senders of the initial messages had asked the students to leave, a fourth message reading “F— there’s one in my room too” was also posted.

Other students in the chat took and shared screenshots of the messages, which were ultimately posted to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat on Tuesday night by junior Han Ju Seo. The Facebook post garnered over 463 reactions, 37 comments and 89 shares at the time of publication.

“Thanks for the reminder that no matter my citizenship, the years I’ve spent in America, and my proficiency in English, I’m always going to a foreigner,” Seo wrote. “No matter how much we excel in our careers, achieve incredible things, and work to the point of utter exhaustion we’re still unwanted. Go ahead and love my culture, love my food, and love my music; call me when I’m welcome.”

Among those responding to Seo’s post was student group Asian and Pacific Islanders Demanding Justice, which went on to release their own statement that was shared 30 times on Facebook.

“Asian students are not objects. We are not things. We are people. We belong here just as much as the next person. Asian folks are also students on this campus. We deserve the use of Wash. U. spaces just as much as any other student. It does not matter if these Asian students are US citizens or international students, we are all students here and we all have the right to be here,” the statement read in part.

All the students responsible for posting the messages have since apologized directly to their floormates and, through interviews with Student Life, to the Washington University community more generally.

“It was a very poor choice of words that was not meant in any way to be racially insensitive or derogatory, and right afterwards I realized that it did come across as racist, and I apologized multiple times in the chat and in person to the people who were hurt,” the student who sent the first GroupMe message said. “Overall, I’m just very, very sorry that I’ve hurt so many people on campus.”

“I never meant for my words to come off in that tone and in that way where it would be perceived to be racist, offensive or anything else,” the student who posted the second message said. “I never meant for my words to have an impact like that, and I now realize that those words did have a big impact on the community around me, and I am deeply sorry for any pain that I caused anyone. I did not mean for my words to come off like that. In the future I will be more conscious of what I say and how my words will be perceived by others.”

“I’m very sorry I caused harm to others. That was not my intent,” the student who posted the fourth message said. “I’m just insanely sorry that this has further alienated an already marginalized group. I’m sorry to them…and I completely understand how my comments caused harm.”

The fourth student to post clarified that his message was intended as a joke with his roommate, who is Asian-American. He also reached out to and met with Seo.

“Somebody told me that someone made a huge Facebook post about it,” he said. “I asked [Seo] if I could have a conversation with [her], gave her context and apologized a lot, and offered to meet in person…she gave me her vantage point which I completely understood. It was part of alienating people of a certain group and how that’s never a great thing to do.”

After meeting with the student, Seo says she believes that the freshmen did not intend to hurt anyone.

“I don’t think people were trying to be malicious, I don’t think they were trying to come off as [saying] ‘Asians don’t belong here.’ There were no direct derogatory comments, there were no racial slurs being thrown around, and I completely understand that. [My post] was not meant to demonize them…Those students want to learn.”

According to Rob Wild, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students, Washington University has not opened disciplinary proceedings against the students who sent the messages.

“I can say on behalf of the University that what was stated in the GroupMe is absolutely not in line with the values that Washington University holds related to inclusion in our community,” Wild said. “I would also say that when things like this happen, it’s always our collective responsibility to hold one another accountable to these situations and to try to learn from them and to try to prevent them from happening in the future.”

The messages, according to Dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) Emelyn dela Pena, may have struck a nerve with students because of how they played on stereotypes of Asian-Americans.

“When we go back as far back of as the 19th century, there is this idea of Yellow Peril, and under this idea of Yellow Peril there is this real kind of fear that was instilled in American people and in European people as well about hordes of invading Asian people,” dela Pena said. “So, in the absence of historical context, you might not know that an offhand comment about invading Asians is actually quite painful because Yellow Peril created a lot of anti-Asian sentiment and even helped to create anti-Asian policies like the Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act.”

The CDI will mediate a “restorative circle” with members of the freshmen’s floor to address issues within the students’ immediate community, will provide a “support and processing space” Thursday evening for any students impacted by the messages, and will host a workshop on “The Racialization of Asians and Asian-Americans” Monday.

“I think some people are really angry and want us to have a really heavy hand with students and that’s completely understandable. This was a very hurtful thing to a lot of people but part of how we move forward is also to create a space where people can learn from their mistakes,” dela Pena said. “So I’m hoping that part of that is doing some really good education around the historical and political context of why a seemingly offhand comment is actually very painful and harmful to the community.”

Despite the fallout from the messages, dela Pena believes that this can be an opportunity for learning and growth.

“I’m just hoping that everyone who’s involved in this, that we have the ability to really capture this moment as a moment that we can learn from it, that we can galvanize our community to say that we have a long way to go but that we are always trying to move towards how to build a better future here at Washington University.”

Editor’s Note: This article intentionally does not include the names of the students who sent the insensitive messages. Because these students are not public figures and posted the messages in a semi-private setting, we found no compelling reason to print their names.