Letter to the Editor: Stop painting racial issues as just black and white

This was a guest essay submitted by professor of English Eugene Stelzig.

I wish Maria Lima, with whom I have had a collegial relationship for many years, would refrain from using the inflammatory rhetoric she deploys in her Oct. 25 Lamron essay and which does our academic community more harm than good. As someone born in what was then Nazi Germany, I am extremely suspicious about and leery of inflammatory rhetoric, and especially that involving politics and race: after all, that country was run by a leader whose infamous stock-in-trade was precisely that kind of rhetoric.

No wonder the young white man who heard Dr. Lima say "this campus is god-forsaken white" was offended. By the same token a black student at a predominantly black institution such as Howard University would be offended by someone commenting that "this campus is god-forsaken black." The upshot of such a remark is to make that student feel unwanted and unwelcome. To make someone feel unwanted because of his or her race (or gender, nationality or sexual orientation) is really not kosher, even if it is done unintentionally, as I am sure was the case with Dr. Lima's remark to the offended young man.

Moreover, the appeal to such racial categories is both simplistic and problematic, because examined carefully or critically, "white" and "black" are shifting signifiers built on sand. For instance, Europe includes in the "white" category both very light-skinned Scandinavians at one end of the spectrum, and dark-complexioned Mediterraneans at the other. Conversely, light-skinned African-Americans have traditionally been and still are considered - and consider themselves - non-white, even though some of them are of a lighter complexion than some Italians and Greeks.

In the racially mixed and multicultural twenty-first century United States, such binaries are increasingly questionable if not irrelevant. Not only are they, like the continents, subject to drift, but they also tend to flow into each other. Indeed, if we are to believe what we hear from the scientific community, the concept of "race" has no scientific validity, but is principally a cultural construct.

So please, Geneseo's polemical Dr. Lima, speak from your higher self in addressing issues of race and racism on our campus, and resist the temptation of permitting your intense political and ideological commitments to make inflammatory statements that can easily be construed as cheap shots. After all, Geneseo is not the white supremacist pre-Apartheid South Africa or the pre-Civil Rights segregated South of half a century ago, but a community open to dialogue on controversial issues and seeking diversity in our students and faculty - as well as in our viewpoints and beliefs - and even in our thinking and our teaching styles.

Yes, racism is still very much a problem in our nation and world, and yes, there have been incidents of it on our campus and in the surrounding area, as pointed out by FARI, but is the college community not making a genuine effort to be aware of and address this problem? No doubt we could do better, as FARI reminds us, but isn't it counterproductive to dismissively describe our college as "god-forsaken white"? Aren't such polemics designed more to shut down dialogue than to start it? I challenge all of us to resist inflammatory rhetoric, and to think, speak, and write from our best and least dogmatic and demagogic selves.