Sensationalizing discrimination

Discussion of racism or “racially offensive” behavior often descends into murky territory. It is a genuine challenge to respond with sensitivity and seriousness to words or actions that are often open to interpretation. Based on the events of the last week, we find that the College is still struggling to find the right voice on this issue.

The e-mail Dean Merrill sent to campus last week reporting an incident of “racially offensive” graffiti blew the individual misdeed out of proportion. Merrill said that she will not send an e-mail in tandem with every similar incident except the egregious ones. She and other senior staff should have abided by this logic from the get-go.

The administration took advantage of the report of this discriminatory event by converting it partially into an advertisement. Claiming Williams and Williams Speaks Up are absolutely valuable resources that we are excited to see develop, but we do not condone hyping up one offensive incident to provide evidence that these resources for combating discrimination are necessary.

There are differences between this incident and the use of the “N-word” on a door in Williams Hall E last year. Scrawling a word that, in or out of context, is racially offensive and targeted towards African-Americans is a separate kind of violation than offensively modifying the word “Asian” and targeting that insult towards an Asian-American. Without diminishing the degree of pinpointing felt by the targeted individual in this case, we must begin to navigate these confusing waters by noting that the former incident was definitely racist, whereas the latter falls somewhere in between racist and racial.

So prepared are administrators to see racial intent in such comments that they inadvertently marginalized issues such as gender. Whether or not the message accused the victim of being “slutty,” given that it was written soon after a drawing of a penis appeared on her door, the writings clearly targeted the victim not only for her race but for her gender. Merrill remained silent on this kind of discrimination, and we are concerned that what is arising is a hierarchy of offense based on the kind of discrimination taking place, with racism of paramount concern.

There is a significant difference between noting incidents that raise discrimination issues and sensationalizing them, and we feel that senior staff has sufficiently conflated these two modes of reaction. In the process, they have put in jeopardy the already confusing and tenuous process of working against discrimination. The only way to combat discrimination is by being as fair and consistent as possible in our treatment of it, and we hope senior staff will make efforts to do so in the future.