Antiracist TikTok influencer posts story about University of Montana professor
AronUNC: ‘I was so angry when I saw that video’
Fall morning light shines upon Main Hall at UM. (Provided by the University of Montana)
A TikTok influencer with more than 1 million followers combined on several different accounts posted a story last week that again put the spotlight on a University of Montana professor who had made racist comments in private text messages and called his toddler the “n” word in a video.
In a phone call Friday, influencer Chris Watson of Tacoma, Washington, said he took up the issue in order to put pressure on the university to show racism won’t be tolerated and make an example of the professor.
“I was so angry when I saw that video,” said Watson, who uses the handle “aronunc” on TikTok and created and posted the story. “I had to take a few hours before I could even make my video. I had to take a breather.”
In screenshots posted with Watson’s story and described in a story last fall by the Daily Montanan, faculty member Clayton Looney, who is white, joked about Muslims wearing “towel wraps” and wrote that he hopes a child grows up to be Black but not “too Black … like those Ethiopians.” In a doorbell-captured ring.com video, he called his biracial daughter the “n” word.
Last fall, Looney told the Daily Montanan the text messages were taken out of context, and he also said he loved his daughters. He said the UM Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX deemed a discrimination complaint against him a “non workplace issue” in a spring 2021 investigation.
Looney, a distinguished faculty fellow in the College of Business, did not respond to an email Friday asking if he had additional information to provide since the communications resurfaced. He earlier noted the only two people who had ever complained about him had never met him, and he also said he had taken a sensitivity training to learn how to combat discrimination.
“I learned a lot,” said Looney at the time. “It helped me move closer to my full potential as a human being and has put an end to the subject.”
Looney’s statements started making their way around social media again last week after a student who filed a complaint with UM contacted Watson. Watson runs two TikTok accounts, “Catluminati,” which features cats of his neighborhood and counts 935,000 followers, and “aronunc,” where Watson posts antiracist videos and counts 195,400 followers.
The story about Looney had reached 55,100 views on TikTok by Monday morning, roughly four days after it was posted. Watson, who is biracial, said Friday he in part uses his platform to lend a voice to people whose stories aren’t being heard, and he was stunned to see the UM faculty member’s comments in the screenshots and video. Ajaysia Hill, who has attended UM, brought them to his attention.
“She said she brought these issues up to the University of Montana, and they felt like it wasn’t a workplace issue, and I was just shocked,” Watson said. “How can a person clearly being very racist not be a workplace issue when you’re handing out grades?”
Hill, who filed a complaint with UM, declined to comment last week. However, in the fall, she told the Daily Montanan that she had not taken any of Looney’s classes, but she was concerned that a person who made such statements remained in a leadership position on the campus.
“The messages that he sent talking about East Africans and Muslims is more than enough proof that he is unfit to be a leader of any sort, especially a leader of education,” Hill said in the fall. “That’s what really bothered me the most.”
UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said Friday no other complaints have been filed against Looney since the fall. However, he said people have asked questions at UM since Watson posted his stories on TikTok and Twitter.
“There have been a few students who have asked to speak with leadership at the College of Business,” Kuntz said in an email. “The concerns of those students are taken very seriously.”
UM tells people who raise questions that the College of Business and campus are creating a culture of inclusion and respect, he said: “Every student’s voice is heard when they raise concerns. This effort to create a culture of inclusion and respect is constant, and it prioritizes working directly with students.”
Kuntz said the campus has a responsibility to follow the law in regards to disclosing personal employee information, but he also said the Missoula flagship has made advances when it comes to equity on campus.
“This is a public institution, and all Montanans can take great pride in the important strides we have made at UM in recent years to promote diversity, expand equity, and prioritize inclusiveness,” Kuntz said.
Watson said people periodically reach out to him when they believe an issue isn’t getting adequate coverage, and that was the case this time. In the past, for example, a story he posted about a police officer in Pennsylvania who said the Confederate Flag wasn’t racist became a national story, he said, and the cop resigned.
“It’s not something I do full time,” Watson said. “I’m definitely an influencer, and I’m doing good with that, but every now and again I have to lend a voice to people that seemingly just don’t have a voice, and nobody is hearing their story.”
A lot of people have expressed outrage in reaction to the posts about the UM professor, although some people have blamed the mother, which Watson said he does not appreciate. The mother is Looney’s ex-wife.
“I think for the most part people are just wondering why the school doesn’t take that seriously,” Watson said.
Last fall, the dean and associate dean of students at the UM law school both stepped down from leadership positions after students said they discouraged women from taking sexual assault allegations, including rape, to the Title IX office, a story the Daily Montana reported; the former dean remains a tenured faculty member at UM. A UM associate professor of computer science also resigned last fall after an investigation by the Montana Kaimin, the student-run campus newspaper, brought to light his blog that disparaged women, LGBTQ+ people and Muslims.
More often than not, Watson said he sees a company or organization waiting for an issue to blow over, and its leaders make the decision to take the hit to their reputation but keep the racist person employed. He also said he doesn’t buy the explanation Looney offered.
“His reaction was obviously preposterous,” Watson said. “It’s something that we hear a lot from that crowd of people. ‘It was taken out of context.’ You can’t take that kind of racism out of context. You called your daughter the ‘n’ word. You did what you did. There’s nothing that can excuse you doing that.”
At the same time, he said he believes Montanans aren’t generally racist even though people of color are a small minority in the state. Native Americans account for the largest minority at 6.7 percent, according to the most recent U.S. Census. Watson said his partner is from Butte, and a couple of years ago, they visited Fairmont, and “pretty much everybody was really nice.”
“Some people are like, ‘But it’s Montana,’” he said, as their way to explain the racism. “I don’t agree with that. I don’t think Montana is like, a racist place. But obviously, there are some racist people, and unfortunately, he’s one of them, and I think the University of Montana should do the right thing and make an example.”
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