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Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Issue is Institutionalized Racism at UMASS, Not One Event

Before we discuss the issue of accountability and condemnation regarding acts of racism at UMass-Amherst it is necessary to return to two points in the previous article. After those two points are addressed vital aspects regarding the nature of a system of white supremacy become clear. In the spirit of the forum that took place on Wednesday ("Costumizing Racism”), the goal here is to transform ignorance into a site for learning and draw out a plan to facilitate that learning so the community can be made aware of the implications of institutionalized racism.

The first point to return to: “And the most despicable twist [regarding this event] is that -- instead of recognizing that specific actions occurred and were highly offensive, instead of looking at the issues that obscuring information can lead to (students being intimidated and threatened), instead of taking this situation and letting people learn from it – the countless victims of all of this are being re-victimized.” Those who were offended and hurt by the initial acts of racism at a specific Halloween party (and there are MANY, across color “lines” and geographic locations) are now in a position where they cannot speak their minds and let their voices be heard, cannot educate the community, because they are being threatened and intimidated by students, professors, and university officials/administrators.

Second point to return to: “The issue is no longer the initial acts of racial hatred (and it is hatred because the act was perceived that way), it is the handling of the incident. It is the flip – that the victims of this incident (anyone who was impacted by it, and that includes ANYBODY regardless of location, race, gender, class, nationality) are now being attacked, threatened by professors and officials, and even the threat of legal action that has prompted us to write this and to DEMAND that people’s voices be heard.”

To re-state: the initial act of racism at a Halloween party is no longer the focus of the community’s concern. The individuals involved have been held accountable (though the degree to which has not been made public), issued an apology via a spokesperson (though it is true that the majority of the people offended by their actions never saw nor heard an apology of any kind), and have expressed that the intention and the thought that went into their Halloween costumes was not meant to offend (though intent vs. non-intent does not change the fact that people are angered by the act and the reaction on the part of students, professors, and UMass officials). Yes, we can condemn these students and demand more accountability. Yes, we can show that reference to the historical context that informed the decision to use a specific costume is framed within a period of slavery. We can argue that recognizing this is the first step towards learning from the incident. We can do all of this. But by focusing on the act itself, the despicable irony of the two points mentioned above is not pursued as a site to contend. Students, professors and officials calling this incident “a witch hunt” and a search “for the blood” of the costume-wearing people; an act of slander; and a platform used to disrespect specific nations (which, as is the case in the U.S. and throughout the world, have serious work to do to allow their people to have a voice) are MISSING THE POINT. The forum occurred in response to specific acts that motivated a series of what are arguably more serious acts: non-action, obscuring of events, silencing of students, direct and indirect threats against people trying to voice their feelings, pressure from people in positions of power to move on, a silenced campus newspaper, no effort from the administration to organize a space to discuss this issue and the issues it reveals as deeply embedded in the university.

By insisting on the idea that this is a “witch hunt” and an example of people “out for blood” you are blinding yourself and blinding your community to an even bigger issue. And that is that the people you are seeking to represent -- by focusing on the misconstrued idea of a “witch hunt” and by failing to look at the way this reflects on the university’s roles and history in all of this -- are going to be the ones that the university (professors and officials alike) uses to wash its hands clean of any responsibility. THIS IS NOT ABOUT THE INCIDENT ANYMORE, IT IS ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE RESPONSE TO THE INCIDENT THAT REVEALS AREAS TO REFORM WITHIN THE UNIVERSITY. Instead of pointing a finger at the many people offended by the incident and the response to the incident, you might take a minute to 1.) recognize people’s position, 2.) recognize that those offended are being re-victimized, 3.) And look critically at the institution that could rid itself of any responsibility by focusing on the event that you blindly demand we focus on. The people involved in the initial actions at the Halloween party are REMOVABLE PARTS. In the eyes of the officials, the University gets rid of the initial problem, it shows that it is not a racist institution and it shows the community that it has gotten rid of the problem/taken responsibility of it. Clearly, there is more going on that needs to be identified at an institutional level

What do we mean by “an institutional level”? Look at the silencing that is going on. Denying people the right to express themselves, whether by overt threats or threats insinuated, is a problem. The problem (again, if seen at the level of institution and not individual act) shows the community the following and MUCH more 1.) a way of responding to and acting on incidents of racism needs to be clear and people in positions of power within the university (professors, chairs, chancellors, etc.) must be trained to deal with the situations in more constructive ways and ways that do not foster a community of silencing and threats, 2.) the University must give us a clear statement regarding its commitment to diversity (where is the school “Diversity Statement”, for example?), to recognize that inequality exists in the state and beyond its borders, and, as a public institution, to act on it, 3.) to provide a space for/funding for weekly educational forums that allow people to educate themselves and address issues of concern in a space that will not lead to threats and intimidation.

The message: the members of the community who are informed (which you must understand is small in number due to the silencing that we need to address) have moved on from the initial incident. The focus is the response to the incident from people in power and the need to start working on the three points listed in the previous paragraph as stepping stones for more work. This is not a witch hunt or a blood bath. It is a search to make change so that this kind of incident and the response to it does not repeat. By insisting on the concept of witch hunt you make it easier for the university to go back to what IT perceives as “the problem” and to deal with it in unfair ways that are not constructive to the parties involved in the initial acts and are not constructive to the goal of working with the issue. Damaged reputations can be healed by working toward fostering change at an institutional level. This, to repeat and to conclude, is not about one incident nor is it about the parties involved: it is about the reaction to it. By focusing on the construct of a witch hunt you are inviting the university to side-step the whole issue, wipe itself clean, and to continue to do NOTHING.

As a community, we should not let the students involved in the event be the scapegoats for the university’s lack of commitment to social justice and equality. We need to protect the students from the Halloween party in PRODUCTIVE ways (calling upon the nation is not constructive, calling people expressing their views “witch hunters” is not constructive). As a community WE NEED TO PROTECT THEM so that the university can see itself, see its problems, see what needs to be worked on, see how much we have to learn, and not CONDEMN them as if they do not reflect the kind ongoing practices exemplified in the resonse to the initial act. We need to protect them so that the university does not treat them as removable parts and ignore this issue. We are human, we make mistakes, we make changes based on those mistakes. If the university continues to act the way it has (notice that the UMass Daily Collegian continues to be silenced) it will get rid of what it perceives to be the problem and prevent change.

Again, Our utmost respect goes out to the people who have had the courage (and it takes just that) to move forward despite implicit and explicit threats, to the organizers of the forum, people who spoke, people who responded, people who attended and listened and LEARNED.

We at Amherst Life welcome your comments so that dialogue can continue. We ask, in the spirit of the forum, that you not refer to the specifics of the incident, that you not refer to the names of specific people. The threat against people who have come forward to voice their disapproval with the situation is real and we do not want to jeopardize their well-being any further. We thank you for your cooperation.

click here to read more articles on racism at UMass


  • At 10:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    The University isn't going to GIVE you anything. All the laws are on the books. You're a college aged adult. Study them and bring a class action suit. That is the only way any advances--Brown v. Bd., the rights derived fromt he Civil Rights Act(s), Roe v. Wade. You must bring the University before the tribunal and bring them to justice and hold them accountable. POWER NEVER CONCEDES ANYTHING. Haven't you heard?

  • At 4:58 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    bring the university before the tribunal is a good idea. but who? The president, the dean, the chancellor? Who is the university exactly?


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