Columns, Opinions

Kumar ’17: Collaboration over caricature

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, March 23, 2017

On Tuesday, four candidates for top Undergraduate Council of Students and Undergraduate Finance Board positions published a letter in The Herald declaring that they “will not be seeking an endorsement from The Brown Daily Herald given The Herald’s history with people of color and marginalized groups on campus.” The Herald simultaneously ran an editorial detailing the steps it has taken in recent semesters to build a more inclusive organization and to highlight diverse perspectives on campus. The stunning gap between the oppressive institution painted by the candidates and the commitment to constant improvement expressed by the editorial board reveals that the candidates have not considered the recent institutional changes The Herald has pursued. Rather, they have targeted a living, increasingly diverse organization for the sake of political expediency.

My defense of The Herald does not rest on its importance for the “freedom of expression” that the candidates cite in their letter as a commonly used excuse for “racist messaging.” I am more immediately concerned with the reduction of this publication — representing a community of over 150 students — to a caricature. By failing to acknowledge the steps that The Herald has taken since publishing two egregiously racist columns in the fall of 2015, the candidates cast doubt on their commitment “to wor(k) as liaisons as The Herald opens up lines of communication to begin this process” of improvement. In reality, this process actually began three semesters ago, and the lines of communication are already open. It is true that The Herald may have erred since the fall 2015 columns, but the candidates fail to reference any other specific transgressions. Their statements make suggestions with no evidence. Since many Brown students already viewed The Herald with suspicion, the candidates’ public excoriation of it likely solidified or expanded their support base while accomplishing little else. It seems that the letter serves no other purpose than to win votes.

In reading that the candidates’ mission is “to support students of color at Brown,” my knee-jerk reaction is to point out that many students of color are members of The Herald. Even with the understanding that historically marginalized peoples can and do contribute to oppressive institutions, it seems preposterous to suggest that The Herald’s reputation is so tarnished that it should be ostracized by the candidates. The editorial board’s response acknowledges “the pain The Herald has caused marginalized communities, particularly through the racist columns that were published in fall 2015” before pointing to the institutional mechanisms subsequently implemented to create a more inclusive culture. These improvements include revamping the newspaper’s mission to prioritize diversity, editing opinions pieces more vigorously, creating “a diversity and inclusion advocate role” and holding mandatory workshops on writing about diverse perspectives. Granted, The Herald has not articulated many of these changes to the public, besides in editorials explaining changes to the opinions section and the website’s comments section. Though even better transparency is needed, the changes already show through in the choices The Herald makes in its daily coverage.

No publication is perfect, and the editorial recognizes that “The Herald has so much more work to do.” Indeed, it is vitally important to critique this newspaper to ensure that it continues to progress. But “critiquing” implies that The Herald offers something of value, and that improving it is a worthwhile task. By ignoring the recent work The Herald has done, the UCS and UFB candidates have not provided a thoughtful critique. In fact, they veer dangerously close to portraying an alternative reality in which this publication is defined solely by the racist columns it published in fall 2015 — an unproductive move for future leaders of the student body.

Why is The Herald worthy of earnest critique? The publication is a major source of information for students and shapes campus dialogue, attracting op-eds and letters from University administration, alums and student groups and generating conversations across campus about University policy and social justice issues. The very fact that the candidates singled out The Herald and then used it as a vehicle to express their perspective reveals the publication’s unavoidable position in campus dialogue. For better or for worse, The Herald essentially has a monopoly in the market of daily student newspapers at Brown. It has existed since 1891 and shows no signs of closing its doors in the near future. Given that The Herald is here to stay, both sides — Herald staff and the historically marginalized groups who wish to improve the publication — must work together under the assumption that they share a common goal. The candidates’ flashy letter denouncing The Herald exhibits no such desire for genuine cooperation.

Like the candidates, I, too, believe that “The Herald can do better to help make the concerns and ideas of these (marginalized) groups visible.” In my role as columnist, I have personally made an effort to bring some of these issues to the table, including inequalities and injustices on the basis of regional and national origin, race, gender and class. Of course, my writing is influenced by my own identity and privilege, so I would encourage those who wish to share other perspectives to join The Herald as writers or editors. It’s important to keep in mind that — especially after the Indigenous Peoples’ Day columns — much thought goes into all of the narratives that The Herald chooses to tell. I hope that, rather than vilifying the newspaper for political gain, the UCS and UFB candidates will stick to their word and work collaboratively to make The Herald a better, more inclusive publication.

Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at nikhil_kumar@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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