Responding To Words That Shock
Some statements are so shocking you never forget them.“The only difference between Indians and Whites is the color of our hair and skin. Otherwise, we’re Caucasian, too,” said my friend, fellow journalist and former roommate, quite declaratively in 1991, during one of our many after-dinner discussions about race. At the time, she and I were among 16 post-graduate fellows enrolled in a media management program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. I remember feeling a confluence of anger, insult, pity and dismay at my friend’s words. My anger was directed at those responsible for conditioning her to think that being of South Asian descent wasn’t good enough — that the only validation for her culture, and subsequently herself, was to be positioned alongside Whites. I was insulted because her comment suggested that she believed people like me, whose appearance deviates radically from the Caucasian norm, were somehow inferior. I felt pity because the statement revealed deeply held sentiments of inadequacy and shame that I don’t think she even realized she had.But more than anything, I was dismayed that a woman of her educational achievement, chestnut complexion and worldly experience could be so naive as to not understand the profound absurdity of what she had said.“Have you ever thought about why you feel so compelled to compare yourself to White people?” I asked during the discussion that ensued. Further conversation revealed she had not. In this year’s “Commitment to Diversity” special report, South Asian scholars speak candidly about their status in society and academe as well as the emerging body of scholarship about Asian Americans (see pg. 20), who comprise the fastest growing population in higher education. The cover story also provides insight to what it is like to be neither Black nor White on a historically Black campus. The work of these scholars is already altering our world for the better. One day, I hope it will make comments like the one uttered by my dear friend unthinkable. In another story, Freedom Forum Fellow Pearl Stewart (see pg. 32) explores how African Americans at traditionally White campuses are faring in a climate where an institution’s commitment to diversity is no longer assessed in Black and White terms. And in a related article, Debra Humphreys (see pg. 34) examines the latest trends in 21st century diversity plans.As this edition was being sent to the printer, federal law enforcement officers were searching for the culprits who terrorized eight historically Black campuses last month with racist hate mail (see Hate Mail, pg. 18). The venomous tone of these shocking letters has upset otherwise peaceful campuses and represents what appears to be an escalating wave of anti-Black terrorism directed at colleges and universities. As we would expect, officials on the affected campuses have taken immediate measures to protect their students, faculty and staff from bodily harm. But the psychological damage brought on by such terrorism can have a much wider impact. I wonder if schools elsewhere that espouse commitments to diversity recognize the far-reaching, deleterious effects such hateful acts can have on their campus communities. I wonder what they’re doing about it. Former Black Panther Bobby Seale once said, “The best way to fight racism is with solidarity.” If campus administrators around the country realize that where one is threatened, all are threatened, shouldn’t there have been a firm and strident response of zero tolerance being sounded from all campuses and higher education associations? Do these institutions recognize just how serious a threat these incidents are to their collective existence? Do they have a strategy for fighting back?Do you?
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