November 14, 2005

Campus forum did little to urge dialogue

Here’s the good news about the all-University forum on the campus racial climate sparked by the infamous freshman hip-hop party: It was a fairly civil exchange of commentary on an issue that often degenerates into angry finger-pointing. The forum opened up with comments from Steven Klass, the dean of students, who said he wanted to “expose the underlying issues that lead to this kind of reaction.” He said he found the party “hurtful and offensive.” Provost Richard Saller called it “the antithesis of what we are trying to achieve.” Deputy Provost Ken Warren drew an analogy with a student in a dorm room who turns his music on too loudly—he may apologize afterwards but doesn’t use forethought to think about how his actions affect others.

No question about it, apologies were in order here, especially for the questionable comment made to the black students who showed up at the end of the party and the use of handcuffs as props. Students of color offered effective descriptions of how hurt they were by what happened, and how they found it representative of a hostile campus climate. One thing that struck me was the claim that overt racism is a fact of life here. One girl talked about the concept of “white privilege,” noting that “race is something that white people can choose to deal with or not,” while blacks are constantly confronted with it. Others added that it should not be the burden of blacks to show whites what is offensive.

Now, here’s the bad news: The forum lacked constructive suggestions for positive social change. The call by someone from the Sparticists for a strike by black workers on campus was typical of the unfocused anger. Nothing was done to encourage honest dialogue between white and black students. As someone who was vilified in this newspaper for a freshman-year column I wrote raising some questions about racial issues, I can testify to the need for such dialogue.

If we agree that it’s a problem that the kids in May House didn’t see a problem in mocking people with crude stereotypes, then after everyone has vented their anger, the question needs to be: Where do we go from here? What are acceptable social boundaries in discussing social and cultural differences? Do black students have any responsibility to preemptively communicate what they see those boundaries to be with others? At the forum, Steven Klass repeatedly avoided discussing what was so offensive about the party. Yet the stereotypes the students were mimicking at May House are in your face every day in the mass media. Can students of all races come together to criticize the degradation of women, or the glorification of violence in some rap music? If so, let’s get to work. If not, what are the critics of May House really saying?

Obviously, there are plenty of white students who need to know more from their non-white classmates about what is offensive and what is not. Even Provost Saller admitted to having made insensitive comments in the past. How we accomplish that was made unclear to me. In the only constructive suggestion of the forum, one person suggested that a core class on racial issues might help. We need more ideas, and an honest, open conversation about them, uninhibited by angry finger-pointing and knee-jerk politicization that only makes others feel both uncomfortable and marginalized. I will be at the head of the line to exchange “white privilege” for the privilege to engage in genuine dialogue.

Now the question is only if others will let me make that trade.