English department fails to address racism
This letter, written together by students in the “Race, Ethnicity and Inequality in Education” class at the Graduate School of Education, is meant to express our collective outrage over the act of racism that took place in a University class in the Department of English. We are angry that the faculty has not taken the matter more seriously and wish to demonstrate our support for the students pushing this issue into the light.
In a graduate class dedicated to writings on race between the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance, an email was sent by a white doctoral student — an instructor within the department — to the students in class whom she perceived as white. This email invited “her fellow non-racist racists” to a private, guilt-free viewing of 1946 musical “Song of the South” in her home, where together they could engage in celebratory mocking of stereotyped 1940’s images of southern blacks. This was an event hosted by a “ragtime/minstrel loving fool” who was due “for some rollicking Disneyfied Ole Darkeyism.” The postscript read, “If you do come, hooch is most welcome, as are strawhats and other Darkeyisms. I might even buy a watermillyum if I get enough interest.” It specified who invited guests should bring, given that “I might yell racist things at the TV.” The author of this email articulated the hope that the experience would be a “communion with her shamefully preferred era of Disney.”
One would hope that, for those who harbored a sentimental love of old Disney films, a critical viewing of “Song of the South” in a graduate-level classroom might prompt feelings of reflection, discomfort, re-evaluation, change; that it might engender a deeper examination of the ways ideology — and its companion, brutality — have been used to deprive blacks of power, privilege and assets throughout our history as a nation. Instead, this student chose to send an insulting, damaging and racially offensive email inviting half the class to a whites-only party celebrating “Song of the South.” That some other white students in the class voiced enthusiasm about the party is disturbing, painful and indicative of the larger presence of ignorance and discrimination students of color must endure in higher education. That the other students receiving the invite remained silent must have been equally horrifying. Silence in the face of overt racism could mean anything: Discomfort? Acquiescence? Complete agreement? But beyond its intended meaning, silence represents a terrifying complaisance when the environment is changed to one of threat and danger to students of color. At best, this silence demonstrates a failure on the part of the University to prepare students to recognize and challenge discrimination and injustice.
This racist email, and the other students’ reactions to it — including their silence — have now shaped the learning environment in their classroom, in much the same way as the department’s failure to act appropriately has shaped the environment beyond the classroom. A few professors scolded the writer. However, no one in the department publicly acknowledged the racist, discriminatory nature of the email. This was a moment when faculty could have made clear the seriousness with which they regard the critical topics they discuss in the courses they teach. A meaningful and important discussion could have taken place that may have changed or engaged people. Instead, an uncomfortable topic was largely avoided, and the feelings of the student who sent the email were prioritized above the pain of students of color, breeding resentment and misinformation about what was wrong with the email in the first place.
Thus far, the only way in which the incident has been addressed was through a panel discussion on race organized not by the English department, but by the students who were the victims of the email in the first place. The forum, while a courageous act by students who were undoubtedly feeling hurt and vulnerable, did not address the specifics of this incident, and the discussion remained highly abstract. It is critical to realize that while mistakes cannot be undone, they can be honestly recognized and sometimes remedied. Late is better than never — it would be heartening to see concrete actions taken by the department in order to educate and reconcile those involved in this specific incident.
That said, an institution of higher education is a reflection of the issues that are happening in the world, and this incident contains lessons for all of us in our roles as students, professors, deans and human beings. The mere fact that a situation like this occurred in the 21st century and in a place of learning is evident of the work still to be done. It is important that we as true educators stand firm in taking these incidents seriously and maximize the opportunity to make these teachable moments, both inside and outside of the classroom. Moreover, we must challenge our students, peers and very own faculty members to critically think about the relationship between theory and practice and the influence of history on our present world. It is necessary that we challenge others, but more importantly ourselves, which can be the most difficult task. The muted faculty reactions to this email are an unfortunate reflection of the ways systems silence some and not others.
It is only a matter of time before suffering comes to the surface, and when it does, it must be dealt with. The University has experienced an avoidable tragedy in the past year with the death of Tyler Clementi. Proactively addressing issues of discrimination and harassment and engaging our communities can create an open and honest dialogue to join together a divided University. We call on the University to create this open dialogue. We ask, what better time and place to engage in meaningful, intellectual dialogue surrounding the very issues that have kept us from recognizing one another as human beings? We are surroundedby an abundance of resources: historians, political scientists, activists, change agents, inquisitive and passionate students, and future leaders. We urge the University community to ensure that the silenced voices be heard and for us to look deeply into what has occurred. As Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” and it is necessary that issues of racism, classism or any “ism” for that matter undergo serious critical examination. We often focus on the “intention” behind incidents that occur, and although it may provide context, it does not change the outcome or the impact on the community.
The recent incident brings to light the racially-based hostility that still exists within the University and suggests the need for the University to take a more proactive role in engaging our entire University in building a space in which racism is directly addressed. In an email sent to the University community on Dec. 1, University President Richard L. McCormick issued a statement reaffirming the University’s policy prohibiting discrimination and harassment. The memo stated, “Rutgers plays an important role in shaping New Jersey’s future by contributing exceptional leaders, research, and new ideas. To realize our vision for the future, we are committed to providing a supportive and collaborative social environment, and a community dedicated to respecting and valuing diversity. The elimination of discrimination and harassment is one necessary step toward a more hospitable environment in which the open exchange of ideas is encouraged and members of all groups feel welcome.”
Acts of racism have no place in our University community, and we want to take this opportunity to publicly condemn the sending of these emails, to urge engagement in difficult conversations and attention to issues of justice and to make clear our expectations that the University will uphold its moral and legal responsibility to ensure a safe, non-discriminatory learning environment on campus.
Elizabeth Braxton is Graduate School of Education student majoring in college student affairs. Kevin Clay, Gozde Eken, Jocelyn Tejeda and Allyson Schieve are Graduate School of Education students majoring in social and philosophical foundations of education. Amanda Dillon, Eliot Graham, Kaitlin Northey, Amy Pickard and Sarah Stapleton are Graduate School-New Brunswick students majoring in education. Darrell DeTample is a Graduate School of Education student majoring in social studies education. Jean Sung is a graduate student in the Graduate School-Newark majoring in urban studies.
Correction: Amy Pickard's name was unintentially omitted in the signature of this letter. Pickard, a graduate student studying education, is also an original signee of the letter, which was written as a group from the Race, Ethnicity, and Inequality in Education course, under the Graduate School of Education.