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Some episodes in higher education are so predictable it’s hard to imagine why anyone even blinks. Last week’s “racist” incident at Sweet Briar College in Virginia in which someone mysteriously posted “white” and “colored” signs on doors and over water fountains ended with the revelation that the sign poster was, of course, black.

The perpetrator offered the following apology to the community:

While posting these extremely hurtful labels, I had one thing in mind. My mission was to show others that words can still have an extreme impact, and the past still resonates with us all. While moving forward, we can never really shake the past. The past is a part of us and we are a part of the past.

The problem for students like this and, let’s face it, the professors who encourage them, is that the past really is past. Sure there is racism, but we are not living with Jim Crow now and so the number of “teachable moments” about racism that come up in any given semester is pretty small. Usually student activists and professors resort to suggesting that all of our racism is subconscious and structural. But there are those who simply see it as easier to pretend that it’s 1935 and that prejudice is overt and omnipresent.

There are two notable things about this incident, though. First, the only reason the school ultimately revealed that it was a black student who did this is because Sweet Briar was receiving threatening phone calls. According to the local sheriff’s office, someone said:

“We want justice."

"Who is the white girl that did this?"

"Ferguson and now this."

"Hands up! Don't shoot!"

"We're coming up there. We want justice."

So basically this kind of prank is enough to stir up serious threats of violence. But presumably that too would have fed into this student’s belief that we are just living in the past.

Second of all, there is the school’s response to this incident. In a letter to the college community, interim president James F. Jones Jr. writes:

What lies now before the College is how best to learn from the past several, difficult days on campus. To that end, we are arranging to take advantage of the expertise offered the College from the Virginia Council for Inclusive Communities.  We will be planning, with their help and guidance, to mount a series of open dialogues, for faculty, staff, and students, in the weeks to come to discuss, as members of one collegiate family, how to move our College forward to become the inclusive, respectful place of our highest aspirations.

In other words, the reaction is just the same as if there had been an actual incident of some white person posting racist signs on campus. A series of open dialogues because some misguided student decided she wanted to teach her fellow students about the history of racism. Can we just spare the students and professors at Sweet Briar this nonsense? They apparently have a campus so free of racism that students have to create it from whole cloth. Surely that should get them out of some “open dialogues.”

2 thoughts on “Fake racism on campus”

  1. Racism, conscious or unconscious is real……it doesn’t hurt any less because the actor/owner of oppressive thoughts and behaviors consciously or unconsciously uses his or her unearned social power to act or respond to another person with that applied lense. I understand your frustration about what you term “fake” racism and while I do not think the way to talk about any topic as difficult as racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other form of social idealogical violence is to force the issue, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t as adults in a multicultural world be willing or able to come together to have a compassionate dialogue. Opting out of opportunities for dialogue is one of the ways a person of unearned privilege manages anxiety. I know this for sure because as a man I can experience gender anxiety in the same way that as a white person you experience “white anxiety”

    For the record, I found some of your unchallenged assumptions offensive…like your opening use of the term “of course” which implied to me that all black students or only a black student would do something like this. Does that make you racist? I don’t think so, but insensitivity can feel like an ism. So why can’t we call just get along? Not because of isolated incidents of fake racism as you say, but because it is easier to avoid courageous conversations than to step boldly into them. I have found as a person who has to at least think about the color of my skin everyday of my life, that it starts with self-awareness, the honest conversation I have with myself about how I chose to respond to the world and any act of bias that I may experience or observe. What about you?

  2. N says:

    Just wanted to point out that the quote from the President was the day immediately after the incident, when everybody DID think it was an “actual incident of some white person posting racist signs…” maybe if he had know he would have taken a slightly different tack, I don’t know. Besides this you make a well reasoned case.

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