Violent, racially charged imagery hurts us all

By Janet Carlson

As an emeritus faculty member, I belong to the extended Macalester community and as a person of color I feel an obligation to respond to this weekend’s revelation. I think it is important to have these discussions on campuses like Mac’s—they contribute to the college’s goals of helping to create an informed citizenry.

For those of you who don’t know me, I taught here for nearly 25 years and, although I’m an organic chemist, for many of those years I was asked and was grateful to be able to work toward bringing to this campus courses and programs designed to give students and faculty opportunities to become more informed about issues of race.

Because of my past work here, I am deeply disappointed to hear that race can still be treated so frivolously. When incidents like this party happen, a large segment, perhaps all, of the community is damaged. Of course you are thinking that people of color are affected and yes, we are. Every time something like this happens, many people of color, especially educators like me, feel obliged to work, if not remedy the injustice, then to work harder towards a time when such incidents are a thing of the past. It takes time and energy and it takes a toll on us. Instead of working on the Asian American studies class I created here and now teach at Hamline, instead of enjoying a relaxing evening of tai chi with my friends, I am writing this and I will have to stay up late to do my paid work. Instead of concentrating on that really interesting class, students of color have to explain why KKK outfits are inappropriate, why nooses are stressful, why you don’t see blackface in movies anymore, and so forth.

What I am trying to say is that for people of color like me, race is a full time job whether it means thinking about what I need to say in response to an incident involving race or simply being seen as a representative of “my People” when people see me as a personification of an undeserved stereotype.

At Mac, as at many colleges and universities, it is the people of color who have the extra job, the extra burden to educate white people about what it is to be of color. Of course, for some of us, this role is a part of the job description, but I wager to say that few whites take on this work unless it is a formal part of the job. With some effort, in the future this institution might take this extra burden off of people of color—but, as this incident shows, that day is still not here.

I believe that the words “diverse campus” have become code words meaning white people get to have the opportunity to rub elbows with people of color. It’s almost a form of entertainment—like a party—you come for a set amount of time, have interesting conversations and experiences and go on with life. In the end, a few of you will be motivated to work on issues of social justice, some of you will just remember it was one of those tense times on campus when you had to tiptoe around issues of race and maybe even tiptoe around people of color you consider to be your friends but to the detriment of our community, most of you won’t remember it at all.

Let me say again: being a person of color is a full time job. We don’t have the luxury of changing our appearance at the end of the party. We can’t just push our chairs back from the table when the meaty discussion is concluded. As this incident shows, we have to remain vigilant because next time it might be our turn to be afraid, to wonder when we will be put on display because of the thoughtlessness of others.

So, how does what happened at the party damage the white people here at Mac? Well, for me, what is lost is trust and free communication. We all have to be on guard now. When what one group merely considers PC is a matter of another’s core being, how can we speak freely? How can we speak from the heart when someone thinks they are inconvenienced by having to be civil?
Think about it this way: white people lose the opportunity to learn what we as people of color really have to say.

If, for some members of our community, the wearing of the KKK “uniform” or of blackface is just as menacing as someone wielding a noose or a knife, then it just shouldn’t be done. Why shouldn’t those who feel threatened be granted the authority to call a threat a threat? Does it really make sense to allow those who acts are threatening to say those acts are just a joke?
It is truly arrogant, mean-spirited and damaging to stage an event that will surely provoke people of color. By doing so, the organizers and participants unfairly rob people of color of the time and energy they should be spending on activities of their own choosing because, as I have said, they end up responding to others’ inappropriate actions.

Thanks to the courage of students who called these actions into question, we all know that there still is work to do here at Macalester around issues of race. But we shouldn’t put the burden of educating the community about race on students. Macalester proudly announces that diversity is important here and uses diversity to attract students. Students come here because they expect to meet a diverse population.

But it’s not just about meeting people of color that is important. Informed citizens need to know how we got to the point where the wearing of a KKK outfit or appearing in blackface is just as inappropriate as using the “N word.” Macalester should make sure that students have the opportunity to take classes on race. Every student should feel obliged to learn about these issues and, until they choose to do so, Mac should ensure that they do