April 13, 2010

Time to Hear the Whole Story

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It is no secret that, despite the best efforts of many tolerant individuals, racist, sexist and other bigoted slurs are still uttered, occasionally on college campuses. Both true bigots and tactless buffoons do exist in our society, and will inevitably articulate offensive thoughts (though hopefully less frequently now than in the past). This unfortunate truth can not be instantly changed to achieve a more tolerant world. The progress to be made is incremental — small steps to help more and more people understand why racism and sexism are unacceptable.

One opportunity for such incremental progress is found in the reactions — by individuals and institutions — to offensive actions and statements. When Prof. Grant Farred, English and Africana studies, allegedly called two graduate students “black bitches,” he offended, insulted and embarrassed women and the African-American community alike. He also offered an opportunity for the Africana Studies and Research Center and Cornell University to make a statement about their stances on racism and sexism.

Unfortunately, the ensuing statement was lackluster. Prof. Salah Hassan, Africana Studies, then the director of the Africana Center, and other administrators remained largely unresponsive to the concerns voiced by students at the Africana Center. We understand why the Africana Center would try to keep this incident in-house. For one, it is embarrassing for a department that stands for equality and combats bigotry to have to deal with an issue as ugly as this one. Professor Farred’s alleged comment contradicts the department’s mission of using an intimate understanding of social history to disassemble deep-seeded prejudices in our culture. Such a contradiction reflects badly on the center in a very public way. However, so too does staying quiet on the issue. Why not use this situation as a way to generate an on-campus discourse on how racism and sexism pervade even the most forward-thinking subsets of our society? Why not be at the forefront of the discussion that this situation will undoubtedly create in the coming days and weeks? In choosing to remain silent on the issue, the Africana Center and the administration have attempted to subdue a very important — albeit embarassing and controversial — conversation about race and sex on our campus.

After a two-month delay, an open forum has finally been scheduled for Wednesday, April 14, at 6 p.m. at the Africana Center. This is the sort of pro-active response the University should have supported immediately after the scandal came to light. A forum was held, but it was open only to graduate students and tenured faculty, and may have added to the sense of suppressed dialogue that contradicts nearly everything the Africana Center stands for. Wednesday’s forum gives the University and leaders at the Africana Center a second chance — if not to make up for their earlier silence, at least to explain it.