Student turns racially charged incidents into opportunities
SALISBURY, Md. (AP) — A racial slur by a white student in her middle school classroom might have escaped attention except for one thing: Taylor Dumpson was listening.
What she heard helped shape Dumpson’s sense of duty to confront hatred and injustices head on and with tact. That experience made a lasting impression on the Wicomico High School graduate that has carried into her college days at American University in Washington, D.C.
Dumpson took the helm as president of the student government at the historically white college amid national media attention. Racist displays greeted her as the first black female in university history to lead the student body.
Her mettle was immediately tested. Bananas were hung on nooses on the school’s campus her first day in office May 1.
Dumpson was interviewed about the incident and her resolve by CNN and national publications including the New York Times and Washington Post, and recorded a stand-up discussion on TEDx Talks on Thursday.
She hopes sharing her experiences empowers others.
“There is power in sharing your story, especially given the national climate right now,” she said. “You have to engage in these conversations to move forward.”
Test of character
The young Dumpson’s response to the classmate’s racial slur — for which she felt reprimanded — stands as one of the most important tests of her character and effectiveness as a leader.
“I was obviously upset, and the student asked me if I was upset,” Dumpson recalled. “I smiled and said, ‘Yes.’ That’s all I said, and the student, who was my friend, started to cry.
“My mom says to kill a person with kindness,” Dumpson said.
The situation went from bad to worse, she said, when the teacher called on Dumpson to define the slur while standing before an academically gifted class of mostly white students.
“I was the only black girl in the class and I had to read the definition before people who don’t look like me,” Dumpson recalled. “To say that it was awkward doesn’t describe it enough. I carry the experience with me today.”
The incidents helped inspire Dumpson to confront hatred and injustice nonconfrontationally.
When she learned that bananas were hung from ropes around the American University campus the day she started her term, Dumpson stayed true to her values.
It was at Wicomico High School, in the county seat of Salisbury, that Dumpson, 21, embraced diversity. The minority-majority high school also taught her the value in advocacy for change, social and racial inclusion and open dialog about touchy topics from which others shy away.
“Wi-Hi introduced me to social justice before I understood the meaning of the phrase, ‘social justice,’” she said. “It sparked my interest in things like redistricting in Wicomico County and how we fund our education system. I was going to a school oftentimes perceived as the worst school in the county, and that is one of the reasons I chose American University.”
The high school’s student body reflects a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is where Dumpson decided to prove naysayers wrong on several stereotypes, such as:
(asterisk) Wi-Hi, which serves a large low-income population, produces outstanding graduates. “You can go to a place that is underserved and make something of yourself.”
(asterisk) Black kids play diverse sports. She joined her high school lacrosse team because “I wanted to prove to people in Wicomico County that black girls can play lacrosse.” She also played freshman year at American.
(asterisk) Black students can be successful at historically white universities, such as American University — even those who graduated from minority-majority high schools.
“But if you had told me my freshman year in high school that I’d be going to one of the best private schools in the country, and would be student government president, I would have said you are crazy,” she said.
It is no surprise that Dumpson is a leader at a respected university, said Margo Handy, assistant superintendent of instruction for Wicomico County public schools.
“I met Taylor Dumpson when she was in elementary school and I was impressed with her then,” said Handy, recalling the student’s participation in the magnet academic program as well as extracurricular activities.
“Every environment in which I’ve seen her, she has always been a leader,” Handy said.
It also doesn’t surprise Handy that county students are top achievers beyond high school.
“We have hundreds throughout the county like her,” Handy said. “We have students going to Ivy League universities and guess what? Several of these students are minorities. I’m proud of Wi-Hi because it has a larger minority population.”
Dumpson is charged with excitement and optimism about working toward tolerance and inclusiveness. Already she is using her new role to create substantive and sustainable initiatives on her campus.
She has unveiled a three-point objective for the upcoming academic year:
(asterisk) To work in partnership with other campus leaders to update the Student Code of Conduct to make a hate crime a standalone violation, rather than a sub-offense of another crime.
(asterisk) Advocate for increased campus security, with a primary goal to improve video and camera surveillance.
(asterisk) Create an introductory student course on cultural competency.
“Hate crimes are up since the 2016 election,” Dumpson said, pointing to the Trump Administration. Some observers believe campaign and post-election rhetoric have triggered public hostility and confrontation between supporters and non-supporters of the new president.
“It appears to me that all gloves are off; people have no regard to civility,” said James King, associate professor of English at Salisbury University. He advises the SU student chapter of the NAACP that has led peaceful demonstrations to raise awareness of justice issues.
“With change in our climate socially, culturally and politically, we are creating the environment for these things” like banana noose incidents “to happen more and more frequently,” King said.
At SU, President Janet Dudley-Eshbach has instituted the Office of Institutional Equity, “and one of the key charges is to investigate and pursue complaints and concerns about assaults and things of that nature, and also to address hate crimes and issues related to discrimination,” King said. The office was created about a year and a half ago, he said.
“The president decided to be proactive in the wake of incidents at college campuses nationwide,” King said. “I applaud Ms. Dumpson for trying to encourage students to enviably take the higher ground and not get drawn into the swamp of actions and activities” of hate proponents.
The banana-noose incident was not the first hate-driven act since Dumpson enrolled at American University as a freshman three years ago. Nor is she American’s first black to be student government president. She blames a perceived climate of overt racism, although Dumpson also considers overt sexism as driving negative reactions to her presidency and similar incidents targeting other students.
“It’s clear that it’s a gender thing,” she said. She recalled other noose incidents on the campus “and they targeted black females,” she said.
Dumpson points to recent high-profile hate incidents throughout the nation: A noose was found in late May in a section of the nearby National Museum of African American History and Culture nearby, and about the same time, in Los Angeles, a home of NBA star LeBron James, who is black, was vandalized with slurs painted on a front gate.
“There have been three noose incidents in D.C. since mine,” said Dumpson, a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha historically black collegiate Greek sorority.
Some of the banana noose hangings at American had messages, “AKA free,” an apparent gesture toward the sorority. Another message scribbled was “Harambe bait,” referring to the gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016 after it dragged a child that fell into the animal’s exhibit.
Dumpson doesn’t live in fear, “but I am vigilant,” she said. She was shaken when notified of a troll campaign against her, reportedly initiated by a white supremacist.
“People are more embolden to say these kinds of things,” she said.
Opening a discussion
Dumpson’s activism has the attention of national and international organizations wanting to engage in dialog about cultural competency, she said.
She intends to participate in a national conversation about hate crimes on university and college campuses across the nation, a project involving Democrat Congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Frederica Wilson of Florida.
“They called for convening university presidents to have conversations about hate crimes on campuses,” Dumpson said. “They want to start with American University.”
Dumpson’s ordeal has the attention of the United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore, says Kathleen Mommè, executive director.
What better partners to spread a far-reaching message of unity than a peace advocate for diversity and inclusion and a national organization whose theme is “Live United,” Mommè said.
“Following the hate crime, Taylor was faced with enormous national media attention and calls of support from across the country,” Mommè said. Dumpson’s mother, Kimberly, is an executive vice president at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and a board member at the local United Way. Her father, Jeffrey, is an executive movie producer.
Taylor Dumpson had indicated “she would like to turn this tragic event into something positive to increase awareness and sensitivity to inclusion issues and would like to meet with us here at United Way as our brand motto of Live United is a perfect fit,” Mommè said.
Talks are underway, Mommè said, on a proposed pilot initiative that could be replicated nationwide through 1,400 independent United Ways. The agency also is looking at how it can partner with other national groups, she said.
“This is the very beginning of an initiative we hope to take to scale across the country with the far reach of United Way into thousands of communities, with the end goal of increasing awareness and sensitivity to inclusion issues,” said Mommè, who anticipates a pilot project to roll out within six months. “It is our honor to assist Taylor to take this developing initiative to create more awareness and sensitivity to inclusion to scale nationwide and also right here on the Lower Shore.”
American’s outgoing president Neil Kerwin recently described Dumpson’s approach as uncanny, with her ability to build dialogue and coalitions across different sectors and organizations.
“Through fresh ideas and strong facilitation and leadership skills, she generates tangible change,” the former president said.
His comments came when Dumpson recently earned the Newman Civic Fellowship, which supports students committed to helping communities.
An example of that commitment is when she organized more than 900 first-year students for the Explore DC through Social Justice Program that focused on confronting social justice issues such as food and urban sustainability.
Years after her smile of protest, on the field with Wi-Hi teammates at a lacrosse game, her character was tested when she competed against her former friend from middle school.
“I put my best in for the game, but the incident was definitely in the back of my mind,” Dumpson said. “I proved my point. When I saw her, I just smiled.”