by Jen Katz and Hamzah Yaacob
A swastika was found carved into the surface of a desk in the DeWitt Wallace Library on October 4. “We should not at all want this on campus,” Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, Dean of Multicultural Life, said. According to Director of Facilities Services Nathan Lief, the graffiti measured one inch and has since been photographed and removed by Security Services. Lief and other facilities employees were unaware of who had carved the swastika or when it happened.
The Macalester community was made aware of the graffiti through The Daily Piper the following day. In the decision to publicize the finding, Lief said the Department of Multicultural Life (DML) and Student Affairs were involved, adding that “we do this so [that] anyone with information can come forward and anyone who was negatively impacted knows that it is being addressed.”
College Chaplain Reverend Kelly Stone said the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (CRSL) has been informally “checking in with students that we know have historically [found this] challenging.” Stone acknowledged that the vandalism came during a symbolic period for the Jewish community, coinciding with the High Holidays. She says the first person she notified once aware of the incident was Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life Rabbi Barry Cytron.
Cytron said the graffiti, while clearly troubling to the Macalester Jewish community, “does not have to necessarily be anti-Jewish.”
“The swastika has a universal connection for issues of racism and violence and discrimination so it’s hard to judge,” Cytron said.
To this point, Stone said the swastika carries “deep symbols of hatred and pain” for the Jewish community as well as for the college’s LGBTQ community and communities of color.
The campus has seen the swastika and other hate speech featured in graffiti incidents in the recent past. In March of this year, the symbol was found in Turck Hall, and last year the n-word was written atop the popcorn machine in the Loch.
In responding to these incidents, Stone said that “this becomes a community responsibility… That when we see something that is not as it should be, it becomes incumbent upon us to say something… I think it calls us to higher visibility, higher awareness [and] more bravery to step forward.”
However, she also stressed that “everybody feels this in their own way, depending on their own identity, [so] there are different ways that people need to process this,” either “individually” or “collectively.” She feels there “hasn’t been a call to process this collectively.” When asked about the string of swastika incidents on campus, MacDonald-Dennis said the campus community had to “talk about it [and] not shy away from it.” He added that “many of us in Student Affairs have been hoping for this honest conversation.
“What’s hard is that we can want it, but if students don’t want it… it’s kind of like the usual suspects, we know who wants to have the conversation,” he said. “I think that what I need to do as a Dean of Multicultural Life is to be ready to work with students just as they are ready to say enough is enough.”
MacDonald-Dennis also feels that part of students’ apathy that he describes stems from an attitude of assigning blame to outsiders. “I don’t think we want to think that happens here, and it does,” he said.
I think we have to assume it is [from inside the Macalester community]… I think some people want to start with ‘it must be outsiders,’ but I just start with, ‘it’s probably someone from campus.’”
Nonetheless, he emphasized that Macalester students are “passionate, they will try to get to truth and they will interrogate it” making the college “well situated to handle the truth of this matter.”
Given an increasingly divisive political environment, the recent spate of hate messages raises questions about the effect of the political environment on discourse at Macalester.
“It’s hard not to associate the kind of discourse that happens on the national stage that seems acceptable on the part of national leaders with the fact that common citizens think they can talk in the same kind of way,” Cytron said. “It’s hard to separate out it’s seeming acceptability from what’s happened.”