When Rini Sampath decided to run for student body president at the University of Southern California, some students told her she would never win, she said. She was a young woman and a minority, and she was running on a ticket with another young woman, who was also a minority.
Their advice? Choose a white, male student as your running mate.
Sampath, 21, says she is no stranger to discrimination. She was born in Theni, a district in Tamil Nadu state in India, and she moved to America when she was 6. Classmates in Arizona asked whether her mom was from Mars, she said. Others told her she couldn’t play with them.
Why? Because she had brown skin.
“I had self-esteem issues because I was an immigrant,” she told The Washington Post on Monday. “I was struggling to learn English and I was struggling with what I looked like, in a sea of kids who didn’t look like me.”
Sampath and her female running mate, Jordan Fowler, won the election and serve as president and vice president, respectively, of USC’s Undergraduate Student Government. Still, Sampath said, she doesn’t believe many USC students see her first as a student leader. Instead, she said, she thinks they see her – and judge her – based on where she is from.
Her struggle – no doubt the same for many minority students, she said – came into focus Saturday night when Sampath said she was walking back from a friend’s apartment.
Someone leaned out of a fraternity house window, she said, and shouted: “You Indian piece of s-!” Then he hurled a drink at her.
“Once his fraternity brothers realized it was me, they began to apologize,” she wrote online. “This stung even more.
“I couldn’t quite figure out why their after-the-fact apologies deepened the wound. But one of my friends explained it to me the best this morning: ‘Because now you know, the first thing they see you as is subhuman.’ ”
After the incident, Sampath said she was in shock.
“It brought back all these memories of growing up as immigrant in America,” she told The Washington Post. “All the things people said started playing back in my head, over and over, like a broken record.
“It makes me wonder what would have happened had it been someone else. That’s an aspect that concerns me. It just makes me wonder: ‘Is this how they see us first and foremost – for the color of our skin?'”
Sampath, a senior international relations major, opened up about the incident on her Facebook page Sunday morning because, she said, she wants to call attention to racism on her Los Angeles campus and to encourage others who have been victimized by it to come forward and share their own stories.
“Some people don’t believe racism like this can happen on our campus,” she wrote in her post. “Some people continue to doubt the need for safe spaces and the need for expanded cultural resource centers or the need for gender neutral bathrooms or the need for diversity in our curriculum or the need for diversity in our professors or the need for diversity in dialogue.
“And to those who continue to believe we’re just playing the ‘race’ card, I ask you this – what’s there to win here? A sense of respect? A sense of humanity? A sense of love and compassion for others regardless of how they look like?”
Almost immediately, Sampath said, university officials reached out to her in support. Students sent messages showing they care, she said. And the student responsible for creating what has turned into a nationwide uproar contacted her to apologize, Sampath said.
“I appreciate it, but hope it becomes a learning experience,” she told The Post. “Apologies don’t fix these deep wounds. . . . [the slur] was a verbal assault on my identity – on who I am as a person.”
USC Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni said the university has a zero-tolerance policy for such behavior, which he called “cowardly and hateful remarks.” He said that he has asked Sampath to file a formal complaint with the university’s Bias Assessment Response & Support team, which will review the case and decide how to proceed.
“USC and higher education in general tries to look at incidences like this as learning and growing opportunities, not just punitive opportunities,” Soni told The Post. “We want to create a dialogue.”
Sampath declined to publicly identify the man who verbally attacked her, nor would she name his fraternity. Soni said he does not know who the person is or what his punishment may be. But, the religious-life dean said, the focus should not be on the assailant but rather on the university’s overwhelming response to Sampath’s story.
If anyone can ignite a conservation on campus, he said, Sampath can.
For minority students, Sampath said: “Racism is alive and well.”
” ‘You Indian piece of s-‘ ” is the type of language attackers have used before brutally murdering someone,” she wrote on Facebook. “Just look at Inderjit Singh Mukker” – a Sikh man who was brutally attacked by an Illinois driver who yelled “terrorist, go back to your country” as he punched Mukker in the face.
What came out of that fraternity house window, Sampath said, “continues to ring so loudly in my ears I still can’t shake it from me.
“Whether racism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia happens on the Internet, or behind closed doors, or in a small group setting, or as ‘just a joke,’ it’s not okay. It’s never okay.”