some of you may be aware, the end of the spring semester included
a most unfortunate incident on campus. On May 7, a member of one
of our fraternities attended an off-campus costume party in black
face. Many students were quite understandably upset by this event
and staged a respectful protest the next day. I met with representatives
of the group to go over a list of demands they put forward as an
answer to the incident. Those demands and my responses to them are
printed in full on the SU News web site (http://sunews.syr.edu/shawstatement.html).
The behavior of the student who appeared in black face is unacceptable
by any standard. To most people, it is a painful reminder of slavery
in this country and of the decades that followed that infamous period
in our history when whites in black face mocked and demeaned African
Americans in minstrel shows, vaudeville, and at other occasions.
I believe that the student who appeared in black face on May 7 meant
no harm. In fact, very few people intend to be hurtful by their
actions in these instances. As we at SU are learning through the
mandated staff training program in diversity, intent is not the
issue. Rather we have to examine our behavior and the impact it
has on others. But that brings up an even more worrisome point.
Why wasn’t he or others on this campus aware of how his actions
would be hurtful to others, particularly to people of color?
To me this incident demonstrated the disregard of people’s feelings
that I keep hoping will disappear from the scene. Unfortunately,
such incidents still happen much too regularly. A few years ago,
for example, a billboard appeared in California advertising a gym
with the offensive headline, “When they come, the aliens [from another
planet] will eat the fat ones first.” In the months after September
11, there were several incidents involving threats to U.S. citizens
who were of Arab American descent or who practiced Islam.
There are, however, signs of positive change. One by one, colleges
and high schools are moving away from mascots like “Warriors” or
“Braves” that stereotype a particular ethnic group, understanding
that, in the context of collegiate sports, this is not perceived
as an honor by the groups in question.
Any time we objectify an ethnic or racial group, we are setting
ourselves apart from—and usually superior to—that group. Nowhere
is that more clear than in incidents like the one we experienced
on May 7.
We have much work to do to address this incident and its ramifications.
There are several plans under way to use the experience as a catalyst
for discussion and education. As members of a higher education institution,
we are required to help our students gain an understanding of the
principles central to an inclusive, diverse democracy.
Kenneth A. Shaw