Ndèye Astou Cissé, a Clark College student, was making her usual walk through campus recently when a group of men in a vehicle slowed as she crossed Fort Vancouver Way.
Initially, Cissé said, she paused because she thought she knew them. That’s when they started shouting profanities and racial slurs at her and then sped off, she said.
“They all cursed me,” said Cissé, president of the campus’ Black Student Union and student body vice president, in front of a crowded audience of Clark College students, faculty and community members Thursday.
It was this incident, and others, that prompted Clark College for the second time in recent months to host a forum addressing racist comments or displays on campus.
In addition to Cissé’s experience, the college reported five anti-Semitic fliers found outside of Gaiser Hall, the Penguin Union Building and Scarpelli Hall, and a social media post the college said was reported as “possibly discriminatory or harassing in nature.”
The posters, which depicted offensive portrayals of Jewish men, were signed by “Your Local Stormer Book Club,” and bore the web address for The Daily Stormer. Once called the “top hate site in America” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, The Daily Stormer is an American neo-Nazi and white supremacist commentary website.
In November, signs reading “It’s OK to be white” were found at Clark College, inciting fear and anger from some students on the campus and prompting a similar community forum in December. The Washington Post reported the national appearance of “It’s OK to be white” posters and demonstrations reflected a broader effort by the alt-right — a loosely connected ideology encompassing white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other far-right groups — to recruit people into white nationalist circles.
College President Bob Knight called those who shouted at Cissé “cowardly,” and said he wants Clark College to be a leader in ending bigotry in the community.
“We can’t fix everything else that’s going on around the world, but we can do our best to fix what’s going on at Clark,” he said.
Rabbi Shmulik Greenberg, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Orchards, encouraged the audience to show kindness for each other in light of the recent incidents.
“When we see there is a darkness, the way to deal with that is to bring more light,” Greenberg said.
Despite it being the middle of finals week — typically a slower time for the community college campus — people packed the Penguin Union Building’s auditorium. Chairs were arranged in a circle around a microphone and, one by one, audience members shared their own concerns and experiences related to the recent incidents.
Lexi Peterson-Burge, a member of the Black Student Union, expressed dissatisfaction with the college’s response to hateful incidents. Peterson-Burge, 24, first began attending Clark College as a Running Start student in 2011. At 17, she was approached on one of the first days of school by a man with swastika tattoos who handed her a racist flier.
That experience and others were so crippling for Peterson-Burge, a woman of color, she eventually dropped out of school for some time.
“I have to wonder: what are we not doing that seven years later I am standing in the same position at almost 25 as I was at 17 as a student on campus?” she said.
Jerry Hunnicutt, a 65-year-old Vancouver resident who has volunteered on campus, described the ongoing racist incidents as reflective of the perpetrator’s own insecurities.
“Insecurity about losing ground and control in society is one of the main reasons racism is raising its ugly head, that insecure starting point,” he said.
Speaking to The Columbian afterward, Hunnicutt added that he’s worried people are uncomfortable calling out racism, saying people need to stand up against the types of actions seen at Clark College.
“If you don’t stand up, the problem will grow like a cancer,” he said.
Many speakers touched on that theme, including Oscar E. James III, a 42-year-old student. He pointed to a necklace he was wearing with a skull-shaped bead on it.
“We are all the same on the inside and that’s the bottom line,” he said.
James urged audience members to intervene if they see racism or bigotry on campus.
“If you put a bully on blast … they will shrivel up, and they will go away,” James said.