“What is wrong with you?” Scott Walker, the Head of Yukeembruk Hall, asked his 700 residents in a newsletter sent out on the 13th of August. Mr Walker was responding to reports of students stealing food from each others’ refrigerators. He began the letter by positing three reasons why, in his view, a person would engage in the alleged thievery: “maliciousness,” “financial need,” or a “simple mistake.” He asks that students attempt to solve the food theft issue amongst themselves before blaming him and his staff, since it is “not staff taking food, it is one of you.”
The letter continues, with Walker warning students that the solution he is planning on implementing is “a very restrictive approach that will upset a lot of you.” In a document shared by students following Mr Walker’s letter, students have highlighted that this statement appears to be a mere “scare tactic” that will not address the underlying issue.
Walker further commented that CCTV footage would not be reviewed to identify the thieves, since it can “only show the back of people’s heads” and is meant to “monitor serious incidents” rather than the reported food theft. Consequently, students have expressed concern that Walker’s comments about the restrictive view of CCTV cameras have “created a state of uneasiness” in the Yukeembruk community. They believe the comments give the impression that the cameras would be ineffective for more serious crimes.
Responding to a panel event held at the Hall on the subject of racism, where students from Yukeembruk and other halls spoke on their experiences of racism, Walker continued his letter, and thanked residents who participated on the panel for sharing their “thoughts and experiences.” Walker then spoke positively of a podcast he had recently listened to, delivered by an “American politician who is a leader in the Critical Race Theory movement” who argued, per Walker’s account, that “racism isn’t actually real”. Walker did not provide a hyperlink to it in his newsletter, and Woroni is unaware of the specific podcast cited. Walker stated that in the podcast, the politician argued that racism “…is a construct created by society [that] starts at a very early age…” Walker then questions,“if it is not real why is it perpetuated in a residential community” (sic). Walker then encourages the community to learn from the diverse students around them, hoping to “break this construct rather than building it stronger.”
In the document circulated by Yukeembruk residents, and sighted by Woroni, students described the newsletter, and Walker’s statement on the existence of racism in residential communities in particular, as “sarcastic, ”“threatening,” “lazy,” “horrifying,” “unsupportive,” “unprofessional,” and even “harmful”.
As to Walker’s comments about race, one student argued that one “could literally argue that EVERYTHING is created by society – that does not mean it is not real or does not impact people negatively.” Others criticised the statement for delegitimising or undermining their own lived experiences of racism, with one writing “Racism describes a very REAL EXPERIENCE”, before adding, “You [Walker] have no right to delegitimize people’s lived experiences,” and further pointed out, “such a statement coming from a white caucasian man in a position of power is extremely out of touch.”
Some students made anonymous submissions to ANU Confessions and Yukeembruk Confessions, making wanted posters with only the backs of students’ heads, and memes comparing his threats of responding to thefts with a “very restrictive approach” to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.
After criticism from the Yukeembruk’s residents committee’s BIPOC cultural representative, Maice Hashem, Walker wrote an update under the subject line “Clarification on Racism,” He apologised for how his statement “minimised racism” and “left students from different cultures [feeling] unsupported and separate.” He clarified that “racism does exist,” that what he was trying to say was that “there is no legal context to why racism exists,” and that racist prejudices develop out of individuals’ “views and attitudes to other people.” Walker identifies that people may hold racist views “…because this is how they were raised,” highlighting the case where racism “…is prevalent because it is the norm for some countries.” As an example, he shared that he has had conversations with people from other countries who say, “It is not racist, it is a fact.” He also expressed the importance of having “respect and tolerance for other people.” Walker stated that the purpose of the comments he made was for students to “challenge themselves, learn from other cultures and grow their own knowledge.” Finally, he apologised for not giving the topic of racism justice and for making residents “feel like he did not believe that racism was real.” He affirmed that it is “one of the saddest aspects of humanity.” Walker also mentioned having “a good conversation about how we ensure this community is a safe place for people of all cultures,” with Maice.
Walker did not further address the issue of food theft in this follow up email and was unavailable for comment. This series of letters touching on issues of food theft and discussing racism in the Yukeembruk community come after earlier infrastructure issues with the new Hall, including frequent false fire alarms, a lack of working washing machines and dryers, and access cards that did not work for parts of the building. In recently obtained information, Woroni has learnt that 129 students have either withdrawn from occupancy agreements at Yukeembruk, or transferred from Yukeembruk to another residential hall, since the beginning of the year until the end of August of this year. Yukeembruk is described by the ANU as a residential hall of “over 700 beds.” This means that 129 students have moved out of Yukeembruk of a total of approximately 700 available places for students.
Woroni obtained a statement from ANU Media, which reads: “We have nothing to add to the newsletters other than to say there is no place for racism at ANU. Similarly, theft is not condoned in our community. The Residential Experience Division is working together with students on resolving these issues. If any resident feels they have experienced these behaviours they should seek support. There are a number of options available to them, such as the Student Safety and Wellbeing Team, or reaching out to Residence staff.”
We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and emerging. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.