YAKIMA, Wash. -- Students, local NAACP officials and others are raising questions about Yakima Valley College’s refusal to explain the school’s decision to invite and then cancel its featured speaker for Black History Month.
Rachel Dolezal, who resigned as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP in 2015 when it was revealed she was a white woman posing as black, was scheduled to speak Tuesday after being invited by members of the college’s student government.
However, the invitation was withdrawn last Thursday by the student group, known as the Associated Students of Yakima Valley College. Since that time neither the college, nor representatives of the student group, has been willing to talk about the incident.
James Parks, the former president of Yakima County’s NAACP chapter, said the school’s silence is problematic.
“I don’t know why they wanted her to speak, I mean, what was she going to say?” Parks said. “I don’t agree with the choice of picking her to speak during Black History Month, not at all.”
If the college doesn’t open up, important questions about its decision-making processes when dealing with racial matters will remain unanswered, he said.
Charity Sims, a black YVC student, said she spoke to members of the student government who expressed remorse over their decision. But the college administration, in its statement, didn’t seem sorry, she said.
“They’re not going to apologize to any of their students of color?” she asked. “What does that say about the college? They made a mistake, a big mistake, and they don’t even care.”
Sims said the school’s lack of transparency only makes the situation worse.
“They’re trying to float over it like it didn’t happen, and it’s going to reflect poorly on them,” she said.
Contacted several times this week, college officials said they would not be adding anything to their initial statement from last Thursday when they announced that the student association had canceled Dolezal’s appearance in response “to the volume of concern expressed by fellow students.”
In an email this week to the Yakima Herald-Republic, the college said it would not be commenting any further about the issue.
“The college has issued an official statement on the matter and we are referring you to that statement; we decline to discuss the issue further,” Jay Frank, the college’s director of community relations, said in an email.
Cora Jongeward, the treasurer of the Associated Students, declined to comment Tuesday, saying she and other student government representatives were encouraged by school officials to “use their best judgment” when speaking with reporters about the decision.
The issue has attracted attention in other parts of the state.
This could be an opportunity for the college to have a conversation about the black experience on campus, said Tyrone Brown, the assistant director for the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Seattle University.
But letting the situation blow over could spoil that, he said.
“The silence seems like a wasted opportunity to educate and to build on and reinforce their message; a positive can form out of this negative,” he said. “But their silence says more about the problem (than the invitation did) in the first place.”
Brown and Parks said Dolezal could provide insight on issues of race, but said for her to be the featured speaker at an event celebrating black history isn’t appropriate.
The Rev. Robert Trimble, the president of Yakima County’s NAACP Chapter, echoed those sentiments.
“I personally don’t see anything wrong with her coming to speak at the college, but it’s just not the right time,” he said. “You don’t have to be black to think black, you just have to have the heart and the passion for the people being oppressed.”
YVC student Sims said that after Dolezal’s talk was canceled, she was approached by another student about starting a Black Student Union on campus.
“Had there been another voice of color, maybe this wouldn’t have happened, but there’s no clubs, nothing to give black students a voice,” Sims said.
“It took a controversy for someone to remember that there are black students at the college,” Sims said. “Why did it have to come this far?”
Sims and her sister, Dionna Pimms, a former YVC student, talked to a college official about the selection last Thursday.
The sisters said they didn’t think the official took their concerns seriously.
“She didn’t understand what our issue was; she didn’t understand why people were upset,” Pimms said. “That’s concerning; that tells me there needs to be more diversity training.”
Pimms agreed with her sister’s concerns about the school’s refusal to speak more on the invitation.
“It’s not a matter to be flipped under the rug,” she said. “And this is an issue Yakima struggles with, because it’s too easy to be like ‘oh, it happened, but we’re not gonna talk about it.’”