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Colleges face tough balancing act on racial incidents

Six Hamline University football players show up at a Halloween party in blackface, dressed as members of an African tribe.

A Minneapolis Community and Technical College newspaper editor uses a noose as a motivational tool for procrastinating write

Six Hamline University football players show up at a Halloween party in blackface, dressed as members of an African tribe.

A Minneapolis Community and Technical College newspaper editor uses a noose as a motivational tool for procrastinating writers.

Two Macalester students show up at a “politically incorrect” party, one in Ku Klux Klan garb and the other in blackface, wearing a noose.

In all cases, outrage ensues. The university issues releases, hosts forums on diversity and tolerance, then moves on.

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And then it happens again.

Incidents of racial insensitivity — the apparently unintentional ones, that is (students involved in the three events all say they meant no harm)—arise at a pace so regularly it seems to suggest that no amount of publicity or diversity-embracing events slow them down.

What’s the way to respond?
So what’s an institution to do? Is the college community obliged to respond, and if so, how? Or is there a better way?

It’s a difficult question, one I once grappled with. Full disclosure: I graduated from Hamline a few years ago (though I don’t know any of the people involved in the blackface incident). During the time I ran the college newspaper, the staff and I covered a series of insensitive acts (even a few by my own paper) and the subsequent rallies and forums.

We never did find an answer, but I went looking for one again after the most recent incident. I started with John McWhorter, who believes the best response is none at all.

In the wake of the Jena Six story last month, McWhorter, a former college professor who’s a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Race and Ethnicity and noted author on race relations, roiled the waters with a commentary piece on NPR (later published in his New York Sun column) that suggested that the next time someone plants a noose, just ignore it.

And, he told me, colleges should do the same thing the next time someone dons an offensive costume or does some other insensitive thing.

“To the extent that schools call forums and put out press releases whenever these things happen, they are wasting time and encouraging jerks to keep it up. (The offenders) seek to shake things up. They do. And they therefore do it again.”

“The people complaining were expending energy on something much less worthy than things that really matter, such as mentoring black students on campus,” he said. “They were also implying that black people are uniquely fragile. Yes, certain costumes, etc., can be traced to ugly things in the past. But when does the past become the past? And isn’t a sign of weakness to resist it becoming truly the past?”

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Of course, he said, it’s important to address and publicize incidents that lead to safety concerns, such as the recent case of three black women at St. Thomas University receiving threatening notes.

But just ignore the offensive jokes and costumes. Not because they don’t hurt, but because it’s the best way to stop them.

Suggestion well-intentioned but …
McWhorter’s suggestion made sense. I wanted to believe it would work. And maybe someday it will. I just couldn’t see ignoring an incident as an effective tool for a small campus where students generally know who’s up to what and racial tensions are already elevated.

Because at Hamline, students’ reaction to every insensitive act was always swift, and usually boiling with anger. And that anger sparked a sort of counter-anger, leaving the I-can’t-believe-this-happened side at a heated standoff with the I-can’t-believe-this-is-such-a-big-deal side, an anger that typically simmered until a new incident caused it to flare up again.

So I talked to Jane Rhodes, Macalester’s dean for race and ethnicity studies, who witnessed firsthand this spring her college’s outcry that surrounded the KKK and blackface costumes, to get her perspective.

McWhorter’s advice might work in the general public, she said, but doesn’t translate so well to the world of higher education, where a school has an image to protect and, more importantly, a responsibility to educate.

“Our job is to educate, our job is to produce good citizens … (and) these incidents suggest that we’ve failed in our mission,” she said.

College students are raised in a “Comedy Central culture,” Rhodes said, where Sacha Baron Cohen mocks Kazakhstan and Dave Chappelle pokes fun at black people. Students don’t always understand the difference between offensive humor meant to entertain (simply offensive) and offered as a political statement (offensive, but with social consciousness and intended to spark conversation). And with that comes “a level of naivete. It reflects young people who are sheltered, grew up in homogenous communities and never had to think about the fact that their roommate or their friends might be offended.”

In other words: College students need teachable moments.

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And they’ll only be open to learning when they feel safe, she said, something Macalester was able to provide with a campus-wide event, where nearly one-third of the student body, along with faculty and staff from all walks of life and departments, sat down one day to talk about race and ethnicity.

Colleges face balancing act
So maybe there’s a balance. Maybe colleges can’t ignore racial insensitivities, but shouldn’t be furious when they arise. That way, McWhorter’s “jerks” don’t get the attention they seek, the apologetic offenders (like those involved in all three incidents) aren’t ostracized, and poorly planned Halloween costumes aren’t offered as evidence of anything larger than a simple mistake.

And sooner or later, the past will become the past, as McWhorter hopes, and ignoring these incidents will be possible, if not easy.

Rhodes admitted, though, that when there’s an incident, too many students still ask what the big deal is. Not because, like McWhorter, they think it’s smarter to ignore it. They simply don’t understand.

Historically, colleges and universities, including Macalester, “haven’t always done a good job of explaining why there’s an uproar when these things happen,” she said. But she hopes that the approach, both at her college and others, is changing.

If history is any indication, there won’t be too long of a wait to find out.