April 26, 2010

Too Quick to Punish

Print More

Is Grant Farred really all that bad? From what they’ve been saying about him, it seems as though we should lock him in prison and throw away the key. But what has he actually done?

At a February conference at the University of Rochester entitled “Theorizing Black Intellectuals,” Prof. Grant Farred, English and Africana Studies, told two late-coming students that “when you both walked in, I thought, ‘Who are these black bitches?’” After the students complained, he apologized, stressing he had meant no harm.

The repercussions of those two words were tremendous. He is no longer Director of Graduate Studies in the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) and was disinvited from its 40th anniversary celebration. And we should expect more: Prof. Salah Hassan, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center, has assured the community that removal and pay cuts are not off the table.

This response is disproportionate, to say the least. It is clear that Farred’s remark was not meant to degrade or terrorize. In fact, it seems patently obvious that he meant it as a harmless joke, one only a professor close to his students could get away with.

That is not to say that it wasn’t inappropriate. It certainly was. Moreover, it was stupid. However, effectively ending someone’s career over two inappropriate and stupid words should require a serious and thoughtful justification.

However, so far none has emerged from the Africana community. Instead, various campus figures have relied on the time-honored tropes of sexism and racism.

Take Hassan’s comment that Farred’s remarks were “certainly racist, sexist, and utterly ugly.” Or Professor Margaret Washington’s comment that the incident was “absolutely disgusting and despicable” and caused “Black female students” to feel unsafe. Or the courageous professor who anonymously stated that Farred’s was an “extremely racist and sexist” remark that fostered “a sexist environment that is becoming even worse.”

In short, they believe it is so stunningly obvious that he is a “racist” and “sexist” that their proclamations warrant no further explanation.

I don’t buy it. Racism, at least in my mind, indicates a belief in the inherent inferiority of an ethnic minority group. Sexism indicates the same thing as regards biological sex.

Farred’s remarks expressed neither. While extremely inappropriate and stupid, the term “black bitches” did not imply a belief in their innate inadequacy. It would require some serious interpretive acrobatics to claim otherwise.

Perhaps I’ve defined these terms too narrowly. However, it’s important that they do not become catchalls.

We must be able to distinguish between the David Dukes of the world and the Grant Farreds, between the patriarchs of olden times and the Larry Summerses. If we don’t, the terms “racism” and “sexism” lose their meaning, and, more importantly, their power. It prevents us from calling out actual racists and sexists in any meaningful way. It also inhibits our ability to acknowledge historical progress.

The university climate today is such that one can use these magic terms without having to justify their usage. We are obligated to abdicate our critical faculties — those the university is supposed to promote. When race and gender enter the scene, all discussion stops.

Let me stress, though, that I believe the University should reprimand Farred for his actions. In no way was his conduct befitting of a university professor, even if he was just joking (and I believe he was). At the very least he should write a formal apology.

However, demotions, dismissal or a pay cut are overreactions. They do not match the offense; furthermore, as of yet, simply no one has made a cogent argument in their favor. Rhetoric does not suffice.

Our thinking about this case should go beyond Grant Farred. We must recognize that our ability to have a real conversation about this topic effectively ended with the student takeover of Willard Straight Hall, an event our community will commemorate this month for the 41st time. At that moment we were bullied into a paralysis on racial issues.

Now, however, it is the professors, not a group of armed radicals, who encourage us to close off our minds. In the spirit of all the University must stand for, we are required to reject this approach. We must not be cowed into silence.

Judah Bellin is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at judahbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin