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UMD community gathers to address Facebook controversy

DULUTH -- The Facebook conversation that roiled the University of Minnesota-Duluth last week continued to reverberate Wednesday during a sometimes emotional forum on campus.

"What we see here is an escalation of vitriolic bigotry and racism," said Helen Mongan-Rallis, who facilitated the afternoon gathering of about 100 students, faculty and administrators in the Rafters, a meeting place on the top floor of the Kirby Student Center.

"The outrage (is) that white people would act so surprised that this happened," said Mongan-Rallis, who is white and a native of South Africa. "For people of color, this is not new."

What happened was a conversation on the social-networking site Facebook on April 14 between two female white students after a female black student entered the room, describing the black student and referring to her race in derogatory terms. The conversation was posted on the students' "walls," making it available to all of their Facebook friends, and it quickly spread from there. One of the students has 786 friends on Facebook, Mongan-Rallis said.

What disciplinary action the two students will face, if any, remains to be determined. Deborah Petersen-Perlman, the school's equal opportunity director, first met with them Monday, she told the forum. They have 14 days to file a response before any action will be taken.

Mongan-Rallis read the transcript of the conversation at the beginning of the forum. The audience -- the majority of whom were white -- listened in uncomfortable silence.

But speaker after speaker said the problem goes much deeper than one incident.

"It happens every day, and the only thing these students did differently was they were stupid and they put it on the wall," said Njoki Kamau, a Kenyan who is on the faculty in the Department of Women's Studies. "And we are here because we are embarrassed."

Numerous speakers faulted the university on several counts, including the fact that there are no minority counselors on staff. "Someone who has been subjected to racism may not want to speak to someone who is white," said Janet Haynes, who is on the faculty in the Department of Social Work.

Anderinsola Gilbert, a senior from Nigeria, drew the most applause when she called on Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin -- who was not present -- to address the situation publicly, in person.

"We must hear her voice, and it must be hers and no one else's," Gilbert said. "Until she buys into it, why should anybody else?"

Hannah Bengtson, a junior from Lino Lakes, Minn., expressed skepticism that people not taking part in the forum would get the message. The school can offer opportunities to its students to learn about tolerance, but "not everyone wants to. So -- force them," she said, to laughter and applause.

The situation is getting attention on campus. The Facebook episode was the banner story in Wednesday's edition of The Statesman, the UMD student newspaper.

Kamau said she was happier at the end of the forum than she was at the beginning.

"The good news is you are here," she told the group. "You are hearing our rage. ... We will hold you accountable."