‘Diversity Through Hair’ event by Macaulay Diversity Initiative suffers racist Zoom bombing attack

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Anacaona Rodriguez | The Ticker

Emanuela Gallo

Zoom bombers attacked the Macaulay Diversity Initiative’s “Diversity Through Hair” event on Feb. 11 by using racial slurs.

“A safe space turned into something very disgusting, dangerous and uncomfortable, not only for us but for everybody else there,” Brittany Monroy, a Baruch College sophomore and a senior event planning committee member for MDI, said.

The event, held to celebrate Black and Latinx people’s natural hair and highlight the hair discrimination they face in professional settings, began at 6 p.m.

Soon after, a few participants began to play music.

“I didn’t think much of it at first because we thought somebody just had forgotten to mute,” Monroy said.

These participants were asked to mute themselves by both MDI members and fellow attendees, especially when it became evident that the music was inappropriate and contained racial slurs.

“I was trying to figure out how to mute them since I was the only host,” City College senior and MDI Co-President Devjani Paul said. “My screen was shared so I was caught off guard. I started kind of panicking at that point. I was thinking to myself ‘What’s happening?’”

The attack escalated when the Zoom Bombers began to spam the chat with racial slurs.

“The other co-president had messaged me privately to tell me about the comments, but I didn’t even see that because it was just spam after spam,” Monroy said. “I couldn’t even see anybody else commenting.”
The attackers intensified their efforts, increasing the volume of the music and chanting the slurs themselves. There were also references made to neo-Nazis and the Holocaust.

“You could see it in my face during the event that I just was in shock and disbelief,” Monroy said. “The attackers saw our panic and then they increased everything. We had planned this event out for months and we never thought that something like this could happen.”

The waiting room was filled with more inappropriate names from emails not registered with CUNY. MDI then decided to end the Zoom meeting, almost 10 minutes after it had begun.

“The attack didn’t register while it was happening,” Paul said. “I think I was just trying to get out of the meeting, it was kind of like a flight or fight reaction. Right afterward, I was in shock. Even now, I have to tell myself, ‘This happened to you, this happened to our club.’”

Out of over 100 participants, it was estimated that approximately 20 were attackers who were led by a main group of five or six people who instigated the attack.

“Especially during Black History Month, as a time where we should be able to celebrate our culture and our hair, I definitely was triggered,” Harmony Osei, assistant director of the Baruch Honors Program, said. “Quite honestly, as soon as the Zoom call ended, I broke down. And then my heart just quickly went to the students because they are my passion.”

Soon after the attack, MDI released a statement on social media announcing the rescheduling of the event. It also posted a graphic on Feb. 19 containing more details about the attack.

“After the event ended, I checked in with the students to see how they were feeling,” Osei said. “I was able to speak to some of them on the phone and they were very disheartened. But I am very proud to say that they were very resilient and quickly sent out messages letting people know
what happened and that we won’t be kept down.”

“Diversity Through Hair” was designed to celebrate all hair types, including the natural hair of Black and Latinx people, and highlight the discrimination they experience in the workplace.

Founder of Rizos Curls Julissa Prado sponsored the event and was present as its keynote speaker. Osei was also asked to be a guest speaker.

“My role was to focus on the hair discrimination aspect,” she said. “I was going to show a video discussing the Crown Act and how it made it illegal to discriminate based on a person’s hair.”

As an Afro-Latina woman with naturally curly hair, Prado also planned to speak about her own journey of hair acceptance.

“I was going to go through the societal pressures to have my hair look a certain way and how that’s impacted me professionally, such as people touching or making comments about my hair,” she said. “I also wanted to educate students on how to address discrimination when it happens.”

This was the second “Diversity Through Hair” event following the success of the first one in 2019. Open to all CUNY students, over 100 students had congregated at the Macaulay building to attend.

Participants had received products from three hair company sponsors, created DIY hair masks and listened to a keynote speech by Osei.

“Even though we were all strangers in a single room, we were all able to connect and talk about different things about our hair,” Monroy said. “When we started planning the event this year, we wanted to offer the same safe space that happened in person and recreate that feeling on Zoom.”

The event’s goals are rooted in Macaulay Diversity Initiative’s mission as a club, which is to increase the amount of Black and Latinx students in the Macaulay Honors Program.

“We act as a student liaison and advocate for the students,” Paul said. “We execute this using our connections with the administration and students. During meetings, we relay the students’ concerns to the staff and work towards finding solutions.”

The student organization aims to celebrate the existing cultures of students through events such as “Diversity Through Hair.”

“This event was about being proud of our diversity and speaking about discrimination, but a lot of people don’t want to do that, especially when we live in a world where people don’t recognize racism,” Osei said. “I think the fact that MDI stands for that and acts as allies and advocates puts them unfortunately at a place to be targeted.”

Dean of Macaulay Honors College Mary Pearl responded to the incident with a joint statement released on Feb. 11 with the Macaulay Scholars Council, as well as another on Feb. 19.

“The attack on the Diversity Through Hair event was an attack on our whole community,” she said. “We stand in solidarity with the event organizers, the Macaulay Diversity Initiative and pledge to do all we can to ensure that the rescheduled event will be the beautiful celebration of diversity it was designed to be.”

CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez released a statement on Feb. 19 denouncing racist Zoom bombing attacks at CUNY, including the one experienced by the Macaulay Diversity Initiative.

“I am both saddened and angered by the pain and trauma these vile attacks have caused our students, faculty and staff,” he said. “We tend to delineate online forums and events as ‘virtual,’ but make no mistake: These despicable attacks were brutally real and carry the potential to cause lasting, substantial damage.”

He also stated that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office and the New York State Police Hate Crimes Task Force are involved with the investigation.
CUNY offices have also spoken about safe spaces for students processing the attack.

In its statement, the Baruch Honors Program talked about the Counseling Center’s Black Mental Health Sessions and CUNY’s Crisis Text Line.

Macaulay Wellness Center organized a support session on Feb. 25 conducted by the Macaulay Wellness team trained in specific trauma-informed practices.

Students organizations including Macaulay Triplets, Macaulay Marauders and Macaulay Peace Action also released statements condemning the attack and showing support for MDI.

This Zoom bombing occurred after several racist attacks at other colleges, such as Rutgers University, Penn State University, University of Southern California, Stanford University and Arizona State University.

Despite the attack, the Macaulay Diversity Initiative said it remains resilient and plans to reschedule their event for later in the semester.

“We will persist on, with our organization and with our core principles,” Paul said. “No matter how shocking and devastating it was, it won’t bring us down or tear us apart. If anything, it brought us closer together and now we know what precautions we have to take for future events.”

Editor’s Note: Emanuela Gallo, who wrote this article, is a Macaulay Student at Baruch College.