In late September, University of Southern California student, Rini Sampath, was walking by a frat house on campus when, she says, a member leaned out of the window, threw a drink at her, and screamed, “you Indian piece of shit!”
In her Facebook post about the incident, Sampath, 21, writes that once the brothers realized who she was — she's the president of the student body — they apologized. But it was too late. "I’m still in a state of shock," she wrote on Facebook. "There’s an indescribable hollowness in me, but I’m going public with this because this can’t continue."
Sampath, who moved to the U.S. from India with her family when she was six, says the incident isn't isolated. In the same Facebook post, she writes, "This was the same fraternity that kicked out a peer of mine from their tailgate after calling him a 'fag.' That’s sickening."
Her comment is getting noticed: since that single Facebook post, she's ignited a debate about racism on campuses and in the U.S. — with stories about the incident running in papers fromThe Los Angeles Times toThe Washington Post.
We caught up with the college senior to hear how it's been and what's next for her. Our conversation was lightly edited for length.
Hi, thanks for chatting. How did you feel after the incident?
"Last Saturday’s incident sent me into a state of shock. What made me more upset, was knowing this happens to my peers on our campus at USC, every single day."
What do you do after something like that happens?
"A lot of students are targeted in this way, and oftentimes, they wonder if it is serious enough to report or if they should just move on. But, the little things — the microaggressions — add up over time. And, there comes a point in your life, where you cannot stay silent in the face of intolerance. This incident was that breaking point for me."
Were you surprised? Is this consistent with your experience at USC, or does it feel like an exception?
"When I ran for the position of student body president with my vice president, Jordan Fowler, we were targets of numerous sexist and racist comments. We won the election with a landslide victory because our student body looked past our gender and race, and saw us for our capabilities — and they trusted us with their vote. This gave me great confidence in USC, but electing two women of color to this position does not indicate an end to issues of diversity and inclusion."
"Since I came out with my story, many students have come to me with their own accounts. Some have told me about how they were outed by their professor during class, taunted by their peers with slurs at social gatherings, and more. Institutions of higher education should foster culturally competent individuals. There’s something innately wrong with the system if this type of behavior is still prevalent."
There’s something innately wrong with the system if this type of behavior is still prevalent."
When did you decide to take action?
"In this instance, I chose to speak up through a Facebook post, but I have seen my peers speak up through student government resolutions, protests, Title IX complaints, and more. Last year, our student government passed a resolution asking our university to establish the “Awujo House,” a safe space for members of our black community. Our cultural resource centers and cultural assemblies have routinely asked for greater resources to support their programs and initiatives, to foster a more inclusive campus."
"Student government also hosted a forum between administrators, faculty, and students last week. At the forum, we discussed tangible solutions to the greater problem of diversity and equity on campus. These solutions included hiring a vice president of diversity for our university, creating mandatory diversity training for freshmen, and expanding resource centers on our campus (our LGBT Resource Center, for example, has a max capacity of eight people, but they serve thousands of students on campus). As our university continues to build beautiful new buildings, a $650 million “university village” space, and raise a $6 billion endowment campaign, I am left to wonder why these requests cannot be fulfilled."
How has the response been so far?
"The response has been mostly positive, with students rallying together to tackle this issue. Many faculty members and administrators have also reached out to me, asking how they can help. I want to see how I, along with my peers, can leave behind a sustainable infrastructure at USC, which will support this type of activism. After all, I’ll graduate in a year. Movements like this will fall into the hands of younger Trojans, and can only make change if we have a receptive university administration."
"Sometimes, it can be difficult for a person in a position of privilege to wrap their head around how someone, who is routinely marginalized, might feel.
What do you say to people who say that charges of racism or discrimination are mostly overblown, that we're more or less past that?
"Sometimes, it can be difficult for a person in a position of privilege to wrap their head around how someone, who is routinely marginalized, might feel. Because they don’t have the same experiences, their initial reaction might be to go on the defense, by saying these incidents are blown out of proportion."
"But, we have to take these experiences seriously. We have to give these voices the attention they deserve. Validating student experiences is step one. If we don’t, there will come a time when a student is murdered for the color of their skin or for who they love. It happens all over our country. As I said in my initial Facebook post, just look at what happened to Inderjit Singh Mukker, a man who was repeatedly beat up and bloodied while being called a terrorist."
What would you tell other women across the country, who have experienced similar harassment on campus?
"To anyone who has been made to feel lesser than what they are, I ask them to speak up. Your voice matters, and there are people who are listening. The only way we can change our communities, is if we are willing to take a seat at the table, and speak up for what we believe in. So, run for positions of power. Write letters, create movements, and find solutions. Ambition can take you further than discrimination will ever hold you back."