Student gathering dismantles symbol of discrimination

Lynette Barnes organized the symbolic ‘Writings on the Wall’ project. (Janika Berridge / Staff Photographer)

It’s hard to say which insult Lynette Barnes was happiest to put to rest when the wall came down.

“You’re black and you go here? Oh, you must be EOF,” was scrawled in the left corner in red paint.

Above it, in blue: “Chink.” To its right: “Kike.” “Geek.” “Fat.”

The phrases littering the plywood wall erected outside the Brower Student Center on Thursday, March 24, weren’t the result of vandalism. The wall’s express purpose was to play home to these sentiments — then be torn down.

Barnes joined a small group of students and faculty to dismantle the “Writings on the Wall” on Tuesday, March 29.

“The ‘Writings on the Wall’ is a campaign against discrimination and oppression,” said Barnes, senior psychology and women’s and gender studies double major and Student Government vice president of Equity and Diversity, in an e-mail. “The quotes featured are self expressions from students who have had discriminatory things said to them … It was torn down to symbolize the destruction of hatred, oppressive language and discriminatory practices.”

The week before it was erected, Barnes’ wall was little more than eight pieces of plywood and an unsuccessful pet project. Barnes had toyed with the idea of putting up the wall since a conversation with Seth Zolin, Brower Student Center manager, sparked her interest.

“(Zolin) saw the program at Florida State University and thought it would be a great program for my committee,” Barnes said. “The original wall at FSU featured bricks with very short quotes, but after talking with Pete Ratzlaff and Ed Gruber in Facilities, we decided to use plywood.”

Getting the plywood was easy compared to getting students to respond.

“(My committee) strongly encouraged dozens of student organizations to get involved with this project but were unable to get any real significant response,” Barnes said.

So Barnes, a student center employee, took a grassroots approach.

“In order to get a diverse response, we took to tabling in the student center and encouraged students to write a personal story with discrimination that they themselves have experienced,” Barnes said.

Barnes encouraged SG members, friends and passersby to recall an insult they’d once had hurled at them and write it on the wall.

The response was enormous.

“We received over 150 responses in one day of tabling,” Barnes said.

Erected on a Thursday, the wall stood outside the student center for five days and garnered some gawks and murmured responses from passersby.

The wall fell on Tuesday to modest fanfare. President R. Barbara Gitenstein and Barnes gave speeches encouraging students to stand up for themselves.

The simple ceremony was all Barnes needed.

She watched the wall fall — and assisted the process, power saw in hand — with a swell of emotion, evident in her voice when she thanked SG the next day for its support.

“Thank you to everyone who wrote on the wall … It was very emotional. I was impressed with the things people shared,” Barnes said. “A couple (professors) have come up to me and said they’ve stopped their lessons to talk about the wall. People on our campus are dealing with a lot of things, so we need to take them seriously.”

Emily Brill can be reached at brill 3@tcnj.edu