Six Astounding Tweets and the Story Behind the Anti-Racism Hashtag #NotJustSAE

Zellie Thomas was at a meeting with members of the activist group #NJShutItDown Tuesday afternoon at Montclair University where participants reflected on the 9-second video that captured members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon chanting racist epithets.

As the ten or so mostly college students began recalling racist incidents on their own campuses, they decided to lead a Twitter conversation about it using #NotJustSAE.

“We know that this topic is relevant to a lot of students, especially at predominately white institutions,” Thomas, 30, the lead on conceiving the hashtag and advisor to #NJShutItDown, told AlterNet. “All of the racism they face and experience and the micro-aggressions get swept under the rug. It doesn’t get in the news, it doesn’t get its own hashtag. They just have to deal with it.”

This is the tweet that got the conversation started:

Soon, others joined the conversation with tweets detailing their college experiences:

Jesse Williams, the ER television star, was the most famous supporter of the hashtag:

Thomas, an elementary school teacher in North New Jersey, can relate to a lot of the commenters’ anti-black college experiences.

During the fall semester of his junior year at William Paterson University, in 2007, Thomas entered his room and sat down when he noticed the planner on top of his roommate’s desk was filled with racist epithets. “Nigger” was written in the name section, while “69 Cotton Picking Lane,” was written in the address section. The roommate wasn’t in the room when Thomas discovered the planner, so he reported it to the residential advisor. The roommate would ultimately claim that it was his girlfriend who wrote the racist language. In the end, the residential advisor told Thomas nothing could be done about the incident.

“She said that she could not force him out of the room and that I would have to leave,” he said.

Thomas stayed put and he and the roommate clashed for the remainder of the semester. They got into a heated argument over a poster Thomas hung on his side of the room of 1968 Olympians Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium raising their black-gloved fists in the Black Power salute. The roommate didn’t like it.

“He would say, ‘Oh, that’s racist. Everytime I walk into this room, I want to rip that poster down,” he recalls the roommate saying.

The RA had to separate them to stop the argument from escalating. The following semester, the roommate moved out but Thomas says the experience opened his eyes.

People have been engaging the hashtag throughout the night and are still sharing their experiences this morning. Thomas says he’s pleased that so many people are using the hashtag to decompress the racism they’ve endured in college and beyond.

“A lot of times when you have micro-aggression, you really don’t have the outlet to vent,” he said. “But when you see other people experience it, you’re more likely to open up.”

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