Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Johns Hopkins University Still Needs To Learn A Lot

Nubian is always on top of things before I even know what's going on. Her "It Happened Again" post is about the latest campus-related incident where somebody thought that parties make for excellent excuses when you want to show how much of a bigot you are but you're such a coward that you need to be able to present it as a joke in order to dare do it. A bunch of fraternity members decided to host a "hood"-themed party a with racist, ablist, and sexist invitation to go along with it.

After reading about it on Blackademic (I never pass up an opportunity to provide a link to her site), I skipped around the net to see what other sources had to say about it. Alas, A Blog mentions it in "Step Away From The Damned Blackface, Already" and you can take a look at the actual message from the invitation to the party here. I also found an editorial on Johns Hopkins University's student-run newspaper's website entitled "Sigma Chi's Long Night". I don't think that it will be a big surprise for anyone to hear that their editorial downplayed the significance of this incident and attempted to blame the Black Student Union for getting folks all stirred up about it. Goodness graciousness, why can't people ever stop resuscitating the tired old "You guys aren't being good Negroes" routine. I wrote a comment on the editorial and I hope others will too. Here's what I have to say about the newspaper's assessment:

Racism: hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

Contrary to what this editorial suggests, racism is not in the eyes of the beholder. If making light of a disease that is responsible for the deaths of millions of Black people every year can be considered hateful or intolerant, then how can there be any doubt about whether this was racism? If calling the the (predominantly-black) city of Baltimore an "HIV-pit" is a hateful and intolerant act, then what word is there in English language that better describes what occurred?

If this editorial board thinks that these references were probably meant as a joke, then I'd certainly be interested in knowing what they think the "probable" punchline was for it. I'm sure that, whatever it is, the rest of the world would die laughing upon hearing it, at least those who aren't too busying just dying.

Let's think this through, shall we? Turning demanded that they cancel the offensive party. However, the members of Sigma Chi chose to ignore the faculty advisor and proceed with it anyway. Given the fact that they knew it was offensive before the party even began, how is it probable that anything about this incident is just a joke gone awry? Those who claim to want to find a resolution to this incident need to know that this can not take place unless people are willing to at least be clear about what actually occurred.

As is too often the case, those who are not members of the group that was being caricatured can afford to focus on "intentions". However, those of us who do know what it's like to be on the receiving end of racism (both personal and institutionalized forms of it) are not any less harmed because someone may not have acted with bigotry as their explicit goal. In fact, institutionalized racism is what makes incidents like the Sigma Chi party possible because it means that when certain classes of people engage in racist behavior, they can usually do so with relative impunity.
To ask whether or not this was "Racism or Stupidity" is to create a false dichotomy. Is there some reason why it could only be one or the other? I'm going to go out on a limb here and introduce what might seem like a really far-fetched notion to some. Could it be that it was racist stupidity? I know it's anecdotal but, in my experience, racism and stupidity are not exactly strange bedfellows. That is why I am a bit disappointed to see their actions described as "taking stabs at the sensibilities of students". Is that what engaging in racist behavior is now? Is that what sexism is now? We shouldn't forget that Blacks and people living with HIV weren't the only ones mentioned in this minor faux pas. In the spirit of true equal-opportunity bigotry, they also managed to give everyone else a pretty good idea of where they stand when it comes to women too.

The editorial board seems to think that the apology given by some Sigma Chi members merits applause. I disagree. Every year members of the Johns Hopkins University's famed research programs engage in applause-worthy behavior. Given the current long line of truly amazing researchers at JHU who have yet to receive the accolades they deserve, I don't think anyone needs to resort to praising someone just because they might not be quite as odious as the others they surround themselves with.

I am also a bit puzzled by the editorial board's mention that an "evenhanded approach" is what's needed to heal the rifts in the student community. In order for this to be a situation worthy of evenhandedness, there must be at least two sets of actions of equal weight. Have the people who are offended by Sigma Chi's actions engaged in any reaction that equaled the sort of detestable behavior involved in that party?

I certainly hope that the editorial board did not mean to be as condescending as they were when they came to the conclusion that the resolution that some seek would not do them any good. How is it that, despite being very clear about what it would take in order for them to consider this matter to be justly resolved, the editorial board came to believe that it could know what these individuals want better than they can?

This editorial explained that the board has some misgivings but are those the result of the fact that more than a formal apology from Sigma Chi might be needed in order to resolve this? No. Instead it chose to focus on the fact that the Black Student Union(BSU) decided to bring this matter to the attention of those outside of the Johns Hopkins community. Perhaps if the board members were familiar the history of racism in this country they would be aware of why the BSU was inclined to present this to the media. The very fact that this board believes that they can decide what must be done in order for the BSU's actions to be justified makes it even more understandable for the BSU to have determined that more voices should be factored in to the discussion on race that needs to go on right now.

If the editorial board had taken the time to study the historic role of racism in this country, perhaps it would have been less likely to have formed the impression that the BSU's role should be to educate and foster dialogue. Instead, those who don't want the city of Baltimore and the rest of the country to believe that Sigma Chi's actions are merely a reflection of the overall attitude at JHU need to be the ones who seek to foster dialogue with the BSU.

If anyone on the board is principled or truly concerned enough to do that, they should know that getting started doesn't require a lot of work. Just go meet with some BSU members and ask how you too can be an ally to Black anti-racists on campus. It's that easy.

Instead of waiting for the BSU (which has more than enough to deal with now, thanks to the brothers of Sigma Chi) to address the wall hangings at Nolan's, why not do it yourself? Imagine how far it would go towards healing the community if those outside of the BSU took a stand against racism when they saw it. Can Mahatma Gandhi's words ever be repeated enough? To the editorial board I say: Be the change that you want to see in the world!

The Sigma Chi party was more than "an unfortunate occasion" and we should not mistakenly believe that racism can ever be a "force for good". If you're looking for such a force, why not start engaging in a little introspection to examine whether there may be something more that you can do to make sure that the rest of the world sees JHU will not excuse, will not minimize and certainly will not tolerate this sort of bigotry ever again.

3 comments:

belledame222 said...

As I said at nubian's, on seeing that picture, I'd like to smack the pancake right off them. smug arrogant little fucks. gah. I know the type well.

belledame222 said...

>racism and stupidity are not exactly strange bedfellows.

bumper sticker!!

belledame222 said...

btw, do you know zuky/kai? he's been pretty kickass on this, the blackface crap i mean. well, in general, i think he's kickass, but:

http://www.kaichang.net/2006/11/racism_disguise.html

http://www.kaichang.net/2006/11/the_sloppy_prop.html