Your college kid may be an anonymous part of the race problem on campus

November 12, 2015
Tufts University students march across the campus in Medford, Massachusetts December 2, 2014 during the first of a series of planned demonstrations against police violence in the United States. The demonstrations, in response to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August, are planned 28 hours apart until December 10 to mark the rate at which a black person is killed by police in the U.S., according to the organizers.      REUTERS/Brian Snyder    (UNITED STATES - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CRIME LAW) - RTR4GFP0

Tufts University students march across the campus in Medford, Massachusetts December 2, 2014 during the first of a series of planned demonstrations against police violence in the United States. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

“Why is there a huge pile of sh** laying in the hub?”

A user near Penn State University posed this question on the mobile app Yik Yak in December 2014. The comment referred to one of several die-in protests that took place in response to Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, 2014. This demonstration involved 80 black students lying on the floor of the campus’ HUB-Robeson Center — the “hub.”

The comment was wildly offensive, and if its author had made it out loud, people would have objected.

But Yik Yak makes it possible to be cruel while avoiding conflict. The key to insensitivity on the college campus lies in anonymity.

Yik Yak, a location-based mobile app that allows users to post anonymously, is a weapon of cruelty. Though Yik Yak is often a log of banal questions and observations, racial threats, stereotypes and micro-aggressions are common post topics as well.

In the past, racial intolerance could never be as anonymous as it is today. Unless someone leans over your shoulder as you type on your phone, no one knows you were the author of an incendiary post. Yik Yak permits a cloak of invisibility that then creates a forum for students’ unfiltered feelings — and Penn State is not the only school to see racial intolerance and threatening language perpetuated through anonymity.

On Tuesday night, threats circulated on the Yik Yak page for the University of Missouri, a campus where racial tensions have been high, especially after black members of the football team refused to play in an upcoming game unless the university president resigned.

As the situation continued, one Yik Yak poster threatened to “shoot every black person I see” on campus. Hunter Park, a student at a different Missouri state school, was arrested on Wednesday morning after police say they traced several of the threatening posts back to him by using Yik Yak’s location services.

Park’s case is extreme. With Yik Yak, unless a racially charged comment is violent, no one will try to discipline you for it. In Yik Yak’s terms of service, users agree not to use “racially or ethnically offensive language” or other types of hateful speech. Via email, a Yik Yak representative stated that the company is “avidly focused on protecting against [misuse]” and “has a number of safeguards in place today (like filters, pop-up warnings, in-app reporting, moderation, and suspensions).”

Every day on Yik Yak, I see threatening language targeted at women, Mexican students, black students and other minority groups — comments that seem to go unnoticed or unacknowledged by police or the university. Even when another user writes that the post’s content is upsetting, other users vote his or her comment off the page. There’s no room for dissent.

Non-violent hate speech can leave one feeling just as vulnerable as physical threats, but it’s rarely removed from Yik Yak’s feed.

That’s not to say that all incidents of racism today are obscured by anonymity. Some students feel so confident in their beliefs that they post signs around campus, make racist comments or dress themselves in ways that reflect certain stereotypes — like when sorority girls dressed in ponchos, sombreros and fake mustaches at a “Mexican-themed” party.

Similar issues have received national attention at Yale, where a faculty member disagreed with an email urging students to avoid racist or culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, and a black girl was allegedly denied entrance to a fraternity because of her race.

The ability to hide behind screens while spouting obscenities has stunted our capacity for open discussion on the college campus. These racist ideas percolate anonymously, often erupting in violence, threats and intolerance.

At the Michael Brown “die-in” protests last December, Penn State students laid on the floor of the HUB-Robeson Center, mouths taped shut. From the floor above, I saw their overlapping bodies block the walkway.

Some students stopped, like me, and took in the scene, one of the many die-in protests that occurred that week. But many other people, unmoved by the “dead” bodies of fellow students, walked right through the demonstration. They didn’t sidestep the protest — they acted as though it wasn’t there.

That act seems to symbolize race relations on college campuses. What’s more important, bearing witness to a racially-charged demonstration, or getting to class on time?

We’re rushing past problems instead of facing them. We don’t attend lectures about concepts like post-traumatic slave syndrome because we believe they “don’t pertain” to us. And if people keep walking by demonstrations instead of noticing them, posting their feelings instead of discussing them publicly, we can’t progress. One then-Penn State undergraduate told the student newspaper, during the series of die-ins, that he didn’t foresee progress if that “stuff” — the die-ins — continued.

The college campus will remain hostile as long as anonymity trumps discussion; you will never know who posted the hatred you read on your phone unless someone’s life is threatened. Your Facebook friend who just posted #InSolidarityWithMizzou on their profile might be the same person who posted a racial slur on Yik Yak moments earlier.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

YAWN, Caitlin. More anti-white nonsense from the left wing blogger crowd.

Posted by BillSimmons | Report as abusive

I believe that free speech comes with certain drawbacks, and so does anonymity, but I think that these drawbacks are outweighed by the benefits.

Posted by lilycakes | Report as abusive

“Post traumatic salve syndrome”
I know this feeling entirely. I am a third-generation Holocaust survivor and i experience anxiety and depression because of the trauma my people have endured. My Grandfather died in a gas chamber when he was six years old. Sometimes I have terrible nightmares where i can actually SEE THE CAMPS! Its almost like the memories have been passed on. I think Germany should pay Israel more reparation to compensate me for my hardships.

Posted by BobSagget | Report as abusive

While I agree anonymity loosens people’s tongues, I disagree that “The college campus will remain hostile as long as anonymity trumps discussion”; rather, the current protests are all about students wanting “free speech for me, not thee.” The demonstrators attack, ignore, and abhor anyone who disagrees with them. That’s not what a university education is supposed to be about. If the administrators don’t get some backbone pretty soon, the taxpayers and donors funding these institutions are going to give them a real education in respect.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

Were so sick and tired of Blacks calling racism every time they fail to do the work and get what they want then blame whites.

Yik Yak is a place where truth can be spoken because the speaker need not worry about the PC lynch mobs out there.

If you don’t accept and embrace sodomizing homosexuals, mentally ill transvestites, pot smokers, race baiters you are now subjected to the very treatment- being fired, harrassed etc, that they objected to that happened years ago.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive