The Final Word, Or Lack Thereof

Tolerance on Union's campus

On Monday, Jan. 30, a scandal which began with a highly controversial article ended quietly in an Ortner Center conference room. Racism is a polarizing topic, and many on and off campus took sides after Jonathan Deemer posted an article discussing it in issue 6, volume 91 of The Clocktower.

In response, professor of psychology, Trudy Holmes-Caines wrote a letter to the editor which was published in issue 9, volume 91 of The Clocktower. An online argument, via the shared articles and Facebook, raged all the while. The differing opinions of these writers clashed, as students came forward with their own interpretations of life on campus and how it relates to race.

If you’re interested in a full summary of the discussion, it is included below.

Union isn’t isolated in facing these kinds of issues. Across the world, universities are on the front lines in a war against racism.

Ideas like institutional racism can grow out of seemingly nowhere, and can put those who don’t see the world the same way on edge. It can be easy to feel attacked if you don’t have the same perspective as those who are blaming you for some problem.

When attacked, it’s easy to lash out against anything the opposition says, even if they have a good point. The greatest pushback against politically correct politics is found in the republican party. Social media wars, shouting matches and censorship of dissenters can follow when the right wing feels attacked.

Social justice isn’t innocent in this either. In fact, it can be even more guilty of being inconsiderate.

While hard conservatives are often the most overt in their intolerance of those who disagree with them, pushing back against social policing can make anyone a target of social justice warriors. By so vigorously fighting oppression and pursuing equality, one can end up devaluing any other opinions, becoming the thing they hate—oppressive bigots.

If there was one theme common throughout the discussion was the need for openness to change.

Professor Holmes-Caines presented how Jonathan’s article could have easily been offensive to someone who felt as if their whole life they had been fighting a faceless machine built to oppress them. At the same time, Jonathan expressed how wildly labeling things as racist is a dangerous route to tread, both belittling the word and alienating the people who most need to discuss why their actions are offensive.

While neither ultimately changed what they believed, I’m confident that it was an eye-opening experience for everyone who came. Perhaps if enough people follow their example and try to step across the aisle with an open mind, society can avoid getting so caught up on the semantics of what the problem is, and instead focus on finding a compromising solution to the egregious racial disparity which can permeate many areas of daily life.

Statistics can be tossed around, but most agree there is a correlation between race, poverty and success in life, if not a causal relationship. Shouldn’t we then, as Christians or otherwise, be working towards the common goal of equal acceptance?

Instead of throwing insults across imaginary walls along party lines, finding common ground can lead to compromise and attaining a better society. Quite often neither side is 100% correct, so by considering the issue from a variety of points of view we can increase our odds of finding a good solution.

Racism has always been about perspective, specifically a lack of it. When people think their view is the only one that matters, inhuman acts become a lot easier. There will never be a final word on the issue of racism, nor will there ever be a perfect resolution to the problem of humans disliking other humans (at least on this earth).

Nonetheless, through respectful discussion, peaceful resolutions can be found which satisfy everybody’s needs, sans the name calling.

While America may not have always been great, it certainly had high points for all races, and continues to present opportunities in abundance. Still, it has never been easy. Whether fording. rivers or changing systems which have been status quo for years, togetherness and national unity has always been key to productively utilizing democracy.

I would call this campus, and the nation, to hold to this high standard of putting aside differences to enact great change.

A summary of the discussion

On Monday, Jan. 30, a scandal which began with a highly controversial article ended quietly in an Ortner Center conference room. 

Eight students and professor of psychology Trudy Holmes-Caines attended a discussion lead out and moderated by associate professor of English and communication, Chris Blake. The discussion opened with prayer and defining what racism is. Professor Holmes-Caines noted that, in sociology, a common definition would be one which focuses on prejudice and systematic discrimination based upon racially based feelings of superiority.

To recap, if you haven’t been paying attention until recently, opinion writer Jonathan Deemer wrote an article titled “The forgotten meaning of racism” in issue 6, volume 91 of The Clocktower. He received some disparaging responses, including some anonymous online comments and people calling him a racist. 

The response he provided to many of these such anonymous comments was to personally message him, and he would try to explain his reasoning. He didn’t receive any replies from these commenters, but he did receive feedback from professor Holmes-Caines when she wrote a letter to the editor, published in issue 9, volume 91 of The Clocktower.

When asked why she wrote that letter, professor Holmes-Caines said she has spent 22 years at Union, during which she has talked with many students who felt misunderstood or misrepresented. When she read Jonathan’s article, she said that she wanted minorities on campus to “feel as though there were people who understood and represented them.”

Getting into why he wrote his article, Jonathan expressed his confusion at how he could be racist, when he himself is a minority with both white and Cuban parents. He understood that meanings change, and can vary in their common use from the dictionary definitions. 

However, he cautioned that lumping the KKK and Jim Crow together with the more mundane offenders like those who get nervous going through a particular part of the town is dangerous to both sides of the argument. Being labeled as racist is a big deal in society, and such a broad definition is something he rejects when people’s jobs and reputations are at stake.

Blake probed with a question to Jonathan, “Can there be racism even if it isn’t blatant?” While Jonathan agrees that you can hide it, there’s a big difference between racism and bias. “Bias deals with ignorance, while racism deals with hate,” he said.

Blake then switched to questioning professor Holmes-Caines, asking her to define systematic racism. She pointed out that to be systematic, it would have to follow a pattern and be able to be identifiable over and over again. She added that, while Jonathan mentioned Jim Crow, there can be systems which discriminate without being law. 

She suggested that minorities don’t feel hated as much as they feel they lose opportunities because of their race.

Keeping both parties on their toes, Blake argued to professor Holmes-Caines that certainly everyone feels hard times and some form of discrimination at one point or another, whether that is racially based or not. “What sets racial issues apart from these other struggles?” he asked. 

Professor Holmes-Caines replied that it isn’t so much that race isn’t a special kind of issue, it’s simply another issue on top of others which need tackling. “It’s important to address all obstacles, whether they have to deal with race or not,” she concluded. 

One of the students in attendance also noted that just saying something doesn’t make you racist, just as telling a lie doesn’t make you a compulsive liar, but even though the intent may not match what is expressed, people can still be hurt by what you say.

Jonathan recognized these points, and pointed out that he understands how people saying things can cause harm without them intending it. He also suggested that it’s still important to make the distinction between bias and racism. 

Without this distinction, he warns both parties can become upset and beneficial dialogue will break down, which can be detrimental to both sides. 

I added my opinion to the discussion, suggesting that perhaps the best way to keep civility and still address the problem would be to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, categorizing misinformed comments as simple bias until they can be shown to be rooted in racism.

The discussion started wrapping up with professor Holmes-Caines discussing how things are quite a bit better than they used to be on-campus. She says that people she talks to now don’t tell the same stories as they used to. “Minority students in the 90s would often lead to feelings of rejection and a lack of similar values,” she said, adding that “many of these feelings, they connected with race.” Concluding on a hopeful note, she says “we aren’t hearing that as much anymore.”

Other students who attended (of various races themselves) pointed out that in the dorms they don’t feel racism themselves, nor have they seen cases where students avoided those of different races or discriminated against them. 

Still, they said, it’s certainly possible there are those who feel differently. One girl mentioned that, growing up in the south, she had many minority friends who would make comments about her whiteness or joke about her Ugg boots.

A common theme amongst the testimonies of the students who attended was that many minority friends of theirs felt that Union was a place where they felt safe. While going out can lead to people staring or making comments, at Union they don’t feel they have to worry.

Professor Holmes-Caines provided a closing remark about how she doesn’t like to hold onto things. Her philosophy is that “though you said this thing about me, that was you, you said it. I don’t think this way, so it doesn’t matter.” She quickly added, however, that letting things roll off your shoulders doesn’t mean having to stand by and take abuse. It’ good to stand up for yourself, and respectfully present another way to view things.

James Clague is a sophomore studying Computer Science, Mathematics, and Engineering.