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Enzerink GS: When racism comes to campus

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, February 28, 2014

Last week, the University of Mississippi was rocked when unidentified individuals — allegedly three white first-years from Georgia, according to the latest reports — placed a noose around the neck of a statue of James Meredith, the university’s first black student after the Supreme Court mandated his admission in 1962. If there was any mistaking their intentions before, they also left a flag with the confederate battle emblem sewn onto it draped over the statue.

Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the northeast, there was another symbolic lynching. Eight New Jersey high school wrestlers were suspended from a state tournament for taking a photograph in which the team gathered around a black wrestling dummy hanging with a noose around its neck. They posted the picture to various social media websites. If there was any mistaking their intentions before, two of the wrestlers pointed their — white — hoodies up.

Educational environments are more frequently the locus of racial insensitivity and/or hatred than anyone would like to admit, as the debate over the talk by New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly painfully showed at Brown. The Mississippi and New Jersey events, while often described as “incidents” in media coverage, are not incidental. It is easy to dismiss these events — especially when they do not involve violence or blatant racist slurs — as a few drunk kids acting stupid, or a loner with abhorrent views, but in reality there is a pattern of racial appropriation and mockery across universities, a pattern that enables more violent expressions of racial animosity.

While playing with identities is part of the current moment, it becomes problematic when students decouple themselves from, or proclaim ignorance of, a history of racist traditions. Especially in a college setting, where issues of race, class and gender equality are discussed tentatively freely, students cannot plead ignorance of the connotations that these appropriations carry and the racial violence they represent.

Yet the pervasiveness with which they do so is shocking. A quick run-through of the past year: Last month at Arizona State University, a fraternity organized a “black party” for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Partygoers showed up with watermelon cups, clothing they perceived to be stereotypically black — a mix between athletic gear and flashy jewelry — and shared their elation via Instagram with pictures captioned “happy MLK day homies,”  “#ihaveadream,” and “#blackoutformlkday.” In November, two female students at Lee University in Tennessee wore blackface to a rap-themed party and donned t-shirts that read “my (n-word),” drawing “mixed reactions” from the campus community, as the Huffington Post reported. The consensus among peers was that it “wasn’t that serious,” as the two women were unaware of the offensive nature of their costumes, the Lee Clarion reported.

There are other ethnic, racial and cultural groups that are frequently singled out. Last fall, a California Polytechnic State University fraternity organized an off-campus party themed “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos.” In February 2013, Duke University’s Kappa Sigma chapter threw an “Asia Prime” party and invited students with an email that played on language stereotypes by captioning the invite “Herro Nice Duke Peopre.” The Pennsylvania State University slammed one of its sororities after it hosted a Mexican party in December 2012, with attendees in sombreros, some of them in brownface, holding up “will mow lawn for weed + beer” signs. The University of Colorado Boulder strongly urged its students to refrain from wearing culturally insensitive costumes last Halloween, after officials recounted seeing  blackface, hillbilly parties and “overly sexualized” geishas and squaws in previous years, Yahoo News reported. The list goes on and on and on.

In every single instance, the party organizers and attendees claimed that ignorance rather than racism led them to their choices. While the intentions may not have been to cause hurt, or consciously participate in the reproduction of inherently racist lines of thought, this costuming does create an atmosphere in which it seems acceptable to single out individuals based on their racial/ethnic background. The parties make a joke out of historical realities that continue to exert effects today. Ignorance can never be an excuse, and it is telling that most parties were hosted and attended by the almost homogeneously white Greek chapters. Even if a student is not entirely familiar with the history of blackface, redface or yellowface, deep down there is always a gut feeling that it is inappropriate. That they cannot wear this in front of non-white students, that it is uncomfortable and wrong. This feeling — if not knowledge — should be enough reason to refrain from wearing any type of racially or culturally charged clothing.

The parties’ impact is real. While they may seem removed from blatant hate crimes, they are the product of a culture that condones the marginalization of historical violent realities and as such perpetuate them, albeit in different forms. The fact that partygoers did not think twice about sharing pictures on social media shows how accepted this behavior has become. But blackface cannot be disconnected from minstrelsy, an inherently racist practice. Noosing a statue is an infinitely more direct and deliberate display of racism, but ultimately serves the same power structures.

What, then, can be done? There is of course no easy answer to this. Opening room for discussion and reflection is a start, like Brown successfully did after the canceled Kelly talk. Racism, conscious and unconscious, is a beast that needs to be taken on headfirst. While debates are often reactionary rather than proactive, without a sustained discussion that establishes that racial stereotypes are never a joke — and that even if the intentions are innocent the effects are not — there is no doubt that racial “incidents” will continue to take place across college campuses. You are attentive to these issues either 24/7/365 or not at all. There is no such thing as suspending your beliefs for an hour or four to enjoy a party.

Colleges’ responses have been somewhat lackluster. The usual recourse is suspending the Greek organizations — not specific individuals. But the real problem is not the individual fraternities or sororities, and demonizing them is not the solution. Penn State’s president, in the aftermath of the Mexican party, wrote a very articulate open letter in which he signaled a “failure to empathize or even a failure to think,” yet opted not to take “unlawful disciplinary action” against students, as freedom of expression rights did not allow it. If disciplinary action is neither optional nor desired, facilitating larger debates acknowledging that these are not contained incidents is necessary, even if the majority of the student body formally condemns the actions.

The signs are on the wall for what will happen if nothing changes. At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, an 18-year-old white male student carved “white power” into a desk in the African American studies section of the university library and wrote racial slurs in various books. One day after the Meredith statue was defaced, a black Ole Miss senior, Kiesha Reeves, reported being accosted with racial slurs from a car. Not to say that all is lost: The vast majority of people would strongly denounce such acts and never commit them. It takes realizing that these acts are replicated in a myriad of minor, even seemingly innocuous forms to effect radical change.

 

 

Suzanne Enzerink GS is a PhD student in American studies. She can be reached at suzanne_enzerink@brown.edu.

4 Comments

  1. stupidashell says:

    nobody wants “radical change” you liberal maniac. I’m actually so ridiculously sick of people like you who water down the meaning of words to give you some faux moral agenda. there will always be idiots in the world, but in a country with a 2
    term black president, where oprah’s success is touted ad nauseum, where Jay Z can get up on stage and call Mitt Romney the b word, and we have morons like you parading around and making every little thing about race, racism isn’t an issue. there’s no institutionalized racism, there is institutionalized idiocy from gender/American studies/other BS majors who need something to talk about that seems important.

    • This has to be the most self-contradicting response I’ve read on here recently. All you are saying merely shows that racism IS still an issue in the US. If caring about issues that continue to affect the majority of people in the US in a profoundly negative way makes you a liberal maniac/moron, sign me up for the team. Meanwhile, enjoy life in your bubble of ignorance.

    • Person of Color says:

      LOL. There’s no such thing as institutionalized racism, huh? I guess all of these people just invented their own iteration of racism out of the blue. What a miracle that they could come up with such a specific form of hatred without any outside guidance!

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