On Tuesday, I happened across an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that, for a very obvious reason, caught my attention: "A University Examines Underlying Problems After Racist Incidents." The subhead: "At Oregon State University, a predominantly white college, it seemed as if relations among different groups were harmonious - until the campus newspaper published a drawing of a person in blackface."
Of course, it's not a surprise to many at Geneseo that blackface incidents have taken place at colleges across the U.S. What was so intriguing to me about this particular episode, however, was the role that the student newspaper, The Daily Barometer, played in sparking the controversy at the overwhelmingly white school.
In early October, The Barometer printed a front-page story urging students to wear nothing but black (one of the school colors) to an upcoming home football game. Topping it off was a photo illustration of a student wearing black attire and - you guessed it - black face paint.
Barometer Editor-in-Chief Lauren Dillard said in the Chronicle article that she and six other Barometer editors looked over the piece without a single thought that it would offend anyone.
The response that ensued was tumultuous: angry letters to the editor, protests at football games, local media coverage, and demands that the administration do more to combat racism. Also notable was the strong backlash against those that were initially upset with the newspaper. Many students defended the piece as simply displaying school spirit and angrily accused the protestors of making a big deal over nothing. Sound like the "only Halloween costumes" fliers at all?
What is interesting about this case is the way it highlights the dynamics on both sides of the argument, and the extent to which it's often hard for white people on mostly white campuses to come to terms with the mindset of their minority peers that would cause them to be offended by such images. (That's not to say, of course, that it was only minority people who were offended here or at Oregon.)
We have the editors of the student newspaper: hard-working and responsible, the epitome of those who are expected to exercise good judgment. They weren't Halloween revelers, yet even they still failed to realize the implication of the image.
On the other hand, we have black students who, according to the article, frequently felt "chronic hassle," or racism that is subtle or unintended. Shannon Warren, the former head of the Oregon State Black Student Union, spoke of professors who were surprised at her academic success, and said she was often called upon in class to act as a spokesperson for her race. This subtle racism, as we all know, can lead to feelings of alienation.
What it comes down to is the reality that white and minority students have vastly different views of their surroundings at white-majority campuses. White people, by and large, are far less likely to perceive discrimination and much more likely to see their schools as very supportive of minorities (ideas supported by recent studies, the article says).
I am not writing to revive a dead debate or to take sides, but to encourage us to move past demonizing the other side in the argument (I still frequently hear white students bemoan the blackface protests, for instance) and understand the dynamics at play.
Edward Ray, Oregon State's president, was correct in his assessment of the situation: The friendly college atmosphere makes it harder for white people to realize when or understand why minority people feel racial bias. Until we come to terms with the fact that our respective backgrounds dictate that we see things differently in this sort of environment, we cannot hope to achieve the long-lasting change that is needed for a harmonious campus.
Jacob Kriss is a senior English major who swears he doesn't read The Chronicle of Higher Education on a daily basis.